Working in Japan

Accidentally Buddhist?

On Monday I’ve been booked for a seminar/course on Japanese culture, it was only me and some Indian guy there and the two teachers. Honestly I couldn’t tell you the Indian guys name since I could hardly understand a word he said. Anyways, the seminar was a bit of a letdown despite really good teachers since Ericsson has apparently wanted us to mostly learn about how to act in meetings. And since it is very unlikely I’ll be having any formal meetings with Japanese this was a bit of a waste…I learned that it’s big problem not to have a business card in Japan, everyone has business cards and there are careful rituals involved in the exchange of them. You are under no circumstances to write on a business card for instance, that is like taking a pen to their face! There is also a lot of uninteresting stuff on who is supposed to sit where and so on. One interesting fact though is that if you’ve made a meeting to discuss the terms of a deal, the actual meeting will not be a discussion at all. The discussion will already have taken place before and when it comes to the actual meeting everything is already decided.

Tuesday evening I decide to go to the New York Bar, if you’ve seen the excellent “Lost in Translation” that might ring a bell for you. It’s the hotel bar featured in the movie and it’s at the top of the really swanky Park Hyatt hotel. It’s a bit challenging to find your way up there so I don’t arrive until after eight o’clock which is when they start charging a 2200 jpy cover charge for just sitting down (I’ve since learned that this applies even if you arrive earlier but stay past eight, so if you want to avoid it you need to leave before then). Oh well, fuck it, I’ve made it so far so I grudgingly pay up and start eying the menu and end up ordering a cocktail for the low low price of 1900 jpy. To be fair it’s the best drink I’ve had in this country so far.

Since this place is a bit fancy I decided to suit up and in the coat pocket I find the Cuban cigar I got as a present from my brother in-law Henrik. What an excellent occasion to light it up! So I sit there puffing away and feeling rather metropolitan with the jazz band playing some lounge music.

Friday comes with an all hands staff meeting for our floor which is mainly a waste of time. They have a ceremony at the end where they hand out prices for valuable employees who are lauded as “putting the company before themselves!” Not a very healthy goal if you ask me, but then again, this is Japan after all.

Nozawa-san has been planning a party/after work/english lesson for this evening as well and a bunch of us head over to a cozy restaurant in Yokohama where we proceed to order almost everything on the menu. Not as crazy as it seems, these places serve really small portions and since we’re a whole bunch of people there is no problem downing all the weird dishes they keep bringing in. Eventually we move on to a saké place, it’s actually a bit odd as you go into a tiny elevator directly off the street and when you exit you’re in the middle of the saké place. Just remove your shoes and be shown to your table! Saké actually isn’t that strong, it’s usually somewhere between 15 and 20%, but it takes its toll on the Japanese rather quickly. We break up at about half past eleven (trains in Japan usually stop at around midnight) to catch the last train home.

This weekend I’ve decided to go to Asakusa – the temple district. As I emerge from the metro I’m greeted by the golden Asahi building (one of the premier beer brands here) and Tokyo Sky Tree, the new, much higher tower of Tokyo. I decide to go explore along the river, it’s a really cozy area with small houses huddled close together with small, well maintained, streets in between. As I get closer to the Asahi building I see a sign outside some store that says “Inventor”. Awesome! I have to check this out! The store is inhabited by three aging gentlemen getting ready to play some sort of board game. The English is sparse but I’m invited to play one of them in what looks like a miniature variation of Shogi, which is more or less what it is. I manage to win the first bout, but get beaten in the rematch. The old timers seem really excited that someone is taking interest in their little store and games and I’m having a really good time as well. I really need to go back and visit them again! I buy the game we played and head on over to the Asahi building, crowned by, as it seems, a giant golden turd. In spite of the turd, it’s a really pretty building with fun architecture and I hang around a while and take some pictures.

Then I’m off to wander aimlessly in the general direction of the Sky Tree. On the way I find a nice little café where I can sit down and do some cross stitches. The ladies opposite me are very impressed and I end up showing it off to the entire staff, I guess it isn’t common to see guys sowing in Japan. Some wandering later I end up at Sky Tree, which seems to have just opened with a huge line of people outside. I skip investigating it, leaving it for another day and head off in another random direction. The road takes me past a temple where a girl asks me if I want to come inside and see. I agree and find myself in a rather large room with tatami mats all over the floor and not much else in the way of furniture. Except for the altar that is, the altar is populated with all manners of gaudy gong-gongs, stools and plaques.

In very broken English the girl explains that this is a Buddhist temple and asks a lot of questions about Sweden and if I have any religion. A monk joins us with equally broken English and I start to get bored. They ask several times if I want to be part of some sort of ceremony and when I ask what kind of ceremony it is they talk about good karma. Okay, seems harmless enough so in the end I agree and is handed a booklet, a rosary and some sort of cloth to place the former in. Then we’re supposed to read a really long mantra from the book, something which goes on for almost 10 minutes before the monk motions me to come up on the altar. He then proceeds to touch some sort of rolled up scroll on top of my head a few times and then we’re done. I get a vague feeling that I’ve been had, a feeling that grows with the enthusiasm of the girl when she starts talking about all the different ceremonies I should attend later this month. As politely as I can manage I bid my farewell of the girl and go back to roaming the streets.

It turns out that the “real” Asakusa – the one where all the tourists are supposed to go is on the other side of the river. That’s where the really old temple and all the tourist shops are and as tourist shops go, they are pretty good! Most of the stuff they’re selling isn’t actually crap and if you want the typical touristy stuff like chopsticks and lacquered bowls you could definitely do worse. The temple itself is sort of meh, I guess ever since the Forbidden city in Beijing I’m pretty much saturated of this kind of temple. There is however a really cool street band with a man dressed like he’d just stepped out of Tintin – Blue Lotus singing some classical Japanese songs. Walking around the neighborhood is pretty nice as well, there are a lot of small houses and temples to look at, Asakusa is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo.

Sunday I return to Harajuku and right in front of Yoyogi park there is a whole bunch of people. A few of the seem to be New Age weirdos humming, chanting and dancing in a circle. The others turn out to be an organization of volunteer guides that offer to take me on a tour of Meiji shrine. I take them up on the offer and get to learn that one of the portals in there is the largest of its kind in the world, how to clean before visiting the shrine and how to pray properly once there. Not super interesting but I also get at tip about a café that seems really nice, some sort of tree house that I resolve to visit later.

Takeshita and Harajuku street is super fun as always, I will never tire of that place! The café is at the end of Harajuku street and takes some searching before I find it, but it’s certainly worth it! It’s super cozy and there is actually a tree coming up right out of the floor! They serve lunch and I spend a few hours there just chilling, this is a definite favorite so far. When I finally leave I decide to walk to Shibuya, once there I find a music store and decide to peruse the Japanese music scene. There’s actually a lot of good stuff, too bad 95% of it isn’t found on Spotify or even Youtube. It’s like going back to the 20th century!

Working in Japan

Sakura Hunting

The week starts with my team leader Ken taking me out for an ox tongue lunch, which is unexpectedly tasty (I have some issues with the texture though). In the evening I thought I’d give the cherry blossoms another try since I met a Japanese guy who told me that there was a park that was open in the evening with light arrangements and everything. Sounded awesome and since I was pretty miffed that I’d missed the blossoms in the weekend I was pretty psyched to see more. While on the subway there however I discover that I’ve forgotten to bring the camera… Salvaging what’s left of the evening I head to nearby Akihabara – the tech Mecca of Tokyo, supposedly filled with 8-floor stores of only tech stuff. I only manage to find one though, guess I should look at a map to get a feel for this place. I do manage to find a 3-story sex store, filled with all manners of dildos, costumes and movies. Quite entertaining to browse through!

I go for a second try on Wednesday evening and find the park he was talking about, the problem is that it’s closed! Adding insult to injury it’s also raining cats and dogs while I scurry home with my tail between my legs. I decide that I’ll wander about and try to find some dinner in Ginza district since it’s on the way home. It turns out to be a big mistake since Ginza is a very upscale district where everything is super expensive. I finally find a little Turkish restaurant in a cellar on a back street where dinner only costs me a bit over 2000 yen (around 160 sek), to contrast with the tempura place I saw where the cheapest item on the menu was 8500 yen…

For my third try I ask Ken about the park and he is able to give me some more specific instructions. He warns me about the park being rather small though, but what the hell, it sure beats just hanging in the hotel room. He is indeed right, the park is maybe 50 by 20 meters and doesn’t even have grass. It’s a fountain, some trees and streetlights. Very disappointing…

Friday afternoon we have an all employee meeting, it’s all very self-congratulatory as those things go but I found one thing especially amusing: the big boss told everyone that he appreciated all our hard work and dedication but he insisted that we’d try and go home early on Wednesdays and Fridays, because family is really important! He said that it may not always be possible, but that we should try and go home around six, six thirty. …he said what now?! So I guess six thirty is considered early here, imagine that…

Today is also a spring party here at work and at around six the assistants start putting out beer and snacks. I haven’t signed up for that since I had other plans, but those plans didn’t work out so now I need a new plan for the evening. Fortunately I meet Jonas and Stephan who are looking to go out for some after work so I join up with them. Stephan is working in the team next to me and is from the Netherlands but has lived here in Japan for quite a while now and speaks excellent Japanese. Jonas works in the lab mostly, installing and troubleshooting equipment.

We end up in Shinjuku at a Teriyaki place and are joined by Jonas’ friend Justin who’s also from Sweden and like me is here on a short term contract. There’s the usual work-related bellyaching accompanied by an array of excellent teriyaki. After some coercing we convince Stephan that karaoke is a good idea and we head next door for a two hour session including free drinks (the teriyaki place also had free drinks, it seems a popular business model where you charge an upfront sum somewhere between 1000 and 2000 jpy and then you get as much as you can handle for the next hour).

Karaoke is fun, but be prepared for some trial and error with the huge remote. We mostly manage, even though some songs comes as unwanted repeats as we have a hard time figuring out the queuing system. Somewhere during the karaoke session we lose Stephan and when the staff politely informs us that it’s only 10 minutes left of our session we go on for an estimated 20 minutes before the staff once again politely informs us that it’s only 10 minutes left… Taking the hint we move on to Roppongi and a club that Jonas hazily remembers. We eventually find it and are subjected to an exorbitant 3500 jpy entry fee, adding insult to injury they want another 500 to store our jackets! Ah well, the club is filled to the brim with young Japanese and it seems like wherever we choose to stand there is a guard that has an opinion on it! The dance floor is interesting as well, there isn’t much room for anything else than hopping, so that’s what we do, and before we know it the place is closing. Outside is daylight and consulting the clock shows that it’s 5 am! Jonas takes us for some awesome kebab, some of the best I’ve ever had as a matter of fact, who knew?! The subway has even started going again (in Tokyo the last train is around midnight actually, so if you’re out partying you’re generally stuck with taking a cab home) and at about 7 am I stumble into bed after what amounts to a really great night out!

I sleep my way through most of Saturday but when Sunday comes I’m ready for another shot at Shinjuku Goyen – the cherry blossom park. Much of the flowers have already fallen off but the park is still fantastic and there is also a lot of other types of cherry trees that are still in full bloom. It’s really beautiful, but most fun is looking at all the Japanese obsessing over the flowers and taking hundreds of pictures.

The afternoon is spent window shopping around Shinjuku, being slightly molested walking past a gay bar. Late afternoon I make my way to Harajuku bridge in search of people dressing up, but today it’s scarce. Just a few on Omotesando street. I continue walking all the way down to Shibuya where I do some more window shopping before calling it a week.

Working in Japan

First week in Nippon

Trying to shake off whatever jetlag I might face I go straight to work. Well, after unpacking and showering that is. My new home is a 30 m² flat at the third floor out of twenty four of Bureau Shinagawa, just south of central Tokyo. Think of it as living just south of Söder in Stockholm in terms of travel time.

The apartment has floor to ceiling windows towards the river which is actually the sea and the little island I’m on is as far as I know man-made. I jet off to work which is 20 minutes to the south by train. The reception lady gave me a map detailing how to get to the Ericsson office from the station, but I manage to get lost anyway. A couple of nice ladies help me out with vague instructions that regardless get me there.

Yokohama is a rather sterile neighborhood with nothing but office buildings, my coworkers tell legends about a old Yokohama where people actually live, but so far I haven’t seen it. Ericsson office is on the 7th to 10th floor of a rather nice building (they’re all nice actually) and I work on the 7th floor. The office itself is rather sad, just a large space with hardly any walls, just a large collection of desks. It feels a bit like the movie 9 to 5… My team consists of about 50% swedes and 50% other nationalities of which only two are actually Japanese. The office is structured as a so-called flex-area, which means that seating is at a first come, first served basis. So if you’re late to work, you might end up sitting nowhere close to your team mates. Exceptionally silly if you ask me, but noone has so far… We also have tiny 19″ screens, making me feel like I’m back in the 20th century again. Looking under the desk I find an Ericsson-branded helmet and an emergency kit, probably to be used in case of severe earthquakes.

The first few days go by fast as I struggle to get the programming environment in place and as the weekend approaches I plan for my first round of serious touristing. The fish market is first in line but it doesn’t open to the public until 9 am (to come earlier and see the tuna auction you need to book a tour) and it’s easy to understand why; the place is chock full with small trucks zipping every which way. Most of them runs on electricity, so they easily go unnoticed until they’re inches away from running you over. At which point you usually get yelled at by a surly fisherman. It’s absolutely fascinating to walk around just looking at the motorcycle sidecar-sized tuna, the colorful octopi, the live squid swimming around in tanks, the rubber -banded lobster, or the sheer volume of wonderfully strange fish.

After maybe an hour I’ve explored most of the market and go looking for something to eat. There is a regular market right next to it and I figure the if I am to go for sushi anywhere in Tokyo, it should be right here. All the restaurants here are tiny and all of them have a sizable line outside. This is nothing unusual however, in Tokyo there are often many people in line for restaurants, some of the even have benches for you to sit while waiting.

The wait is probably 45 minutes or so, but I have nowhere I need to be and besides, the long wait is probably a good sign. Finally they let us in, they take in people to capacity and then serve us all at the same time instead of taking in new people as we finish eating. It makes for a really nice and quiet dining experience, especially since photography isn’t allowed. Contrast that with the conveyor belt sushi places where the chefs continually shout out welcoming phrases and the names of the sushis they’ve just placed on the conveyor belt.

Orders have been taken care of while we were waiting and I chose the slightly fancier menu of ten pieces at ¥3680. Somewhat pricy, but there are certainly places where you can pay a lot more. The restaurant is really cramped and the chefs stand right in front of you so you get a great view of them performing their craft perfected over the years to a handful of elegant gestures where all of a sudden the sushi just appears in front of you, seemingly out of thin air. All this while the chefs idly chat with each other as if they weren’t even paying attention to what they were doing.

The sushi is served on a large leaf and one after another they’re plopped down, each one stranger than the one before. Two stand out in particular, both are so-called Gunkanmaki rolls (battleship rolls – no, I have no idea why, neither do my colleagues) where you have a the classic seaweed-wrapped sushi standing on its end but with a topping. The first topping is an orange goo that I’m pretty sure was sea urchin-guts, the second one is a pinky-sized squid lying there eying me accusingly. It’s a bit hard to eat food that is staring at you but after getting my gag reflex under control I find the taste rather nice.

Their serving strategy is a double edged sword however when it comes to slow eaters like me. It’s really stressful when you’re the last one in the restaurant and there’s a fifteen meter line outside waiting to get in…

On then to the next item on the agenda: Yoyogi park and the cherry blossoms. It’s a really beautiful park with a temple shrine in the middle that my team leader Ken claims has five hour lines at new years. People here apparently take their rituals seriously I guess. I can’t seem to find any cherry blossoms though, well some, but not the quantities I was hoping for. After some more fruitless searching I decide to move on and try my luck in some other park tomorrow. I exit the park at Harajuku Station, this place is known for the kids who cosplay as various manga characters, but they’re mainly here on Sundays so I make a mental note to return tomorrow. I proceed to stroll down Omotesando street (also called the Japanese Champs-Élysées) and find that it’s mostly high fashion stores like Gucci, YSL and the ilk. Not that interesting so I move on to Shibuya and Shinjuku.

Shibuya is home to that crossing you’ve probably seen in many a movie. It’s a shopping and nightlife Mecca with neon signs as far as the eye can see. People are dressing really stylish here and it’s full of, very polite, barkers trying to get you into their clubs or restaurants. It’s an awesome place for just strolling around and look at stuff.

I happen across one of the numerous Pachinko parlors, a game which appeal is a mystery to me. It appears to be just a smidge more interesting than bingo and the noise in there is deafening. There are several floors with other games however so I wander around silently wondering how these places can survive when video games in most cases look so much better than the games here. At last I reach the top floor where things take a turn for the weird. There is nothing here but photo booths and strangely dressed girls running around giggling. I don’t get very far before I’m shooed out by the staff though: “Women only!” Ooops…

I’m rather tired so I sleep in a lot more than I should have so when I eventually get my ass to Shinjuku Goyen – alledgedly the very best park in Tokyo to see the cherry blossoms – I am met by a wall of people leaving. As I make my way to the entrance a guard informs me that the park is closed. Awww, fucksticks! I try my luck at a couple of other parks but they’re all closed so I have to settle for photographing the ones planted along the street.

I stop by Harajuku station as well to find a few dressed up people: a goth lolita, a guy in a Pedobear suit, a girl in some sort of generic manga costume that I don’t recognize and a bunch of rockabilly guys. Not bad, I’ll have to make this a Sunday tradition! I do manage to salvage the day somewhat by taking the monorail out to Odaiba, an artificial island in the Tokyo bay that has a magnificent view of nighttime Tokyo. After taking a lot of pictures I go back and while I sit there on the train I spot Tokyo tower. Since the night is still young I decide to hop off and walk to it. It doesn’t seem all that far, but the scale fools you, the tower is slightly larger than the Eiffel tower so it takes me almost an hour to get there. It costs 800 yen to go up to the first platform at 150 m and then you pay again to go up to the special observatory at 250 m. But since it took me so long to get here the tower is just about to close so I never get to go up to the special observatory. The view is great though and I don’t mind much, there’s always next time!