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Engaging in “the Virtuous Struggle”

Language, they say, can give deep and enlightening insights into a country, a people, and their (business) culture. The Japanese language has a particular fascination with concept of struggle, and with treating struggle as a great virtue. Therefore, let us arm you with some words and phrases that you’ll hear several times a day back-of-house at a business event.

At the end of each day, and even at the end of a given task within a day, it is compulsory to compliment your team with “otsukaresama”, which literally means, “you must be exhausted”, and contains the additional inference, “after your long and virtuous struggle today”. Although, if it’s been a real proper trial, you can consider using the more serious “gokurosama”, which implies dedication above and beyond, for much longer than anyone else would have put in the time or effort.

Which leads on to the majestic, “isshokenmei”. This phrase that describes someone doing their absolute best uses kanji characters that imply giving your entire lifeblood, your entire being, to the task in hand. This phrase can actually be written in two different ways in Japanese. One communicates the above “your whole life” meaning. The other suggests having done one’s best “in one place”, which gives another fascinating insight in to the Japanese sense of belonging that denotes not just a position of rank, but can, and often is, a geographical location too.

Other words and phrases oft-heard in the workplace, on sports teams, and on the street, which acknowledge and celebrate hard work towards any given goal: “taihen” (multiple meanings, but in this context, “that was difficult!”, “yabai” (this can mean either “that was bad!” or “that was good!”), “shindoi” (“that was tiresome!”), “muzukashii” (a range of nuance, but most often “that was/is difficult!”; and, in most business contexts, “it’ll never happen”). Enjoy dropping a few of these into your next business interaction in Japan!

To wider Japanese society, when processes might seem to be too straightforward, complications are delicately added to the system. It’s a great way of keeping you on your toes. Moreover, it’s a great way to keep all the “otsukare” and “taihen!” phrases in active use.

Half tongue-in-cheek, we sometimes like to describe society here as, “take something really simple, and work out how to complicate it as much as possible, then you have Japan”. Take a look at the tea ceremony, for example! It’s on the bucket list, just because it is such a ceremonial way of having a cuppa.

Whilst we enjoy seeing the quirky side of Japan that has been our home for decades, we also take this opportunity to assure you that when it comes to event planning and operation, we believe that you should never see any of the struggle that Japan imposes, virtuous or other. Let us keep that well-hidden from you.

Noma Chef René Redzepi Brings Coals to Newcastle

Idiom of the day: “Bringing coals to Newcastle” is an English idiom used to describe a pointless action. During the Industrial Revolution, Newcastle was a centre for the British coal mining industry, and it would have made no sense to bring coal to Newcastle.

We were reminded of the phrase this morning when we read that Noma, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Copenhagen run by chef René Redzepi, is planning to open a 10-week “residency” in Kyoto next spring. The meal will cost 850 euros per person including drinks, tax and service.

Noma’s website says, “We have traveled throughout Japan and this specific region for many years. We have studied and researched the history and the food culture, in particular kaiseki cuisine. For our Kyoto menu, we will source ingredients from local farmers, hunters, fishmongers, and foragers and will work very closely with this local network of suppliers. Our menu will reflect the sakura season in Kyoto, yet, we will not be a Japanese restaurant.”

Like many contemporary superstar chefs, Redzepi worked at Ferran Adrià’s famous El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, and told The New York Times, “I was taught that the tasting menu was invented by the French and then reinvented in Spain. I had no idea of the vast repository of ideas and techniques that is Japanese food.”

In fact, in 1965 the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse traveled to Japan, was introduced to kaiseki, and returned to Lyon to pioneer nouvelle cuisine, which reimagined French cooking with an emphasis on seasonality, the quality of ingredients, and a dramatic procession of stylishly presented plates.

Nothing at all against Noma, which has been ranked the “world’s best restaurant” several times, including only last year, but if you’re in Kyoto and want a multi-course meal that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food, you are spoiled for choice.

Many non-Japanese have had the experience of eating an omakase Japanese meal. Omakase means “I’ll leave it up to you”, and if you’ve had a high-end sushi meal, you may have “left it up to” the chef (recommended!).

Kaiseki is different. Yes, you’re “leaving it up to” the chef, but the chef’s preparation started months earlier, not that morning at the fish market. A kaiseki meal may incorporate hundreds of ingredients, and no detail is left unconsidered. In the autumn along Kyoto’s Kamogawa River, you can see young kitchen apprentices collecting fallen autumn leaves that will be used in presenting one or more dishes.

The “rules” governing the preparation of a kaiseki meal can be myriad, but most important are seasonality, local ingredients and presentation. But other “rules” might include serving pieces of sashimi in odd numbers only (there is plenty of superstition in Japan and East Asia); serving round food in square dishes and vice versa; and serving food in/on dishes of different shapes and materials.

If you stay in a high-end ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), a kaiseki dinner may be included in the price. But if you are staying in another sort of establishment (e.g. a modern hotel), you can experience kaiseki in a ryotei, a traditional Japanese restaurant historically associated with geisha and if we’re honest, influence-peddling!

It used to be the case that access to ryotei was only by introduction from another customer, but times have changed. A good concierge can get you a reservation at a superb ryotei. And so can the friendly folks at The J Team!

Not an idiom, but a famous proverb is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

When we’re in Rome, we don’t eat Japanese food. When we’re in Kyoto, we go for kaiseki.

On the Run in Japan

Some of us at The J Team are longtime runners, and we are of the view that there are few better ways to explore a new place (and shake off jet lag!) than by lacing up our running shoes and heading out into the city (or countryside) to see the sights! In fact, one of us, on his first trip to Tokyo, over 30 years ago (!) turned down a beautifully green avenue, thinking it was the entrance to a public park. An agitated guard bolted from his hut to chase him down (well, to shout, because he was long past the age of chasing!) and we learned that there is no running permitted in Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine! Oops!

Since then, we have run up and down Mount Fuji; competed in the Tokyo Marathon; enjoyed local hospitality (fresh strawberries at one aid station, served up by players from a middle school baseball team, in uniform!) at other, more rural marathons (once, we won a delicious local melon for placing our age group!); struggled through one of Japan’s more famous ultramarathons (in which there were as many volunteers as competitors); and of course enjoyed scenic runs in many cities and rural settings.

Our usual strategy when we’re on the road is to figure out the distance we’d like to cover, then look at the map to see how far our fitness might take us. Alternatively, the fitness app Strava has a relatively new feature called Routes that offers suggestions from local athletes (or are they algorithmically generated???). One of our favorite Tokyo runs is across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, north across the reclaimed islands of Harumi district, and back across Tsukiji Bridge, adjacent to Hama Rikyu Gardens (former aristocratic gardens built in the 17th century, and one of our favorite places in Tokyo!!!).

If you’re a runner staying in the Maranouchi business district near Tokyo Station, you’ll definitely want to make a few loops of the Imperial Palace, probably the best-known running route in Tokyo. A single loop is almost exactly 5km, and at the right time of day you may encounter one of Japan’s professional or university ekiden (long-distance relay) teams, probably jogging slowly, but don’t let that fool you!

In Kyoto, a favorite run is up the cycle path that runs alongside the Kamogawa River. Long distance runners can continue out of the city up into the hills, and those looking for a shorter loop might think about incorporating the extremely scenic 1.5km of Philosopher’s Walk into their route.

Northeast of (and overlooking) Kyoto is Mount Hiei, home to the Enryaku-ji temple, which is home to the “marathon monks”, who attempt to complete 100 30km loops of Mount Hiei on 100 consecutive nights, in pursuit of greater enlightenment. Those who complete the 100-day challenge may request permission to continue, attempting to complete an additional 900 laps over the next seven years. In summer, in winter, and in straw sandals. Fun!

Something we have often found valuable as we’ve explored Japan while wearing running shoes is the country’s wide-ranging train network.

In less than an hour, you can travel from Tokyo Station to the seaside town of Kamakura, which nearly a thousand years ago was the de facto capital of Japan. Kamakura is flat and compact; in a few hours, you jog past (and go into) many of the nearly town’s 100 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of which are over 1,200 years old. If you want to run long, the hills outside Kamakura feature wooded running trails that stretch into the surrounding communities of Zushi and Hayama.

Another great destination for Tokyo-based runners is Mount Takao, which is less than an hour by train from Shinjuku Station. Technically part of Tokyo City, Mount Takao is popular with hikers, but large enough that even with 2.5 million visitors annually, it never feels crowded. A particularly beautiful time of year for a run up and down the mountain is right now. Unsurprisingly, spring is another great time to visit.

Of course, as runners, we run. There are few sporting activities more portable, and we have rarely visited a country or city or town without lacing up our running shoes to explore. We bring our phones with us so we can snap photos, and because we’re older and slower than we used to be, we’re more willing to stop just about anywhere to take a souvenir photo.

One thing we are often asked by visitors who are interested in running in Japan is: “How safe is it?” Short answer: safer than almost anywhere else. And yet, while you will almost certainly never have an issue while out running in Japan, any time of night or day, a big part of never having an issue is knowing how to take care of yourself.

Here are a few suggestions that are valuable anywhere:

1. DON’T run wearing headphones in unfamiliar environments. They make you less aware of your surroundings and put you at greater risk of injury, accident or attack.

2. DO run with a partner if you can. In the worst-case scenario, one of you can run for help. More likely, a potential attacker will look for an easier mark.

3. DON’T be tempted to carry a pepper spray or stunning device with you for your own protection. In many places these are classified as prohibited weapons, and unless you are well-trained, it’s likely you won’t be able to use them successfully.

4. NEVER GET TRAPPED. If you find yourself alone in a dangerous situation, never back yourself into bushes, cliffs or other impenetrable obstacles. You’re a runner, and nearly all the time, running toward open ground will provide your best exit options.

5. USE A DISTRACTION. If you have to run for it, try to distract your attacker first. Pretend you are calling to someone behind the would-be-attacker; this can provide vital seconds of advantage in making an escape.

6. NEVER PERMIT PHYSICAL CONTACT. Keeping your distance from a would-be attacker is essential. Once physical contact has occurred, the probability of escape diminishes considerably.

7. CARRY A PHONE. Even just pulling out a phone in a sketchy situation may scare off a would-be attacker. And did you know you can call emergency services without even unlocking your phone?

8. If you feel you’d like to gain more confidence, TAKE A SELF-DEFENCE CLASS from a qualified instructor. However, in most situations the best advice is never to allow the assailant to make physical contact with you.

Yes, Japan is a very safe place, but of course the best way to avoid a dangerous situation is to never allow yourself to get into the situation in the first place. Use the guidelines above and in all likelihood, you’ll never have a problem.

In Japan, Take the A(ny) Train

Setting aside trips to Okinawa and Hokkaido (islands), the vast majority of Japanese have never taken a domestic airplane trip. And why would they? A handful of countries have well-developed high-speed railway systems, but Japan remains by far the world leader in terms of reach, efficiency, comfort and safety.

In the 1950s Japan began investing heavily in high-speed rail transport as an alternative to air travel, which was starting to boom worldwide. Trains provided a practical transportation solution for a country that imported nearly all its fossil fuels and saw the majority of its population concentrated on the Pacific coastal plain.

Of course, the years following World War II were difficult in Japan, as they were in Europe. The economy had been devastated, and much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed. But when Tokyo was awarded the 1964 Olympic Games, Japan hoped they would serve as its post-war coming out party.

On October 1, 1964, nine days before the opening ceremonies, the first Shinkansen arrived in Shin-Osaka Station from Tokyo, having cut travel time between Japan’s two largest cities from six hours 40 minutes to only four hours.

Today the Shinkansen, dubbed “the bullet train” for its aerodynamic shape, has served over 11 billion passengers while maintaining an enviable on-time record. In 2018, the average Shinkansen finished its run within 54 seconds of its scheduled arrival time. One reason the service is so efficient is hinted at in the translation of shinkansen, which means “new trunk line”; because the Shinkansen runs on dedicated track, slower traffic is not an issue.

Dedicated track also contributes to operational safety. In 52 years, Japan’s Shinkansen has never recorded an operations-related fatality (though several deaths have been recorded due to suicide and other passenger misadventure). Japan’s Shinkansen operators have also pioneered many of the technological developments that have driven the growth of high-speed rail transportation around the world, addressing issues such as aerodynamics, noise, vibration, earthquake safety and energy consumption. For example, the energy consumption per seat for travel between Tokyo and Osaka is approximately 12 percent of that of an aircraft; the CO2 emission rate is around 8 percent.

Today, the fastest Shinkansen travel time between Tokyo and Osaka is two hours and 22 minutes, but construction and testing are underway for a next generation magnetically levitated (maglev) train that in April 2015 set a world record speed of 603 km/h.

The Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) expects to begin service between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027, and to extend service from Nagoya to Osaka in 2045, cutting travel times between Tokyo and Nagoya from one hour and 41 minutes to only 40 minutes (!), and between Tokyo and Osaka from two hours and 22 minutes to 67 minutes (!).

The total cost of the project, estimated at USD35bn in 2007, had escalated to over USD64bn by 2021, but JR Central estimates that maglev ticket prices will be only slightly more expensive than existing Shinkansen service. Don’t expect there to be much of a view, however; about 90 percent of the 286-kilometer Tokyo-Nagoya route will be underground or in tunnels through the mountains.

The Shinkansen is Japan’s preferred method for long-distance travel, but the country relies even more on short-haul trains, which carry over 7.2 billion passengers a year, mostly to and from work.

As an example, Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, which circles the city in a 29-station loop, carries 3.68 million passengers per day. In comparison, London’s Underground carries 3.36 million passengers per day on 12 lines serving 275 stations. New York City’s subway system carries 5.08 million passengers per day riding on 26 lines serving 469 stations.

But Japan’s railway system is a hodgepodge of different companies, mostly privately owned and operated. In Tokyo alone, 48 companies operate 158 lines, and serve around 40 million passengers a day. Indeed, 46 of the world’s 50 busiest railway stations are in Japan, with Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station by far the busiest, serving 3.64 million passengers a day.

The world’s highest passenger volumes demand precisely coordinated scheduling, and indeed, the (somewhat exaggerated) reputation of Japanese trains for adherence to schedule was the key to one of Japan’s most famous modern novels. Police detectives in Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines solve a double murder by plotting the victims’ travels exactly via railway timetables.

Trains on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line run 2.5 minutes apart during rush hours, and white-gloved railway employees are on occasion required to shove passengers inside like pork (and herbs) into sausage casings. Shinkansen service between Tokyo and Osaka runs almost as often, with 13 departures an hour – trains carry over 1,300 passengers – during peak periods.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country where trains play an important role in many people’s lives, just over 10 years ago the country was swept by Train Man fever. A novel, manga, television series and movie were produced to tell the purportedly true story of a 23-year-old otaku who found love by protecting a young woman on a train from harassment by a drunken salaryman.

In gratitude for his gallantry, the woman took the young man’s address and later sent him an expensive present. The geeky young man, never having had a girlfriend, and indeed, never having been on a date, turned to the Internet (of course!) for advice, and with thousands of supporters offering tips on what to wear, and where to go for dinner, he eventually declared his love for the woman, who reciprocated. The happy couple presumably rode off into the sunset by train. A train that left the station on time.


Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
Japan, Japan

These vagabond shoes
They are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
Japan, Japan

So, by now if you’re interested in Japan, you’ve heard the Big News: from 11 October, tourists will be able to visit Japan without a visa, and will no longer need to go through a travel agency. A cap on daily arrivals will also be lifted.
In other words, yay!

What’s the tourism environment likely to be after 11 October? We’re confident it will be fantastic.
One, Japan’s tourist-focused businesses have missed you badly, and they’ll be very happy to welcome you back. Unless you plan to arrive during a big Japanese holiday, during which there is plenty of domestic travel, hotels will be delighted to have you, and prices are excellent.

Two, due to China’s continued pursuit of its “zero-COVID” policy, tourists from that country will mostly not be able to take advantage of Japan’s newly opened border, and in 2019, mainland Chinese made up 30 percent of international arrivals.

In other words, Japan will be in no danger of being overrun by tourists after the border reopens fully.

So what next?

If you’re interested in planning travel to Japan, now is probably a great time to book an autumn trip. We also have plenty of clients (and friends) who think winter is the best time to visit Japan. The days are often clear and dry, with (depending on where in Japan you are) temperatures rarely below freezing, and visibility (thinking about those Instagram shots of Mount Fuji!) is spectacular.

Yokoso (welcome)!