Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A First Trip to Japan: The Interesting Adventures of A Consultant

Irv Arons

In the summer of 1979, I had been hired to conduct a survey of all of the major contact lens companies operating around the world, for a US company interested in finding a partner for its contact lens company. I had completed my interviews of the companies in the US and Europe, and now had to interview the two companies producing lenses in Japan. Since this was my first trip to Japan, I decided to combine business with pleasure and took my wife along to spend a week on vacation, visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, before I was to meet up with a colleague from the Arthur D. Little (ADL) Tokyo office, who would act as my interpreter and take me to my meetings in Osaka and Nagoya.

The first leg of the trip was a three-day contact lens conference being held in San Francisco. There, I met up with a friend who ran a contact lens practice in Hawaii. Since he had clients who were on the management staff of Japan Airlines (who would be flying us from San Francisco to Tokyo), he was kind enough to arrange for my wife and I to be upgraded to First Class for our flight to Tokyo. (That was our first experience flying internationally in First Class and we liked it so much that I decided to upgrade our return tickets – at a cost of $600 each, as I recall, to fly First Class on our return flight from Tokyo to Boston. An excellent decision, as it was about a twelve-hour flight.)

We arrived in Tokyo and managed to find our way via bus from Narita airport to Tokyo Central Station, and to get a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Okura, in central Tokyo and near the ADL Tokyo office.

Our first venture out of the hotel was to the downtown shopping district of Tokyo. We had learned from our travel guide books that the best place to eat was at the restaurants located within the major department stores, up on the fifth floor. What the guide books neglected to tell us was that very few people spoke English and since we spoke only a few words of Japanese, we were left with only hand gestures!

At least at the restaurant, there were pictures of the several dishes available, and by pointing to the ones we wanted, we had a reasonable chance of getting something we could eat. But the next dilemma, the meals were served in a stack of bowls, and of course, with chop sticks. Was the top bowl broth or soup, or to wash your hands? And, if it is soup how do you eat it without spoons? Finally, another customer, sitting at a nearby table, sensing our discomfort, took pity on us and gestured to hold the bowl to your mouth and sip from it. So, that problem was solved.

The next day, I wanted to walk to the ADL Tokyo office that I was told was close by, so that I would know where it was for the following week when I had to check in. The street signs were a complete mystery and I had no idea how to get from the hotel to the office, even though I had instructions and a map!

Two Japanese men, passing by, sensed my dilemma and offered to help. After showing them the address of the office, they were kind enough to walk us right to the building, a very generous offer from strangers. The second offer of kindness to strangers from the Japanese people.

We had planned on spending a few days exploring Tokyo and then take a trip via the bullet train to Kyoto, the Japanese shrine city. However, our plans got changed because of a chance meeting at a coffee shop that afternoon.

An older gentleman introduced himself to us, while we were enjoying our coffee (or tea, I don’t recall). It turned out that he was a retired military officer, and also a former member of parliament. He offered to act as our tour guide and show us the real Tokyo and then take us to see Mount Fuji.

Since our plans were flexible, we agreed to his offer and arranged to meet him the following morning at the coffee shop for a guided tour of Tokyo. We hired a taxi for the day and our new guide took us to see and walk through the Parliament building and showed us several historic sites around the city. We ended that day with a visit to the Kabuki theater, being taken in through the people’s entrance and were able to watch the show from the first balcony. Quite an experience.

We enjoyed the tour so much, we agreed to let him be our tour guide the following day and take us to visit Mount Fuji, taking the bullet train (as long as we paid his fare). However, the weather didn’t cooperate and when we got to the mountain, it was completely fogged in. On the way back to Tokyo, we had another interesting experience. Three young women were on the opposite seats from us on the train and attempted to engage us in conversation. They claimed to be English teachers (or maybe students studying to be teachers) and wanted to practice their English with us. To be honest, we could barely understand them.

Since that was our last day of sightseeing, our gentleman guide asked us to meet him at a local Chinese restaurant that evening for a farewell dinner and to meet a few of his friends from the Kabuki theater. Little did we know that he had arranged for us to get the bill at the end of the evening and I got hit with a $250 check! (Recall that this was 1979, and the exchange rate for the yen was quite in my favor, about 350 yen to the dollar, but this was still an expensive meal!) I guess that was his way of getting paid back for acting as our tour guide for the couple of days we spent with him.

The next day, I left my wife at the hotel and made my way to the ADL Tokyo office to begin the business part of my trip, to visit the two contact lens companies in Nagoya and Osaka. (No wives allowed on business trips in Japan!)

Quite an interesting experience for my first trip to Japan!


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