Posts Tagged 'Japan'

New year, old ramblings

We celebrated the Iranian/Afghan New Year, nawruz, at the Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a lovely dinner at Ariana, an Afghan restaurant on the outskirts of Boston, with our longtime friends and ex-colleagues. We have Afghanistan in common, among many other things. They are preparing for a trip to Holland and so we put all the celebrations together, spring, travel, happy retirement (they, not me), new year, crocuses and daffodils.

For the first time in months I pedaled to Quaker Meeting – with all the travel I miss a lot of Sundays and when I am home for a change we go to NH or Easthampton to see our kids and grand kids. Our silent worship was tested by a gentleman with a giant vacuum cleaner or polishing machine, which led to some interesting thoughts and messages about sucking sounds and what polishing (both of these) can do for our psyche.

Spring, a day early because of leap year, started with a snowstorm. It was a gentle one, at least for someone who didn’t need to get on the road. It left, possibly for the last time, everything around our house soft, white, round and silent. But it was all gone within days. The earth is warming, spring is coming.

I worked hard and fast on reviewing facilitation guides that badly needed some changes. It’s not my kind of work – attention to detail that stresses me out, but I had made the commitment both to myself and to others who had to deal with would-be facilitators being flummoxed. It’s done now and I rest my case.

Resting is what I need very badly right now, after only an hour of sleep on the plane ride to Japan. Still, I can’t complain – I was able to cash in one of my four upgrade certificates – Delta’s thank you for my frequent flying. I killed the time by listening to Joyce’s Ulysses while trying to master knitting two socks at the same time, and starting at the toes.  The two combined required serious concentration. The socks are practice socks, bright yellow cotton, just about Saffi’s size. Ulysses is read by a formidable actor which makes it worth my while, even though I couldn’t possibly say anything coherent about what I listened to for the last five hours.

Ulysses was the favorite book, and Joyce the favorite author, of one of my classmates in 11th grade. He was way too mature for us 16 year olds, talking about Joyce in a way I will never able to do. Both he and his sister became authors – the germs planted then, between the classics, read in their original languages, and the 100 year old willow tree that we circled around, talking about deep stuff, during our recess. Walking in ‘the hortus’ was a privilege for the older kids in our Latin School (Gymnasium), the younger ones circled around and around on what was essentially a parking lot.

It was under that tree that I was first exposed to someone rambling about Joyce. Reading (or listening to) Ulysses was on my bucket list. Now I understand the rambling, but still not what Ulysses is all about.

A case for women

One of my many fun assignments is to direct MSH’s contributions to the Japanese Women Leadership Initiative. This role has gotten me involved in activities of the Boston-Japan Society. Axel and I attended its annual gala some months ago. This time I was invited to a luncheon that was attended by the economic affairs representative at the Japanese consulate in Boston. The purpose of the (sushi) luncheon was to bring together various women who have senior positions in Boston’s academic and civil society community and provide some insights on how to increase the role of women in Japanese society.

The Japanese Prime Minister has put women empowerment high on his agenda. Only a small percentage of women occupy senior leadership positions in both the public and private sector. A study investigated why this was the case and pointed at a complex set of interacting variables that are at play in just about any society: cultural practices and values, government policies, organizational policies, the educational system, the opinions of men and women, fathers and mothers in particular, and the near total absence of mentors and sponsors to encourage women to get into, and stay in the workforce in career track positions.

Education is obviously not the issue as the literacy and enrollment rates for both genders are high. It is what happens after school that appears to discourage women to embark on a career.

And now, some 36 hours later, I am in Japan, waiting to board my next flight to Manila. There I will be working on another one of my fun assignments: getting the world more responsive to people with mobility challenges – one wheelchair at a time; a wheelchair that is well fitted to its user and the environment in which he or she lives, and an environment that is accesisble to all its citizens, walking or rolling.

Snow: caught and escaped

We have been busy with snow for the last week. If we had stayed at home we would have been busy with snow again next week. But we left, and flew right under or ahead of the next storm that is expected to dump another foot of snow in the region. It is a bonus for anyone who rents out heavy equipment and/or removes snow for an interesting fee. For everyone else the snow has not been a good thing.

I don’t mind the snow as long as I don’t have to go anywhere; as long as the snow does not reach dangerous levels for roofs; as long as there are no snow dams; and as long as our elderly neighbor doesn’t require any emergency evacuation. Axel went onto the roof of our porch to remove about 1 meter of snow that obscured a good part of our windows. The house (and the porch) have been around for a century and probably made it through a few snow deposits like this but we didn’t want to take any chances – given our absence for the next few weeks. We also didn’t want to hoist this chore on our house sitters, friends of Tessa.

It was supposed to be a busy week at work, getting ready for facilitating a virtual leadership course in French, with a brief refresher training by a dear and sublimely competent colleague who has now left MSH. We ended up doing the training using webex, with me in my pajamas and not having to commute. That was a good thing. But not meeting with my co-facilitator who flew in from North Carolina for the occasion (and found herself stuck in a hotel due to the closing of our office), and the last two workdays of my colleague was a bummer.

The virtual facilitation and other assignments are placed on top of my current assignments in Cambodia and Thailand. I am conveniently 12 hours ahead which makes for night as well as day work. It is good that Axel is exploring Cambodia while I am busy as I would not be much of a companion during my 16 hour days.

We are now two-thirds on the way to our final destination. We have already clocked 17 hours in the air and have another 7.5 hours to go. None of the requested upgrades materialized. Each time we boarded I saw my name on the upgrade list in position number 1. And each time, by the time I made it to that position all the B-class seats were occupied. I ended up in a middle seat for the longest flight – but at least one of my neighbors was Axel.

But eventually all things pass, even 13.5 hour flights. And the good thing is that my frequent flyer status allows for access for me and a guest to the well-appointed Delta lounges during our waiting times on the ground.

Back and down

The second day of the workshop went fast. This always happens. The presentations were interesting, one was about Afghanistan and another about the solar mamas featuring a woman from Jordan and the delicate and not so delicate gender dynamics that kick in when a woman is chosen for what men traditionally may consider a man’s job.

We all gave feedback and each team took the praise and pointers in with grace.

And then we went home, arriving in rainy and warm Massachusetts, later turning to cold. We adjusted quickly to the setback of 14 hours and within a day I was back on a plane, a domestic trip which doesn’t count, to Baltimore. The one day trip turned into a two day trip with a meeting tacked on in our Washington office since I was in the neighborhood.

I went to see N, now a friend, once a student, after hours. She is now a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins. On the way to her apartment I miscalculated a step down from a high curb and made the kind of fall that usually breaks a hip in someone 10 years older.

Tomorrow will tell whether I broke something. Using my right hand is severely limited and painful; hence the short entry.

Work for food

Of the 30 participants we had planned for, only 19 showed up. This was both good and bad news. The good news was that we were more comfortable in the small room, the only one available now that the organization has moved to smaller quarters. The bad news was that the carefully assigned groups had to be re-assigned.

English language levels, promised to be high, were more mixed. It was easy to tell who grew up or worked outside Japan. They are all supposed to speak English well for their future UN careers but some have a long way to go. I wondered whether learning English here is like in Afghanistan where teachers who speak very poorly are teaching others in a downward spiral of competence.

Most of the material we covered was new (Kolb’s learning styles, Cohen and Bradford’s Influence Model, with an emphasis on currencies, and emotional intelligence, using a playing cards exercise that I learned years ago at OBTC). The currency session was productive, even though some didn’t quite get it, in that they added some very Japanese examples to the ones I gave them.

Today will be a lighter day for us but a heavier day for them as they have to give a powerpoint presentation about a topic they care about and that relates to their UN ambitions. The specs for this were handed down by the ministry – powerpoint is still the most used tool for communicating content and interest, like it or not.

I do love working here in Japan and with these young professionals, primarily because they had to compete to get into this program, they have to pay for it themselves and they do it on weekends after their regular workweek has ended. And they do this for months, every weekend from 9 till 5). Unlike the other places I work, no one is there because of per diem or transport reimbursements and there isn’t the usual ritual at the end of the day of people clustering anxiously with their hands stretched out around a seated accountant with a money bag and a recording form.

My co-facilitator joined us for dinner – we picked a food type we hadn’t had yet (Monja and Okonomiyaki). For this we had to travel to a section of Tokyo that is famous for this type of food. Once arrived we found ourselves standing in front of a long lane lined with tiny or small restaurants, all offering the same dishes. We picked one at random and were pleased with our choice.  It was good we had a Japanese speaker with us because nothing was written in a script we could read and the wait staff did not speak a word of English. We would have had to do a kind of culinary trustfall and then we would have been eating with so many question and no answers.


Axel accompanied me to the new FASID office to say hello to our Japanese friends and be on his way to explore Tokyo while I prepared for tomorrow’s workshop with my Japanese co-facilitators and a new program officer who was going to take care of the logistical and administrative arrangements.

The first issue we had to resolve was a linguistic one – the course title was not the correct translation of what the ministry wanted but at the same time, when translated from the Japanese, the course title was long and convoluted and made no sense to me. Luckily we didn’t have to change the content, only the title. Now, instead of productive communications, a title earlier conveyed to me, we are having ‘efficient communication in cross-cultural environments.’

We reviewed the 30.000 feet view on the two day workshop and then descended into the weeds, trying out each session ourselves so everyone could make an informed choice about where and when they would be leading or co-facilitating.

At the end of the day I returned to the hotel where Axel soon joined me, exhausted and excited from a trip through the Asakusa section of Tokyo. I was given a private slide viewing with a running commentary.

And then, suddenly, everything started to sway – earthquake we said to each other, grabbed our stuff and headed four floors down through the staff stairwell. When we re-emerged in the lobby people were coming and going as they would at any other time. No one seemed to be in the least perturbed by the earthquake or looking at the still swaying chandeliers. It was as if we had walked into a Bunuel movie. Axel asked the concierge whether we should be concerned and the answer was clearly no, the epicenter was someplace else, not near the hotel.

Later, checking the USGS map I learned that there had been over 30 earthquakes in Japan alone over the last few days – most below 4 on the Richter scale but not all. But then again, there had been just as many in California.

We took the elevator back up, packed our stuff and headed out for another night entertainment center (culture-vulture) in Roppongi to a soba noodle restaurant that used to be in New York and came back. It was tiny and spectacular. The maître d’ was able to squeeze us in at a large table across from a young couple and an older party. Axel’s neighbor proudly told him, in poor English and with a ‘sake-heavy’ voice that he liked America upon which Axel replied he liked Japan creating a round of grins and smiles and more sake.

After an unfiltered wheat beer and some dainties recommended by the chef (grated mountain yam with fish eggs in broth, a ‘lightly fried oyster, chicken meatballs, lightly fried with sharp mustard and shuya), we joined our table mates in drinking sake out of a wooden box. The box was filled to overflowing which reminded me of the Zen story about the overflowing tea cup. It was served with salt, just like a margarita. We ended the meal with a steaming bowl of soba noodles with all sorts of interesting things floating inside it and the most delicious broth. It was nice to have people we could ask our thousand questions to, even if it was in contorted English. There was much bowing and even some hand shaking at the end of the meal, and another huge bill.

During the night more tremors – probably not even qualifying as earthquakers for people here, but very unsettling to me. Each time I would get up and look out of the window, expecting to see people gathering in their pajamas and kimonos but all was quiet and calm, not a soul to see. It was just another ordinary night in Tokyo. Luckily Axel slept through all of them.


Our short trip to Nagasaki is already behind us. The class I taught at Nagasaki University – the reason for this side trip – was attended by 2 Japanese PhD students (international public health), 3 tropical medicine docs from, respectively, Afghanistan, Benin and Mali, one 2nd year MPH student and 7 first year students, the latter all Japanese.

We spent a lively three hours together, so lively that a few students commented at the end that it felt as if they had only been in class for 3 minutes rather than 3 hours. I took it as a compliment. The material I was covering was new for all of them: how to make leadership actionable, what is a mission, a first attempt at a personal vision and why all of this is important. The material is all-purpose as it can be applied to self, to family, to work team and to one’s organization. Although not quite 3 minutes, the session went quickly and when I was done it was dark and cold outside.

Axel met me at the tram stop near our hotel. He had already made a reservation in the same tiny French-Japanese restaurant (chez garcon Ken) where we had dinner earlier this year, across what used to be the waterfront of an 18th century Dutch settlement, Decima (0r Dejima as the Japanese call it). The reservation had not been necessary as there was only one other table occupied but we liked the little reservation card nevertheless. It said ‘reserve pour M et Mme Boston.’

The owner, cook, waiter and dishwasher, presumably garcon Ken himself, prepared us some French dishes in Japanese style: a shrimp mousse, a salmon terrine with a spicy mayonnaise and a pork terrine with grainy mustard, followed by a yellow snapper and shrimp in a rich sauce. Pannacotta with fruit completed the meal, as well as a carefully selected wine to go with the meal. In between his cooking Ken came over from time to time to make a toast and to disappear again into the tiny kitchen.

Thursday was a travel day again but we managed to squeeze in another visit to the atomic bomb site – the epicenter and the hall of remembrance – a brief respite of contemplation – before meeting Miho and a colleague for a sushi and sashimi farewell lunch.

Back in Tokyo we joined a bunch of jolly commuters, hard drinkers and smokers, for another round of sushi and some noodles before heading to our next hotel. The Tokyo prince hotel looks like a Russian hotel from a bygone era – a giant unimaginative block of real estate set back from the road, with a shopping arcade in the basement and hundreds of rooms lining endless corridors. The décor in the room is early 60s, tired yellow velours, cream-colored draperies and furniture,guilded faucets, cut-plastic chandeliers and turquoise wall to wall carpet.

Because of a clerical error that had put us in a smoking room – causing an immediate respiratory attack in Axel – the hotel upgraded us to a smoke free suite. All the hotel rooms we have ever stayed in in Japan could easily fit in this suite. We have an enormous living room, another enormous bedroom and even a separate dressing room. I don’t have to leave the room when Axel does his exercises.

And so we have arrived at part 3 of our Japan stay – I work and Axel plays. But since my work is playful and joyful, my next three days won’t feel much like work. It has also stopped raining in Tokyo.

May 2018
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