One of the wonderful things about being a regional sales manager for San-J International is having the opportunity to visit the country of Japan. In April, Dan Kettman, our Midwest regional manager, Mike Tuleya, our Broker of the Year, and I all made the long journey west for a five-day visit.
Traveling to Japan
A trip to a foreign land can be daunting when you can’t speak their language. The three of us could only say a few words in Japanese: Kon nichiwa for “hello” and arigato for “thank you.” Mike, the most fluent of us three, could say one phrase with great confidence – his daughter taught him to say, “I am a pretty little girl.”
After sixteen hours in the air, and various airport connections, we finally arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. But the fun didn’t start yet – it took over an hour to collect our bags, clear customs, and buy bus tickets to our hotel. Here’s a tip: don’t practice your Japanese bowing in the public bathroom mirror. It can be embarrassing if caught.
We then had an hour and a half bus ride to our hotel, and finding the right hotel was a bit of a challenge. There were three hotels with a similar name as ours—all of them were called Prince Something or Something Prince and they were all located next to one another. But it worked out and we found our “Prince.”
One thing you will notice immediately about Japan is they have excellent customer service, much better than anywhere else we’ve traveled to. They totally go out of their way to help in any way they can. For instance, after checking in at the hotel, we started to head to our rooms with our luggage and the hotel attendants literally ran after us to carry our bags for us. Each of us weighs over 200lbs, while they weighed about 90lbs, but they refused to let us haul our own stuff. And the hotel attendants take off their tiny shoes prior to entering your room.
So after nearly nineteen hours of travel time, we finally made it to our rooms, showered, steamed our severely wrinkled suits, and rushed downstairs to grab a taxi to have dinner with our Japanese co-workers.
Our gracious hosts, as is their custom, ordered our dinner which consisted of some sort of noodle soup, beef tongue, raw scallops, squid, pig intestines, sliced octopus and, thankfully, some good ‘ole beef steak. You haven’t lived until you’ve chased a pig intestine around your plate with chopsticks. Welcome to Japan!
Jet lag is a crazy thing. Your mind and body have no idea what time it is or whether you should be awake or sound asleep. We were all wide awake at 3:00 AM, Japan time, checking emails, calling home, etc. We had no idea which was more appropriate at that hour: cereal or pig intestine? Juice or sake?
Observations in Tokyo
The next morning at breakfast, we noticed some of the fruit in Japan is a different size than ours. They have tiny strawberries and huge grapes. Who knew? After breakfast we ventured out to explore Tokyo.
The first thing we noticed is people walk on the opposite side of the sidewalks than Americans do. They drive on the left as well.
The second thing we noticed is that so many people wear white surgical masks. A rough guess is around 20% of the Japanese we saw that first morning were wearing masks. Google to the rescue: Japanese wear the masks to help with allergies. It looks like everyone is an off-duty surgeon who forgot to remove their mask. But it’s very practical and we saw it everywhere we went. By Day 3 we were each ready to try the masks because our allergies flared up.
Take a long walk in almost any U.S. city and you will see graffiti, litter, and homeless people. Not in Tokyo. We saw none of that. None! Everything is clean, no graffiti or garbage anywhere. And what’s odd is you don’t see trash cans anywhere. There were no public trash cans, so our trash went into our pockets until we got back to the hotel.
One familiar site is the 7-11 store, seemingly on every corner in Tokyo. We learned they carry totally different food items than our stores do. For instance, they have no Slurpees, but if you’re craving a delicious eel-to-go, they have those!
The remainder of our day was spent walking all over Tokyo and enduring a non-stop rain storm. But the Japanese are very prepared for rain; they have free umbrellas at most of the hotels. You just take one and leave it at the next destination. We thought they were free to keep…
Commuting in Japan
Being inside a train station in Tokyo is an incredibly overwhelming experience. Take any U.S. train station and multiply its foot traffic by two or three. It was that crazy! There were thousands of zig-zagging, speed-walkers hurrying off to work. If we slowed down even for one second we created a huge traffic jam. It was major sensory overload!
We braved the chaos to buy tickets for the Bullet Train to what we assumed was the correct location (Kyoto) and hoped for the best. At 200 mph, if you go to the wrong destination, at least you’ll get there really fast.
Bullet Train to Kyoto
We made it to our train, confirmed it actually was our train, and then took our seats for a two-hour ride. Everyone was very quiet on the Bullet Train. They all worked on their laptops, messed with their phones, or took much-needed naps. The food and beverage cart went up and down the aisle but nobody ordered anything. And if we spoke above a whisper we felt like we were being rude. The Bullet Train was super clean and the ride was unbelievably smooth. But a party atmosphere, it was not.
At 200mph things move by pretty quickly, but the one thing we did see a lot of were golf ranges. Tons of them were along our train route. But, funny thing is, we saw zero golf courses. In fact, the whole five days we were there we didn’t see a single course.
The Kyoto train station is spectacular! It’s huge and grand and full of action. We’ve never seen a better train station. Loads of restaurants, bars, shopping, and there’s a garden terrace on the roof overlooking the city.
Hotel rooms in Kyoto
While our hotel room in Tokyo was a typical American-style room, we were not so fortunate in Kyoto. We were forewarned when we read on their hotel web page that they had “fuss-free” rooms. We weren’t quite sure what that meant… until we entered the rooms. Each room was maybe 8×8 ft. It was so small we couldn’t unfold our suitcases, which was fine, because there was no closet.
As small as our rooms were, though, they were grand compared to the bathrooms. You could accomplish a lot in there without ever having to take a step.
Though the accommodations were sparse, the service was truly fantastic. The staff was super friendly and we ended up loving the hotel. Unlike our Tokyo hotel, which had mainly Japanese guests, this property was filled with Europeans. Kyoto is a bigtime tourist town and there were many buses at our hotel.
After a quick nap we ventured out into the Kyoto nightlife. Like our hotel rooms, we found all of the bars and restaurants to be very tiny. These places sat maybe 10-12 people. The server was owner, bartender, chef, and karaoke DJ. The typical place was around 5×20 ft. with every inch being utilized.
We found one place and hung out for an hour or so. Dan and Mike did some karaoke with a few locals. It wasn’t easy on the ears, but fun just the same.
Further exploring brought us to another establishment where we befriended two locals who spoke zero English. Via the beauty of Google Translate we were able to communicate with these two for over an hour and became good friends. It was really a beautiful experience.
Temples of Kyoto
For breakfast, we ordered two of everything due to the small portions. Then we decided to be typical tourist and head out to look at the temples of Kyoto.
Each temple was more beautiful than the one before. Some were simply breathtaking. These incredible structures are thousands of years old and we felt so humbled to be in their presence.
Kyoto Street Markets
After the temples we decided to head downtown to find our new friends from the bar. They gave us the name of the store they worked in, but when we arrived neither of them were there. So, we left the store and followed a flow of people down one alley, then another, and suddenly we found ourselves at the start of an incredible mile-long alleyway filled with shops and food stands.
It was amazing! If you ever have a craving for octopus-on-a-stick, this is your place. Every kind of seafood you can imagine, cooked or raw, was available.
There were hundreds of vendors, maybe thousands. This was a weekday but the place was packed with both tourist and locals. Food is a huge part of Japanese culture, and they take it very seriously.
By now, you would think we’d be more careful regarding what food was being served, but, sadly, we were not; That plump, juicy chicken on the kabob was, in fact, not chicken at all, it was garlic cloves. And, how about the yummy looking pasta in the huge bowls? Nope, at one end of each “noodle” was a pair of beady little eyes balls. They were some sort of white eel.
At the end of the alley was another alley filled with bars and restaurants and we found our way to a little bar up a steep flight of stairs. The place was nearly filled to capacity, which is to say there were ten people there. For the next few hours we befriended people from Spain, the US, and Germany, and had a blast. Everywhere we went in Kyoto, everyone was a in a great mood and so much fun to be around.
After leaving the bar we roamed around Kyoto and saw many awesome sights. We were told to go to Japan in the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming, but we really didn’t care too much about that. I mean, you know, macho men don’t care about flowers and stuff. We were wrong… very wrong. These trees were strikingly beautiful.
Bullet Train to Nagoya
We took a peek at our hotel breakfast buffet and the choices were overwhelming: mackerel, fish pate, french-fries and beef stew. Where’s a waffle when you need one?
We fell in love with Kyoto and hated to leave, but it was time to head to our final destination of Nagoya, which is about thirty miles from our factory in Kuwana. By now, we were Bullet Train veterans so we bounded through the train station like seasoned Japanese travelers (we almost boarded the wrong train, twice.)
There are many wonderful things to love about Japan but their furniture is not one of them. From the time we arrived we noticed they use very little cushioning. The beds, chairs, couches, everything is hard. The seats in the train station are no different, very hard and uncomfortable.
In addition to missing cushy furniture, we missed forks and spoons. Chopsticks can be novel and fun for a few days, but after a while we sort of got tired of trying to eat soup with them. Want to kill an hour? Try eating a slippery noodle with a chopstick!
An hour later we were at the Nagoya station where our hosts, Taka and Hiro, met us as we departed the train. Both of them lived in the U.S. for many years working at our factory in Henrico, Virginia, so they speak excellent English. We greatly appreciated having them as our hosts.
San-Jirushi in Kuwana
Another short train ride brought us to Kuwana, home of our sister company, San-Jirushi. By the way, our name, San-J is derived from San-Jirushi. We shortened it to San-J when we started importing the U.S. many years ago. The company was founded in 1804 and San-J’s president, Takashi Sato, is eighth generation! Pretty amazing history.
We spent some time with Taka and Hiro going over a few new flavor ideas for the U.S. and learning about some of the San-Jirushi products that we don’t currently sell in our country. Miso paste, for instance, is huge in Japan and San-Jirushi is one of the category leaders. After the meeting we took a tour of the factory and met with dozens of employees working in various positions. Everyone was very accommodating and happy to answer our questions. It was an excellent afternoon at the San-Jirushi factory.
We then headed back to Nagoya to check into our hotel (large rooms!) and to get ready for dinner with Taka, Hiro and a few more hosts from San-Jirushi.
Lessons Learned While Traveling in Japan
After five days you’d think the jet lag thing would subside, but it never really did—we were perpetually tired. We thanked our awesome hosts and soon headed back to our hotel for our final bedtime in Japan. But before separating to our rooms we reflected on some things we learned while in Japan:
- Beware of the two-eyed pasta noodle
- Never lie and tell your host how much you love the yummy raw eel—you will suddenly find three more chunks of it on your plate.
- Do not drink all of the sake in your glass unless you want more. As their custom dictates, the host will keep filling up your glass every time you empty it. (We ignored this warning…)
- Don’t freak out when the female janitor suddenly appears next to you in the men’s bathroom and starts mopping around your feet. It happened more than a few times.
- Don’t ask for the “Asian” section in the grocery store. That’s like walking into our Albertsons and asking for the “American” section.
- Don’t say “hi” to strangers on the street, thinking you’re being Mr. Friendly. “Hi” means “yes” in Japanese. You’ll feel very awkward later on when you realize you said “yes” to people all day.
- Don’t get lazy with the whole language thing and accidently say “gracious” instead of “arigato.”
- Don’t say “yam” instead of “yen.”
- Don’t get too accustomed to using chopsticks because the transition back to forks may prove to be difficult (see below).
We had a blast experiencing Japan and its wonderful culture and people. We highly recommend a trip to Japan to everyone!