Posts Tagged 'Tokyo'

The joy of eating in Japan

Today is my last day of work and our last day in Tokyo . We return tomorrow. There is likely to be more work here later and I am contemplating whether to seriously study Japanese.

While I worked, Axel has been exploring Tokyo, one day with our friend Miho, and the other days by himself. Sofar I have had a day and a half to accompany him on his explorations. It has been mostly raining which has literally dampened the fun a bit.

This has not dampened the food explorations. Every day we have the Japanese breakfast: miso soup, nato (fermented beans), rice with all sorts of interesting add-ons, seaweed, tofu, and more. There is a continental breakfast as well but why bother.

We have had, of course, our sushi, but there is more to Japanese food than sushi and sashimi. Twice we were invited to join with the founder and program manager of the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative (JWLI).  On Saturday she took us to a lovely small yakatori (=small brochettes) restaurant named ‘the dirty stinking southerner’ (Nambantei) according to our host. It referred to the smelly Dutch people who entered Japan in the 1600s, the first foreigners to be let in. The walls and menu were decorated with copies of old drawings of these smelly foreigners on their ship (yes, with the Dutch flag I am embarrassed to say) and sitting around a table drinking beer.

Last night (Sunday) we went to a small restaurant where we grilled thin pieces of beef on a small grill in front of us, accompanied by spicy kimshi, salad and a variety of pickled vegetables. The restaurant is located in the neighborhood where our host grew up during and right after WWII. She pointed out where her house had once stood, now replaced by a 4 story building.

Yesterday we got a taste of overpopulation at and around the very busy Shinsuku station, one of four large stations that spew out thousands of people every minute into Tokyo. It has a Times Square feel to it (and there is a Times Square just around the corner). We are glad to be in the quiet Rockefeller house (by invitation only, we are so lucky) with its beautiful gardens, tucked away in the district known for its active and noisy night life.


Next assignment: Japan


August came and went too fast. In the US Labor Day (first Monday in September) signals the official end of summer. The roads fill up again, university cities add tens of thousands of residents as students return. Faro returned to his immersion Chinese school, first grade now, and babbles easily in mandarin according to Sita- none of us understanding him of course.

Sita went and returned from her job at the eventful ASEAN World Economic Forum in Vietnam and barely got to explore Hanoi. She wants to go back there, as we would want to.  It’s an idea for a family vacation.

I completed the lion’s part of my consultancy with an organization in North Carolina, just in time before hurricane Florence moved in. I have started to immerse myself in the preparations for my teaching job in the fall and put the finishing touches on the lectures and workshops in Japan.

We left for Japan on the 12th using up my last Delta global upgrades before they would disappear forever. Even in business class the trip is long. We emerged in a  daze after 19 hours from the moment we got up. After entering and leaving various stations and trains and going up and down stairways and escalators, we found our way to our lovely hotel in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. Our abode here is the Rockefeller-built International House of Japan – a building with a philosophy of cultural and intellectual exchange to get Japan back on its feet after the war. It certainly did!


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.

Birthday eats

We managed the long flight to Tokyo by watching endless movies when the sleep wouldn’t come. The 12 hours ticked down slowly to landing time at the end of Tokyo’s Sunday – we left on Saturday morning and had skipped 14 hours. When we opened our hotel room door it was exactly 24 hours after the alarm clock had woken us up in Manchester by the sea.

It took 2 hours to get from the airport to our hotel by public transport. I think I am done cheaping in out; being sleep deprived and with an ankle that doesn’t operate very well, the last metro transit was murder.

We checked in, dropped our bags and found a fast (Japanese) food place nearby that served me a small strip of grilled salmon and a bowl of vegetable broth, and Axel a bowl of rice with caramelized onions, beef strips and shiitake mushrooms.

The hotel we selected from the internet is nice for being reasonably priced. Tokyo is an expensive city. You can select the number of square centimers you want from the website. We chose an option with medium number of square centimeters which still makes for a tiny room where Axel cannot do his exercises on the ground while I am around. So I am sitting in the lobby now which is also the only place with internet access.

In the morning we spent a few hours in the ‘precious’ coffee shop which also doubles as the hotel’s breakfast restaurant, waiting for a FASID colleague to come and get stuff we don’t want to carry to Nagasaki and back.

We then walked to the Suntori museum in the Midtown mall which is all decked out for Christmas and could compete with the fanciest shopping mall in the US (and win). A Finnish glass exhibit showed the subtle and not so subtle links between Finnish and Japanese design – extraordinary.

We walked on to visit another museum but my ankle gave up and we had ourselves driven to an exquisite tofu restaurant at the foot of the Tokyo Tower, a bright orange Eiffel-Tower-wannabee monstrosity that spoils the view  (if you look up) from the tofu restaurant’s beautiful traditional gardens.

It is good that the yen is still monopoly money to me otherwise I would have gasped at the price of our lunch. It was an 8-course affair; a dainty tofu lunch served in or on a variety of beautiful small dishes made from wood and ceramics. Each new course was served by a smiling waitress in traditional costume, shuffling quietly on white stocking-ed feet over soft tatami mats, to and fro, to and fro. We could have been somewhere in the country side, 100s of years ago. The only modernity, aside from us, was the credit card machine (thank God) and the digital camera used to take my birthday picture. It was tastefully delivered (separate from the bill) in an envelope decorated with an origami crane and accompanied by a bright yellow gerbera in its own portable vase.

By then we were exhausted. Although late afternoon here it was for us also still the middle of the night. We returned to the hotel for a nap, hoping to do another art museum in the afternoon but we woke up too late for that. So we selected a sushi restaurant out of the 100s of restaurants available to us (these are the visible ones, not counting the ones on 2nd or higher floors or hidden behind curtains and below ground doors). Our tactic for selecting a restaurant is to find a place with lots of salary men (and an occasional salary woman), who are having their post work drinks and dinner before heading out to the suburbs, to wife and kids.

Tomorrow we are off to Nagasaki, leaving us a short morning in Tokyo and another travel adventure.

October 2018
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