Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Morning Commute

Tokyo is (in)famous for the massive morning commute that takes place on the many subway and train lines that snake through the various parts of the metro area. 

A friend of a friend made the video above shot at the train station that I use everyday, Shinagawa Train Station. Much better than I could have done, the video captures the madness that is a Monday morning Tokyo commute. 

In fact, one month later, I'm still recovering from my first foray into train commuting. Partially out of ignorance and partially out of sheer terror, I was "that guy" who made the boneheaded decision to walk in the middle of the station (against the flow of traffic). Lesson learned. 

Nonetheless, my fellow commuters graciously dodged me as I walked the wrong way, and they never said a word.

Here's a map of the more popular commuter lines

Monday, December 07, 2009

Japan, December 7th, 2009

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

While every year I take notice of December 7 and what it means to America, being in Japan on this historic date has made me stop to think just a little more more about the significance of the Japan-America dynamic. 

I'm told it's not polite to bring up World War II and that era, so I haven't asked. I wonder, however, how the date is thought of among the Japanese. Is December 7 significant? Is the date one of nostalgia, or is it one of embarrassment, or none of these things at all?

More importantly, I think about Japan then--our enemy--and now--our ally, and then I look at the friends I've made and many gracious people I've met here and I wonder: Will my children ever have the opportunity to visit and call the people of Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan "friend"?

Shichi-Go-San at Meiji-Jingu

This post got away from me, and I've been meaning to write about my November 15th visit to Meiji Shrine (Meiji-Jingu) for a few weeks now...

Japan's largest torii at Meiji Shrine

The weather was perfect on this particular November Sunday--according to locals, probably the last day like it this year. On my visit to this important Japanese landmark, I was fortunate to stumble upon Shichi-Go-San festivities and even a Shinto wedding.

Meiji Shrine is located in Shibuya, Tokyo on the grounds encompassing an iris garden that the Empress Shoken liked to visit. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and it was first built in 1920. The shrine was subsequently bombed and destroyed during WWII, and it was rebuilt in 1958. 

Shichi-Go-San (literally "Seven-Five-Three") is a traditional festival (dating to the Heian period, 794-1185)commonly held on November 15 to celebrate the of Japanese children into middle childhood. The numbers 3, 5 and 7 are said to be lucky, and they correspond to special ages in a Japanese child's life. In the past, age 3 marked the time when children were old enough to grow out their shaved hairdos. At age 5, boys could finally don hakama pants, while at age 7 girls became old enough to wear an obi with their kimonos. Proud Japanese parents dress their children in their finest and the family ventures to the local shrine. 

Posing for Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) 

These days the festival has taken on a modern twist, turning into something of a fashion show complete with adoring photographers and paparazzi--actually, they're foreign tourists and local "Camera Clubs" made up of elderly folks with brand new SLR cameras. Here's where I got my first taste of the national pose of Japan: flashing the peace sign. Something of a reflex now, I continually find myself posing for pictures with a peace sign...

My good fortune at Meiji Shrine didn't stop with the Shichi-Go-San festival either. As I was about to enter the main shrine complex, I almost walked straight into a Shinto-style wedding taking place. Photos follow in the slideshow below.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dinnertime Visit From the Namahage

Hosts: Takeshi-san and Ichiro-san

This past Monday, my work buddies, Takeshi and Ichiro played gracious hosts and and tour guides and took me out for a top-notch Japanese dinner. Dinner was in lively Ginza, and we ate at a restaurant called Namahage (after the Japanese boogeymen from Akita prefecture up north).

Takeshi-san keeps guard while the Kiritampo-nabe cooks

The night's featured cuisine was Kiritampo-nabe, a style of nabe (one-pot soup) that Akita Prefecture is famous for. It did not disappoint! Akita gets very cold in the winter, but after one taste of Kiritanpo I was convinced I could put up with 9 months of snow if it meant a hot pot of this soup every night.

Akita Prefecture - home to Kiritampo-nabe and Namahage

After the last of the Kiritanpo was eaten, an unexpected guest showed up... Namahage! These guys from Akita mean business, and they typically come around the village houses during New Year's Eve and shout "Any misbehaving kids live here!?!", which obviously scares the living hell out of little kids. (I know it scared the you-know-what out of me). Not to worry, though. According to legend, a little alcohol and assurance that the kids here are well-behaved and the Namahage are content to be on their way.

Trouble! Namahage has arrived! "Any misbehaving kids live here!?!"

In our particular situation, the alcohol was easily found, and no one said the Namahage have especially good lie-detection abilities... 

My new Namahage friend

Sunday, November 29, 2009

This isn't me...

... but I definitely know how he felt after the afternoon (and night) of drinking with my co-workers last Friday.

Yes, if you look hard enough he is drooling

The occasion was a "team offsite" to celebrate promotions and bond over making a traditional miso soup from scratch at a nearby park. Personally, I think there was an element of hazing involved as most of the night was spent with a drink in each hand. 

There may or may not have been late night karaoke involved as well...

Why I'm Here - New York Times article about Google Japan

The New York Times published an interesting feature about Google's efforts here in Japan. While I typically post about life outside work, ostensibly, I'm here in Tokyo to help Google catch up to Yahoo!.                                                      
An excerpt from the feature is below. You can read the New York Times article here: http://bit.ly/59GSGn

"Google Japan’s offices occupy several floors in a skyscraper in Shibuya, a Tokyo neighborhood popular with start-ups that is also a hangout for the city’s hippest teenagers. Minutes away from where Google developers work, young Japanese perch on sidewalks, playing with their Web-enabled cellphones, thumbs flying and eyes glued to the tiny screens.

But most of those trendsetters do not regard Google as being very Japanese — a big headache for the company. Google has never been able to overcome Yahoo’s advantage as the first Web-based search engine. And although 35 percent of Yahoo Japan is owned by Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Calif., it is viewed as a local company.

“Yahoo Japan is a Japanese company, and most of their employees are Japanese people who fluently understand how the Japanese mind-set and business work,” said Nobuyuki Hayashi, a technology analyst. “But Google’s still a foreigner who’s learned how to speak some Japanese.”"

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rainy Saturday

It was kind of nasty out last Saturday, so I decided to check out the famed Tokyo shopping scene at Roppongi Hills. It was basically what one would expect with lots of international brands that made me think I'd never left home. One thing's for sure: Tokyoites sure can shop!

A popular meeting spot at Roppongi Hills. Spider statute ("Maman") by Louise Bourgeois

Originally, my plan was to have a "culture day" at the nearby Mori Art Museum, but that changed when I realized the exhibit wasn't really of interest--crystal dinning ware. The highlight, however, was my trip to Tokyo City View at the top of the museum.

The panoramic views of the Tokyo metro area were amazing. Tokyo Tower (Japan's touristy answer to the Eifel Tower), Rainbow Bridge, Meiji Shrine, I could even see Mt. Fuji way off in the distance... My photos don't really do it justice.

Tokyo Tower and eastern Tokyo

West side of Tokyo and beyond. Mt Fuji is way off in the distance.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hard Times in Tokyo

Despite the recent emergence of Japan out of its own recession--not that the global recession helped any--I met a fellow the other day at dinner who would argue that, as in America, the Japanese job market is still tight.

Dinner was at a popular Indian ex-pat restaurant in Roppongi called Moti. (I know, I know... Indian food in Japan kind of misses the point, but 1. It wasn't intentional--I just randomly happened upon it, and 2. This discovery led me to suddenly crave Indian food in the middle of Tokyo).

I was the first (and at the time the only) diner, and so my waiter struck up a conversation with me while I was finishing up my chicken tikka masala and over-sized naan. A native Tokyoite without even the slightest hint of an accent in his impeccable English, he asked if I was in Tokyo for work or for pleasure. I told him I was based in Tokyo on a short term assignment for my company, Google. This peaked his interest, and he seemed to resist the urge to take a seat at my table.

Turns out he knew Google well: in his past life he worked in business development for one of Japan's major mobile phone carriers, NTT docomo. He had been to San Francisco and Mountain View frequently to work on partnership deals with Google! Very cool, I said, small world.

He could see the question written on my face, though: Why was he here now? He said jobs in most industries but especially his--retail electronics--were tough to come by. Savings finally ran out earlier this year, and so here he was, waiting on ex-pats at an Indian restaurant.

Trying to find a positive spin he shrugged, "At least it gives me a chance to improve my English..."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Digs

Here are some photos of my apartment in Tokyo.

The "kitchen" is two small burners, a tiny dishwasher, a refrigerator and of course, my hot water pot for tea.

My work area and bed.

The Japanese style sauna on the top floor--great views of the city!

Top floor view of central Tokyo and the Takahama Canal

I live in a corporate housing complex called 'Bureau Shinagawa' located in a sleepier Tokyo ward called Minato-ku. The Shinagawa train station is really the only highlight of my neighborhood but it's super close to home and makes getting around the city quick and easy.

View Larger Map

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fire Drill Day on the Takahama Canal

Today was a big day.

Not so much because it was my first full day in Tokyo--I mean, that's big news to me, but likely not a big deal to the locals. Rather, today was big day for everyone because it was fire drill day on the Takahama Canal.

Right away I am struck by the level of civic pride, from the taxi services to sanitation to law enforcement, that Tokyoites demonstrate. Friday's fire drill and disaster preparedness demonstration topped them all. Sure, it was a bit over the top as far as ceremony and formality went, but I don't see anything wrong with that at all.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Close Call #1

I'm an illegal alien.

Not quite the start to life in Tokyo that I was going for, but here's how I ended up on the wrong side of the law:

Several weeks ago, after I'd found out that I was moving to Japan for work, my HR department contacted me to initiate paperwork for my Certificate of Eligibility aka work visa. After a brief (too brief, in my opinion) explanation from HR of what the process entailed, my head was spinning. Maybe it's just me, but I get the feeling that Japan is very formal and process oriented with these matters... Anyway, I completed my application, the paperwork was processed and approved by the Japanese Ministry of Justice and my very ornate, official-looking COE was Fed-Ex'd to me in San Francisco six weeks later. All done. Or so I thought.

Fast forward to the day of my big flight to Japan--above is a picture of my Tokyo whip. There are two kinds of travelers: those who get to the airport hours early and those who take a more cavalier approach and show up 60 minutes before departure. I take after my mom on this one and fall into the prior category. Good thing, too, because I needed the several hours to sort out the mess I got myself into by not doing my homework. Turns out you need a regular visa in addition to a COE in order to live and work long term in Japan. Well, I had the COE, but not the visa--that would take several days to get back at the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco.

How did I finally find this out you ask? Good question. After waiting patiently since 8am for the Japan Airlines ticket counter to open (at 9:45am), I was almost finished with checking my bags and securing my boarding pass, when "Wait a second, why do you only have a one way ticket to Tokyo?"

"Um, because I'm moving to Japan for work" I smiled proudly. I even pulled my fancy COE out of its special plastic holder and showed it to the ticket agent.

"But you do not have a visa in your passport. You know you need that too, right?" The JAL ticket agent was getting nervous which was making me nervous.

"Um, nooo... Wait, huh? I thought a COE was a work visa, like 'higher' than a normal visa," I said.

"Sorry, no. That's not how it works. Let me call the Japanese Consulate to see what can be done." The ticket agent scurried to the back office and returned 15 minutes later. With her was a baggage attendant pushing an airport cart with my luggage on it. My heart sank.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Jonahanasen. I cannot let you board the flight without a visa. Sorry, sorry, sorry..." And with that she held my boarding pass up and tore it into (an unnecessary number of) pieces. Her baggage attendant sidekick then tugged my bags off the cart, and ceremoniously tore off the baggage tags. They bowed, turned and walked away. My face flushed red in embarrassment and panic. What to do?

Avoiding eye contact with my sympathetic fellow travelers, I gathered my things and dragged them to a bank of seats out of the way. I frantically called my HR contact and made no sense as I tried to explain my situation. This must have happened before because he knew exactly what I had done, and better, what I needed to do to get on that flight.

"Go back to the ticket agent. Tell them you changed your mind and want to buy a roundtrip ticket instead to 'visit.' Put that damn COE away, and do not show it to anyone--no one!"

Okay! I was in business, I mean just visiting, again. I bought the roundtrip ticket. The ticket agent knew what I was up to but she was sympathetic (albeit doubtful that I would succeed in gaining entry at Japanese customs). She sold me the ticket and I finally boarded the flight, exhausted after my adrenaline rush.

On arrival at Narita airport, I finally did something right and sought out the young female customs official--it couldn't hurt, right? Nonetheless, the questions from customs came as I had anticipated: "What are your plans while in Japan? Why are you here for so long? How will you pay for things?"

No problem, though. I answered with sufficient vagueness and she smiled as she stamped my passport.

Hello, Goodbye

You say yes, I say no
You say stop and I say go, go, go
Oh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye
I say hello

- The Beatles

It's a neat feeling to look back at my five years in San Francisco and reflect on all the ways the city and the people I've met have shaped the person I am today. The city is the city... and in fact, it wasn't until I met people like Maris, Turtle (okay, he's a dog), my Google co-workers and Starcom co-workers that I finally started to feel like San Francisco was home. I'm really going to miss it.

Before I set out on my next big adventure in Tokyo, I thought I'd give you my San Francisco Top 5.

Top 5 moments:
  • Random movie nights with the Van Ness corridor crew
  • St. Patrick's Day 2007
  • Meeting Turtle for the first time at SFO
  • Wilco at the Greek Theater (2008 and 2009)
  • Camping with Maris and Turtle at Tree Bones (Big Sur)
Top 5 things to do:
  • Run in the Presidio
  • Go to the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building
  • Cook a homemade dinner with our Farmer's Market purchases
  • People watch at Dolores Park and Golden Gate Park
  • Watching Turtle run and swim with his buddies at Fort Funston
Top 5 places to eat:
  • Park Chow
  • Pizza Delfina
  • Taddich
  • Ella's
  • Zuni Cafe
There you have it, San Francisco. Looking forward to starting my new "Top 5" lists, Tokyo!