REFLECTING ON JAPAN

Our time in Japan has come to an end.

We could have stayed longer, but factors played out that a different choice was the right one for our family. Leaving a country is always a bittersweet experience, there are things you are looking forward to in your next destination while you know there are things that you will miss from the previous country. You also get into a groove in a new country after 2 years …. that groove is over.

In no particular order are the things I will miss about Tokyo:

Safety and cleanliness:  A society that is homogeneous with very little immigration means that they have 3,000 years of shared tradition and values which drive their society. The downside is that it leads to rigidity, hierarchy and significant innovation constraints. On the plus side, it makes Japan truly unique. There is no garbage because people care about their society and are too proud of Japan to litter. You can walk a back street at 2:30am and be completely safe, while a 4 year old child can walk to school with zero issues. That is truly unique.

The people: Our western society is so fast paced and all about the push. I will admit to being too abrupt, irritable or not polite enough. In Japan, as a whole, that is not the case. Sure the subways get crowded but over the last two years I have come to respect the little things like the politeness of a bow. We as westerners have not lost all of that and not everyone is rude (insert Canadians saying “excuse me” joke here), but in Japan it is the way that they all live. I heard a story the other day where a fellow was in Japan teaching English and he happened to mention to a few of the women he was teaching that he found Tokyo cold. The next day they showed up with extra blankets and a warm jacket for him. The sense of community, sharing and “team” is alive and well in Japan.

The food and drink:  If you like food, you need to go to Japan. Good food on every corner, with more drink choices than you can imagine. There is no where like it. Odd to think that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any country in the world and Canada, sadly barren.

January and February:  Why? Because if you want snow you can jump on a train and be at the ski hill in 90 minutes. Otherwise, my heavy winter jacket did not come out once in over 2 years. Now that is the type of winter that I love – tennis in January.

Amazon.jp and Japan Post:  I know, miss a postal system? Japan Post is amazing. Order something on Amazon on Saturday morning at 8am (and you can order EVERYTHING on Amazon) and see it arrive that same evening. A post man working on a Saturday night? Now that is customer service.

The 5pm song:  Every evening in Tokyo at 5pm huge loudspeakers play a song. I have been told it is so that children know it is dinner time. How quaint.

Vertical parking:  Why? I don’t know. But I always found it interesting and Roppongi Towers has to have the most advanced parking system in the world.

The wonderful, oddity of Japan:  As I have said before, living in Japan is like living on Mars. You could never feel more different (As a side note, I have heard Japanese say the same thing about when they are in North America). They do so many things differently than us and it is always interesting to stumble upon new things. A simple example; they have these sinks in the washrooms in our office and I could never figure out what they are for.

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Turns out they are for brushing your teeth and the button on the left (blue swirl) is a special flushing button that swishes water all around the bowl in a circular motion to clean the sink. And of course, don’t get me started on Japan’s greatest invention – the Toto. I had 3 installed into my house in Canada instantly – and yes there is a Toto Canada, and yes they sell their products on Amazon.

Japanese English:  I love to read interpretations. I snapped this one recently because of the gargling insert. I also like the detailed instructions – it feels like mom wrote it – “don’t forget to wash under your fingernails” (smile)

Infectious disease

 

Facemasks:  This might seem like an odd one, but I like facemasks. To understand the Japanese facemask culture, you need to understand how they think.

To the Japanese, facemasks are about being polite. If you have a cold, you wear one so that you will not get anyone else sick. If you have a baby, you will wear one so that you don’t bring home any germs. To see someone wearing a facemask in western society is an oddity, in Japan it is incredibly common – people wear them everywhere. On a few occasions I have worn them when ill in the office, I have worn them at home to try not to spread a cold when I get off a plane and I love wearing them when on a plane (for hydration reasons – a great way to reduce your chance of getting a cold or sore throat).

A reflection on their community focused culture.

Last but certainly not least, Japanese customer service:  Customer service in Japan is THE BAR. There is nothing that compares and it is consistent, people take pride in their work and bend over backwards to service the customer. The primary driver for this is that the Japanese people expect excellent service and are therefore willing to pay higher prices – something “Lowest price every day” mentality in North America has destroyed – it is our consumer choice.

Good-bye Japan. You are very, very unique in this world.

REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT IN TOKYO ANYMORE

This is a conversation I have had time and time again with expat friends and colleagues. When you leave the safety of Tokyo, you need to remember that the rest of the world is different.

Sitting in the ANA Lounge the other day I had zero qualms about leaving all of my bags at my seat and heading to the washroom. I would never do that in another country.

A colleague and I were discussing it the other day (he is American) and he told the story that I have heard so many times before. They walked off the plane in the US and ran their young children through the “You are not in Tokyo anymore” reminders.

When you go to the washroom, make sure that Mom or Dad knows.

You cannot leave your laptop on a chair and come back expecting it to still be there.

Stay close, don’t get lost in the crowd. Don’t talk to strangers.

If you are a parent with children, Tokyo is like the hometown of your youth. An island surrounded by a much different world.

Plus, where else in the world is the lounge breakfast comprised of noodles and fried tofu, yogurt and a cappuccino? (smile)

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TOKYO REALLY IS THAT SAFE

As I left Seika Dormitory I noticed this …

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Those are brand new skis (3 sets) sitting on the front porch of a house .. not locked up.

I was speaking with a friend the other day and he was asking what it was like to live in Tokyo and I said the things that stand out are the cleanliness, how friendly people are (mostly) and how incredibly safe it is.

There are police everywhere, but I have no idea what they do? No guns. Low crime (unless you seek it in a seedy bar in Roppongi) and safe. The stories of people leaving a laptop or iPhone on the train and getting it back abound, children ride the subway alone and people leave their skis on the front porch and no one takes them.

A city of 40M+ .. and safe as a town of 500. A truly unique city.

DID YOU HEAR THAT BANG? CONSTRUCTION IN TOKYO

 

I have been meaning to blog about construction in Tokyo and last weeks “event” prompted me to write.

Construction in Japan is very different than in Canada and probably everywhere else in the world. When we first moved here I noticed a few things; security guards with glowing light sticks at every construction site, well constructed enclosures around each site and crazy levels of cleanliness.

It seems that Japanese construction starts with the enclosure. When a building is set to be demolished the building is scaffolded and enclosed so you cannot see anything. The building comes down piece by piece and parts of the scaffolding remain.

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The above photo from my iPhone has 2 interesting elements to it. The first is the wet pavement. As every single vehicle leaves the site, a group of workmen hose down the truck so that it comes out as clean as if it went into a carwash. They then clean and sweep the street (multiple times a day).

The other interesting element is the LED screen on the left.

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A decibel meter to measure site noise. I have yet to hear a lot of noise out of one of these sites. They could use a few of these at some of the vacation resorts I have been too.

But it doesn’t always go right. Near our home the “demolition screen” went up a week ago and they started tearing down a building. One of the boys sent me a text that there had been an accident …. demolitions are tricky stuff. After getting home I grabbed my camera and had a look.

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Whoops. That is a big wall.

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There were a lot of guys with brooms (smile). Luckily, no one was hurt.

A CLOSE CALL

 

When you enter a new country you are bombarded with new “norms”, how people do things will always be different. Part of assimilating into the new culture is a decision process of running through your own values, views and systems and determining where you will change.

In Tokyo, almost no one wears a bike helmet. In a city where biking is a primary form of transportation and hundreds upon hundreds of bikes line the streets, it is odd for me to see so few people without a helmet (usually only Gaijin wear helmets). It reminds me of the 1970’s when people had seatbelts in their car but no one bothered wearing them. I remember my parents buckling the seat belt together and tucking it into the seat to stop that annoying “Seatbelt not on” alarm bell. Scary.

Last night we had to run to the store and I wanted to bike. It was the first time we had ridden at night. There are not many street lamps in our area so it was quite dark. As I moved from the road to the sidewalk, to avoid a car, my front tire caught the cement edge and in a flash I slammed into the ground – hard.

What is still a bit nerve wracking is that only 30 minutes earlier I had debated not wearing my helmet as it was close and “no one bothers”. But I did and I feel very fortunate. Had I not, who knows what would have happened.  This is my helmet after the accident – cracked in 4 places.

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A close call. That could have been my bare head. As a side note, the eggs did not break.

A MOVE

 

While making the decision on whether on not to move to Japan, I spent a lot of energy researching the lifestyle, country and culture. Through LinkedIn I reached out to my Asian colleagues and teed up a number of phone calls with friends of friends to discuss their expat assignments in Japan and of course, I read.

One theme that kept coming up about Japan is how safe it is. I had one executive relate how he would ride the subway in the morning and find it so odd to see a 4 year old by themselves on the way to school, Hello Kitty backpack and all. Another explained how when she landed back in North America she would sit her kids down and say “Now remember, we are not in Japan anymore. Stay close, don’t talk to strangers and don’t leave anything on a chair because you won’t get it back or someone will snatch it”, whereas in Japan if you leave your laptop on the subway there is an almost 100% probability that you will get it back from lost and found. Good luck getting anything back on a Toronto subway.

Consider these stats, remember that the US has 330M people, Japan has 128M, UK has 60M and Canada has 32M people. Very eye opening.

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This is just one of the many element of culture that interested/surprised me as I read about our new home. In another conversation, I spoke with an executive who had lived in London and in Tokyo, as we had and in a laughing voice he stated “Japan will ruin you forever with regard to customer service. There is nothing like Japan. Remember how it was in the UK – take the exact opposite and that is Japan – the repairman doesn’t give you an 8 hour window to arrive and show up two days late, they give you a 30 minute window and arrive at that time, and the trains all run on time without fail”.

Thanks to the information age, expat/culture websites abound and the number of books on the topic are only limited to how much time you have. Personally, the thing that I loved the most about the UK is the nuances and differences. The time to experience the Japanese nuances approaches. Camera ready.

EGYPT PART 1: MY BROAD IMPRESSIONS

I have talked with many people about how my transition from Canada to the UK changed my view in many ways. The first change being my definition of old. In Canada I thought that our house was old – a 110 year old Victorian. When I came to the UK that changed dramatically as one of my first experiences in a pub was The Bull in Sonning built in the 1400s.

Over the last few weeks our family went on an 11 day trip to Egypt which changed my definition of old and expanded this simple Canadian’s view of the world dramatically.

The trip had 3 stages, a few days in Cairo (pyramids), a few days in Luxor (temples & tombs) and then 6 days on the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh relaxing. Over the week as I dig through the videos and pictures I will blog on each adventure, but thought to start with my impressions of Egypt:

1. Safety:  It was one of the first things that came up in conversation – is it safe? You have the terrorists who are from the region, the 1997 Luxor massacre of tourists and a lot of poverty which leads to crime as people do what they can to survive.

The first thing you notice when you land in Egypt is the armed presence. The military is not as prevalent as in other counties (most notable in Cuba) but the police are everywhere and heavily armed (the below was a common sight).

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Guards at the pyramids (They must have been hot, it was 40C that day).

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The end verdict? It is safe, probably one of the safest in the region. But you also need to be smart.

2. The people: The second thing that we noticed was how the people treated us. In all of our travels, the Egyptian people are the most tourist friendly we have ever encountered. In many of the conversations we had, there seemed to be a genuine appreciation of the tourist and the economy that they have created within Egypt. It has taken Egypt a long time to recover their tourist business and it is clear, they are working hard to protect it.

If you read the Luxor massacre story, the most interesting thing is that the Islamic terrorists turned the Egyptian public opinion against them after the event – and it is clear that the Egyptian government has used that opportunity to rebuild the tourism business and create an air of safety.

In conversation and in the newspaper, public opinion against the Islamic terrorists and the negative impact that they have had on the view of Muslims was a hot topic. After all, the Islamic law is that if you have a guest come to you (even if he is your enemy), you must shelter him.

Which brings up another topic – family. Both of our tour guides still lived with their extended family. One lived on the bottom floor of the house with his mother and sister (his dad had passed away). His brother lived with his wife on the second floor and the third floor was where they kept the pig and chickens. The family ties remain very strong in Egypt, I would imagine in part due to economic reasons and in part due to culture (the concept of the village bonding together to help each other).

3. BIG TIP – our tour guide: One brilliant thing that we did on the trip was pre-book all of our tourist events with a local company. Instead of doing the ‘mass tour’ thing where you get on a bus with you and 50 of your closest friends, we booked a private tour guide, driver and private car (usually a minivan). Four days and personalized airport pickup and delivery cost us about £550 for the trip. This made ALL the difference. The tour guide personalized every single outing (when we wanted to start, where we went) and helped us avoid the crowds and do things that others would not have done. For example, when in Luxor the guide said ‘We need to start at 730 am to beat the heat and crowds’. No thanks, we did not come on vacation to get up early. So, we started at 830 am. We did hit a hot time of the day but just took it slower and had more breaks in the shade … which the guide accommodated without issue.

The second biggest benefit was the experience at each site. Unlike the tour groups where the ‘pack’ listened with little interaction because of the unwieldy size, our tours were a dialogue where we asked questions, discussed and gained real insight. Turns out that to be a certified Egyptian tour guide you need to go through 3 years of University training on history, hieroglyphics, etc. They were VERY knowledgeable.

I cannot recommend this route highly enough, we did it through Carrier. Worth every single penny on a tour of a lifetime – it made the trip.

4. Side topic – the police: One last note on the police. In a conversation with our guide, he talked about the police and how the people respect them deeply. However, corruption does happen for one simple reason – income. These guys make nothing. To put it all into perspective, an Egyptian dentist makes $63 per month on average. So the tour guides were constantly tipping the police with one simple point – you can call it corruption but they called it doing the right thing. They provide a valuable service and are not adequately taken care of so the tour guides do what they can.

5. The hot topics in Egypt: Each day I read the Egyptian Gazette. It was a fascinating insight into the culture and what is going on in Egypt. It was also an interesting study in cultural differences. In the western world we are worried about housing prices and the stock market. In Egypt, the big election topic is the wheat and bread shortage. It definitely puts life into perspective – many people in Egypt are still at the survival stage. While I was there, a few interesting articles that caught my attention:

  • Dentists demand higher pay:  the starting monthly salary for a dentist is $23USD per month.
  • Donkey butcher caught red handed:From their web site: Are we heading towards a total moral disaster? The other day a butcher was found selling dead donkeys to restaurants and individual consumers after chopping them into minced meat, adding spices to hide the rotten smell.  (We only ate at places recommended by our guide!)
  • Bread crisis highlights income gap: More than 20 percent of Egypt’s 76M live below the poverty line according to the UN. In the markets, unsubsidised bread sells for more than 10X the subsidized price (sub $0.01 USD) and clashes began to break out due to long lines and waits (One man was killed in a fight). This quote was particularly poignant:  ‘Our life has become miserable’ said one worker … he said he and his coworkers can’t afford unsubsidised bread ‘or any food to eat with it’. The army had been called in to distribute bread and use their bakeries to improve bread output.

6. Infrastructure: This is a country of polarity. On one hand you have magnificent hotels and areas of strong infrastructure development (business communications capability, office buildings, modern shops) and then down the street you have abject poverty and feel like you are driving through 1820 where the people are riding donkeys, are without sewage and living in dilapidated apartment buildings. In no other place is this more obvious than in Cairo – a city of 27M with a huge gap between the haves and have nots. On our way to the pyramids, we drove through a poor part of town and it really did look like the 1800s. A few pictures below …

An open ditch in the city.

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A view of the apartments from the highway.

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An alley in the slum.

Alley in a poor part of Cairo

On the ‘other side’ of the Nile.

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The clash of old and new, the 700 year old Cairo aqueduct through old Cairo bordered by the slum.

Aquaduct in Cairo

The mode of transport for many in a city of 27M.

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It is a different world, so far away from how we live today in our clean homes, with Internet, lots of food, stores around us and 5 computers. A world away … be thankful. I also ran through a lot of cash in tips – I tipped everyone, frequently. It is the least we can do.

WHY DO WE NEED HANDGUNS?

We watch the events of last week in Montreal where 12 kids were shot and 1 died and yet nothing changes.
I drive down the highway and watch a biker with his ‘Hell’s Angels’ jacket proudly displayed, and nothing changes even though we know that they are as strong a criminal organization as the mob.
Why do we need hand guns? I know that American’s look at gun as their God given right (Interesting, I wonder if one of God’s primary appointed human rights is the ability to kill). The right to bear arms and over throw the government if they are not happy.
I don’t get it. Why do we need them? Here is what I suggest:
1. Scrap the gun registry. Just ban all home retention of all guns.
2. You must keep your gun at a government licensed, monitored and secure facility, unless you have a legitimate use (i.e. farmer)
3. Want to go hunting? No problem, drop in and sign it out.
4. Hand guns? Sorry, they are not allowed out of the building. After all, you are not going to take down a duck with a hand gun, so it is purely for recreational shooting. So, keep it at the facility and shoot there.
5. Some punk caught with a hand gun? Lock your ass up and make you do really crappy jobs inside for 5 years (like sorting piles of manure), instead of giving you a nice cell with TV and a gym.
We have police to protect us. Guns should not be on the street. Canada should be the first step. Let the gun lovers go to the US with their 1/2 trillion a year deficit, poor to rich disparity and the ‘Christian right’ supporting republicans who support less government and no social assistance while spending like a drunk sailor who already spent his paycheck but has access to a pretty big credit line.
Ban all guns. The faster the better.
BTW, I have a federal arms license, and have owned 3 or 4 guns (much to the chagrin of my parents) and was an avid hunter and fly fisher in my youth. I just think it is pointless.
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