There are very few things I hate like long flights – I am the biggest baby when it comes to complaining about plane rides. Don’t blame me – blame the last couple of decades of weekly air travel 🙂 . I was hopeful that 2017 was going to be the first year without international travel in my career. It had even taken me till November to make exec platinum in AA – as opposed to the usual May/June time frame.
But then came this 3 day meeting in Tokyo, Japan that I really had to attend. Grudgingly I told my admin Thelma to figure out my travel plans. Turns out, on the outbound from LA to Tokyo, I could not get upgraded. Given I am vertically and horizontally not a fit for the smaller seats in back of the plane, it started hurting even before I left home !
Finally – after what seemed like 700 hours – the plane landed in Tokyo . I was already dreading the long immigration line seeing literally hundreds of people walking along with me from other planes. Then came the first surprise – it barely took 5 minutes to get through immigration and customs and into the cab to go to the hotel. Japanese efficiency – not that I did not know this earlier – is breath taking every single time you encounter it.
The same goes for cleanliness aesthetics. Every square inch is spotless everywhere – including construction sites. And everyone – without exception – is super polite, almost to a fault. It is not superficial – they just go out of their way to make sure you are happy. As I walked into the lobby of the Royal Park hotel , I saw everyone including the manager helping set up this flower arrangement. They kept rearranging till everyone there felt 100% happy about it – that’s how they roll !
Jet lag played spoil sport every night this trip – but on the bright side (?), I knew exactly what time I will wake up ( 3 AM sharp) before going to bed. All the experience of suffering from it for two decades does come in handy this way 🙂
The meeting was in IBM Japan office, a short walk away from the hotel. It houses several IBM teams – from research, engineering, GBS, Sales….and some of the coolest research on Watson happens in the TRL ( Tokyo Research Lab).
I got to tour the THINK Lab here and got a demo on their cutting edge “Galaxy” platform ( not Samsung…just a code name). I don’t think I have been this geeked out in ages. Just as with everyone else I met this trip, the Japanese colleagues who hosted us this week were the nicest and most professional people I have ever met. They set the bar really high !
Monday night, we had a team dinner. It is a cultural experience I will never get tired of. Thanks to Nagayama San, I also now am a fan of schochu, the local spirit distilled from potatoes or sweet potatoes. A cultural nuance I picked up was that the common practice is to pour beverages for the next person and have them return you the favor. I thought that is such a beautiful way to bond.
The food (and shochu) just keeps coming – perfectly presented – and the wait staff just goes out of their way to make sure they explain everything to you and make sure you can enjoy your meal to the fullest. No one rushes a meal here – which I also admire about Spain.
One of my colleagues, Al, is gluten intolerant. One of the waiters practically adopted him as her son for the evening and got everything specially made for him. . And seeing Al using chopsticks like a pro, our Japanese friends were telling us that they regret that a lot of kids in Japan can’t use them properly these days.
The second night, Al and I went to the famous Nobu restaurant for some sushi. I have already eaten at their restaurants before – but nothing comes close to Sushi in Japan. The Otoro (fatty tuna belly that melts in your mouth) is addictive. And the other one I loved was the Octopus – which they serve completely raw, unlike the lightly boiled version usually served elsewhere. As I was singing its praises later that night to the bar tender at our hotel, he said “I won’t go to Nobu till they become a real sushi place again – They serve California rolls, and that is not sushi”. Looking at how busy the restaurant was, I am guessing Nobu would take that risk 🙂
Third day, I had some time to kill before my (upgraded, thank you god) flight back home. So I took the subway to check out the Tokyo Skytree.
Skytree is a magnificent piece of architecture and an engineering Marvel. It was fascinating to get a 360 degree view from the observation decks on top of it. Tokyo is densely packed with high rises, but within that concrete jungle – they have little patches of trees, sports facilities, pools and so on all neatly arranged around water ways.
Skytree is very close to the Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest of its kind in Tokyo . It was built in the 7th century.
The similarity with Indian temples is remarkable. Even some of the rituals seem rather similar to what is practiced in India. Its amazing how they keep such serenity in the middle of a very busy modern city.
It also houses an old market that sells pastries, and kimonos and a bunch of souvenirs. I also obliged a bunch of young students, who looked to be my daughter’s age in taking their pictures ( some 200 times to make sure every angle is covered. Each kid who asked me for a photo wore a kimono and spoke perfect English, and had earplugs on 🙂
On the way back, I got lost with direction and ended up walking the wrong way for a couple of minutes trying to figure out which way is the train station. I did not find the train station, but when I looked up I saw an Andhra restaurant right in front of me.
Despite my love for Japanese food – I HAD to try this. Nothing spectacular but pretty decent Andhra thali and fairly inexpensive for Tokyo. It was also fun to talk to owner in Hindi for a while . That dude speaks fluent Japanese and I was the only Indian in the joint – apparently Japanese folks like Indian food a lot. Who knew 🙂
The harmony of old and new co-existing was driven home as I looked at the skyline. There was the big skytree and the smaller but eye catching tower of the temple both in one frame.
It made me think about IBM and other companies that have been transforming . I also thought about my own life and realized the struggle of how much of the old do I need to retain while embracing the new. It is extremely hard to find harmony between the old and the new. But when it happens, its beautiful – like Tokyo.
I will be back with my wife and daughter soon !