Osaka 2 – The Massage Parlour

Where was I? Yes, walking down Osaka’s Dotonbori strip, I follow my MIJ who shepherds me into a massage parlour! Make no mistake, this is no seedy European joint, we are in a GENUINE Japanese spa and massage house! “Completely normal!” my MIJ assures me.

Ladies greet us at the counter, we pay for a ticket, and get to a changing room. We undress and pull on a pair of baggy blue underpants. My MIJ hurries me down a flight of stairs and into a large sauna, complete with TV. Temperature 80°C. We sit here sweating for about 10 minutes. An attendant then bursts in, greets us loudly and jabbers away in Japanese. He invites us to follow him and we enter another sauna – temperature 90°C! The attendant is about to start an aromatherapy session: pours water and some kind of oil on the stove – steam billows out and he shouts loudly, beating the air with a towel to spread the vapours. I resist this kind of treatment no more than five minutes and have to get out. We hurry through a door and to my surprise I find myself in the open air, with three large pools full of men conversing immersed in the water. We strip naked, wash off the sweat with a jug, then gingerly get in a pool rated at 15°C – I resist all of 5 seconds in here, then jump in the warmer pool nearby. Another still warmer pool, a Turkish steam bath, and a foot bath follow.

So far, so normal. Nothing you wouldn’t find in a European sauna house. But then MIJ calls out “Let’s go!”and takes me, still stark naked, through another set of doors. I freeze: in front of us a squad of young women with blue uniforms await us. A smiling 20-something girl in pigtails greets me. “She’ll take care of you!” yells out MIJ. We are in a big washroom full of large sinks and plastic stools. The girl leads me to another pool and invites me to get in – the water is close to boiling! Here I stay for five minutes or so, wondering what is to happen next. She beckons me out and leads me to one of the stools. I sit and she then proceed to give me the most intensive scrub-down I have ever had: first with a sponge, then a soapy loofah, turning me in all directions, arms, legs, chest, back. Two hair shampoos, conditioner, facial wash, foot scrub, shave. Years of body neglect are scrubbed away in a half hour session with this girl. She then pummels me on the shoulders “to loosen tension”. I hasten to add, complete propriety is observed: your private parts are for you alone to wash!! The scrub down over, the girl dries me off with warm towels, provides me with baggy underwear and with much smiling and bowing even gives me a questionnaire to fill in assessing the quality of the scrub!

MIJ and I relax in a sort of lounge with more TV and fags for chain-smoking Japanese. Then we go for the “main course”, as MIJ calls it. Another squad of women greet us, a little older than the scrubbers, with tan coloured uniforms – these are the massage specialists. We are brought to massage beds, I am covered with more warm towels, then receive a 45 minute session of oriental massage soothing every possible muscle in my body. This is so totally relaxing I almost fall asleep on the bed! At the end, the massage lady brings me to a dressing room table, blow-dries my hair, applies aftershave and face cream, even trims my fingernails! Finally, after another quality assessment questionnaire, we are led to a relaxation room with TVs, magazines, newspapers and comfy armchairs, and are handed a drink.

I have never had such a complete bodycare session in my life! Cost for all this? JPY 6.500 (EUR 55). Highly recommended!

Osaka

Check out of my Tokyo hotel this morning – I am due to transfer to Osaka. My MIJ meets me in the morning (no rush here – all my morning meetings are scheduled at 10 or so, giving me ample time to wake up and send a few mails!). We negotiate the Tokyo subway and do a presentation at a large multinational. They seem suitably impressed. Back to the hotel to pick up my bags, and its already time for lunch!

More to-ing and fro-ing by part of my MIJ. He seems to be picky at choosing restaurants, and rightly so! Why settle for second rate when only the best will do? He chooses a Soba restaurant, the quintessential Japanese lunch, a noodle shop! Soba, buckwheat noodles much resembling dark spaghetti alla chitarra, are served in a variety of ways. I choose the standard bowl of noodles in broth, with a side of rice and tempura-fried prawn.

MIJ prefers a plate of cold noodles, also with a side of prawns. Interestingly, the cold noodles are dipped into a small bowl of broth into which MIJ has first grated some green horseradish. Soba is standard Japanese fare, and one that most Westerners would be happy to eat – very similar to a plate of pasta! Only one difficulty – eating the stuff with a pair of chopsticks! I am reasonably skilful with chopsticks, but the Soba slips and slides; I have to resort to shovelling it in my mouth from the bowl, which most Japanese appear to do anyway. Incidentally, loud slurping noises are not frowned upon here, they are signs of appreciation! With green tea, the bill comes to JPY 2.550 – EUR 21 or so. A good bargain!

In the afternoon we ride the Shinkansen Hikari “Bullet Train” to Osaka. When the railway was built in the 1960s it was a standard bearer of Japanese technology and was unsurpassed for decades. Of course Europe now has it very own TGV, ICE, Pendolino, etc, but the Shinkansen is still impressive and we cover the 550 km to Osaka in three hours. The fare comes to JPY 18.000 – EUR 150 in Green Car (first class).

We check into the Hotel Nikko, a centrally located five star with large rooms by Japanese standards. My MIJ has negotiated an excellent corporate rate at JPY 13.000 (EUR 110) a night. Quick brush up and it’s time for dinner!

This time my MIJ has no doubts. He knows exactly where to go and takes me to Mogami, a kushikatsu restaurant – yet another style of Japanese cuisine! A kushi is a wooden skewer, and here we eat little deep fried morsels of meat, vegetables, fish and so on. We sit at a bar, the chefs behind a copper vat full of hot oil. Here you can either choose from the menu or take an “all you can eat” option: you guess which we chose!

We leave replete, walk a few blocks to Dotonbori, the main pedestrian drag full of restaurants and milling crowds. Juvenile girls in miniskirts sit jabbering into mobiles, blond dyed adolescent boys pose in front of them. Assorted hustlers try to convince us to enter their girlie bars, but my MIJ has other ideas: he directs me straight into a Japanese massage parlour! But it’s late now, so I’ll tell you all this tomorrow!

Tokyo 3

Another day of meetings, this time in and around Tokyo. More ritual exchange of meeshi, more green tea, more polite smiles. I’ve explained all this before, so I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty, or maybe I should say the crunchy-munchy!

Lunch – we arrive in a Tokyo area unknown to my MIJ. We’re hungry. Food stalls beckon every few yards down the street, but my MIJ is perturbed. He doesn’t find what he wants. We wander to and fro until with a smile of glee he points to a black ideogram. “We go there!” he exclaims. We enter, and are greeted by a lady who ushers us upstairs. The dining room is in the traditional Japanese style, with rice paper doors and straw tatami mats. We remove our shoes and take our place on cushions placed before a low table. Note to self: in Japan one must avoid holey or dirty socks!

My MIJ explains we are lunching in an Unagi-ya – an eel restaurant! Our waitress appears, scuttering on the tatami wearing thick white woolly socks. Some consultation follows, then after a few minutes our lunch is served in a bento, a traditional lacquered wooden box. Opening the lid, our meal is revealed: grilled eels on a bed of boiled rice! We sprinkle them with Japanese pepper (milder than the black variety), then proceed to eat them. The eels have a delicate, meaty flavour, not unlike a good plaice fillet. “Makes you strong and potent!” says my MIJ. I do wonder why he insists on this point! As a side, we are served oshinko (Japanese pickles) and a bowl of broth. Most excellent and very Japanese! Eel restaurant information here!

More strengthening is called for after lunch, so we stop at a Caffé Segafredo, owned by the famous Italian coffee company. The espresso here is just as in Italy, at four times the price. But exactly what I need before our afternoon meeting!

Dinner – my MIJ has another appointment tonight, so he announces that I will be “looked after” by the packaging distributor who has accompanied us so far. The guy is friendly enough, and has even visited us in Italy, but speaks almost no English, so I wonder how we’ll get on. We meet at my hotel. To my surprise, a young woman accompanies him! I am introduced: “She Michiko!” Who is she exactly, I wonder? Wife? Secretary? Translator? Girlfriend???

We walk to the Ginza area, the central Tokyo upscale shopping street. Compare to Bond Street, Fifth Avenue, Via Condotti. Michiko speaks elementary English, certainly better than my rudimentary Japanese. Maybe the evening will be fun after all! We dine at an Uden restaurant, serving yet another style of Japanese cookery. Again, the floor is tatami-matted, so we remove our shoes at the entrance. The table this time is raised over a sunken well for the feet: apparently even Japanese get tired sitting cross-legged, so they have devised this method for greater comfort. The restaurant is full, mainly populated by Pretty Young Things on a night out. The PYTs shout to each other, laugh loudly and partake large quantities of alcohol – the world is the same all over!

Again, food is ordered for me and the Uden meal begins. The waitress arrives bearing a portable gas stove and an earthenware pot. She sets water to boil. Our starters arrive: Japanese cheese (remarkably like Gorgonzola with Branston’s pickles!) and yakitori skewers – grilled chicken breast, minced chicken meatballs and chicken cartilage. This last item is supposedly a delicacy, but tastes exactly as you would expect it to – as grilled chicken cartilage! I’ll pass on that, thank you!

The waitress appears again, bearing a large plate full of lettuce, other assorted greenery and raw minced chicken meatballs. The water in the pot is now boiling, so Michiko places all the ingredients in the pot and adds a dash of ground ginger. So this Uden is basically a chicken and veg. broth! We wait for about 15 minutes, stirring the pot until cooked to satisfaction. We eat the cooked chicken balls and veg., then spoon out the broth. Very warming! Kinoshita-san is fond of ice-cream, so this is what we have for dessert. Rather conventional, you may think, but not so! It turns out to be green tea ice-cream, served with rice flour dumplings and sweet beans! Overall an interesting experience, but I do prefer other styles of Japanese cooking.

And what of Michiko? Well, in the small talk during the meal I discover, in no particular order:
a) she lives in a flat outside Tokyo (hence is not my host’s wife)
b) works in Central Tokyo (hence is not his secretary or other colleague)
c) likes beer (and downs 5 large beers at a rate I have difficulty keeping up with)
d) is married!

I do wonder….

Tokyo 2

Ah! A good night’s sleep and I am refreshed and relaxed again! Today we have an outing to visit a factory about 70 km outside Tokyo. I negotiate the Tokyo subway accompanied by my faithful Man in Japan to get to a main line station and transfer to a train. Without the MIJ’s help, I would be lost in seconds: stations and roads have occasional signs in Western alphabet, but once you get off the central areas, it’s strictly Kanji (Japanese ideograms) only. There are often big signs promising “INFORMATION”, but on closer inspection, they are exclusively in Japanese script!

So we ride the train for about an hour, for about 50 km the apartment blocks and factories are closely packed, then the countryside begins and there is more space, although still heavily built up. We arrive at our destination, our host arrives in a car, more exchange of meeshi (biz cards), then off to lunch: it’s a sushi establishment!

Sushi! The world renown Japanese food! I’ve tasted it before, but never with three locals to guide me. Our restaurant is an “automatic” sushi place, with a little conveyor belt bearing dozens of little plates of different sushi styles. The diners sit on tables placed around the conveyor and help themselves to the plates as they glide along. The sushi chefs are in the middle, moulding balls of rice and forming new sushi with deft finger movements and placing them on the conveyor. We help ourselves to green tea and a side dish of pickled ginger, then pile on the sushi: raw tuna, raw salmon, ground tuna with leeks, prawn, crab meat, egg and seaweed, sea-cucumber. It’s a revelation for me – I usually loathe tuna and can’t even bear the smell of it, but this tuna is delicate, tastes rather like salmon, maybe it’s a different variety from European tuna?? I find it an experience: my Japanese friends think it rather ordinary, apparently there are far superior sushi establishments! Cost? JPY 120 (about EUR 1) a plate of two sushi bites. We eat 17 plates in four. A bargain!

Afternoon spent perusing a plastic cap factory, efficient, well-organised, clean, but I fail to see why it has any bearing on our own products. But my MIJ thinks it is important we “build relationship”. So I smile politely, exchange meeshi with all and sundry, drink green tea, take ritual photographs. On the long drive back to Tokyo, jet lag makes itself felt again, zzz….zzz…zzzzzz…

With the crawl in the rush hour we arrive in Tokyo in the evening. A long wait in the MIJ’s office whilst he attends to some business. I attempt conversation in pidgin Japanese with my other friends, explaining the rudiments of European geography. None of them have ever been outside Japan. My MIJ is ready, takes a look at me and decrees: “Daniele-san, you need to be strong, we go for Korean barbecue – very potent!” Well, whatever he may mean with THAT, we head for the Korean place.

Korean barbecue! A grill piled with charcoal is set in the middle of the table. My MIJ orders for all (menus are incomprehensible to me), and soon plates of meat begin to arrive. We pile them on the grill and cook them ourselves. I soon learn Koreans use every part of beef – we sample tongue, brisket, diaphragm (surprisingly tender) and sliced up intestines. All very tasty, makes me wonder why Westerners consider these cuts to be inferior. Side dish of kimchi, a fermented cabbage not unlike sauerkraut but hot and spicy. Also dried seaweed, used as a kind of salty cracker. Plenty of Sapporo beer to wash everything down. Evening rounded off at a scenic cocktail bar on top of a large hotel. Tokyo by night is a spectacle of multicoloured neon!

Tokyo 1 – arrival!

The Lufthansa flight over to Japan was jam-packed, unsurprisingly so, as after 9/11 LH cancelled the afternoon flight from FRA, leaving only one daily B747 connection to Tokyo. Usual correct and efficient service. And so, 11 hours later, I arrive at Tokyo Narita airport, rather bleary-eyed. My brain says I should go to bed, my eyes see a bright winter’s morning, my watch says I have a meeting in three hours time… yech!

You can tell you’re a long way away from Europe just by looking at the planes parked here. This being an international-only airport, the smallest plane is an A400, most of the rest are B747s. The departures and arrivals board show places as Vancouver, Perth, San Francisco, Manila, Shanghai…

Met my Man in Japan in the afternoon. He’s from a Foreign Trading Company, an organisation without whose help you would have NO chance of getting any business done in Japan. Together we go off to visit one of our contacts, who I have previously met in Italy. Much bowing and ritual exchange of biz cards with everyone in the company, from the Prez down to the lowliest sales clerk. At the end of the trip I am bound to have enough cards to paper a wall of my office!

Business proceeds in the opaque manner usual in Japan. We sell to the Foreign Trading company. The guy we have gone to visit is a packaging distributor. He has secured our business via a plastic bottle manufacturer, but the ultimate user of our products is a chemical company. Around this constellation of companies is yet another organisation, a pharmaceutical and food packaging manufacturer who doesn’t use or need our products, but is somehow important in the whole scheme of things, as I am due to visit two of their plants and dine out with the M.D. All these companies at some point must take their cut, so end-user pricing is sky-high. Why does the end-user not go directly to us? It’s simply not done, old boy!

Dinner tonight with the boss of the Foreign Trading company. Not much gastronomy to report here, as he sees fit to take me to an Italian restaurant!!! Not the first time it happens to me, as Japanese see this as a kind of courtesy to the foreign guest. Food is decent enough, the antipasti are slanted towards Japanese taste with a preponderance of fish. Good grilled lamb to follow. A bottle of Italian white wine and mineral water. The one remarkable point of this meal is the bill, which I peeped at whilst my host was paying – JPY 34,000 (EUR 288)!! Nearly fell off my chair!

Ankara

Well, where was I? Ah yes, Ankara! The day after my arrival our appointments could only be scheduled for the afternoon, so my Man in Turkey, called Ridvan, and I had some time for sightseeing – nice to start a biz trip this way!

We headed for Anitkabir – the mausoleum built for Atatürk on a hill in the middle of the city. Now normally mausolea are places are to be avoided, pretentious memorials to obscure long-dead personalities. But Anitkabir is grandiose whilst at the same time restrained, a granite and marble edifice in a simple design, set amongst beautifully landscaped gardens. And Atatürk is no obscurity – the founder of modern Turkey, who dragged the country out of the Ottoman period. The tomb itself within the building is simple and unadorned. A small museum nearby houses his personal effects – collections of everyday items and three black Lincoln staff cars that used to carry him around on his visits, strangely without windscreen wipers!

Then off to the Citadel, the heart of the small village Ankara was before Atatürk came along. A collection of old houses around a defensive fort. The houses are, strangely enough, Fachwerkhäuser as you see in the German countryside. We perused the small pazar (bazaar) which is still in the old style: lots of tiny shops selling (and making on the premises) an incredible variety of objects: scissors, scales, hayforks, spices, drums, mousetraps – you name it, someone has got it. Such bazaars used to be commonplace all over Turkey, but they are now disappearing as modern shopping centres take over. Istanbul has none left.

Lunch in an open air café in the industrial area – Izgara Köfte (grilled meatballs), Arabic bread, tomato and onion salad. Ayran (yogurt and water) to drink. Splendidly simple stuff! A bargain for hard-currency earners at 10 DM for two.

After our meetings in the afternoon, we head off to Istanbul, 450 km away. It’s boiling hot, good that Ridvan has a Mercedes Vito (a sort of upmarket Tranny van) with a powerful A/C. The motorway snakes through the Anatolian plain full of wheat fields, rises up to the mountains dividing it from the Black Sea and then ceases for about 40 km. They were building a tunnel through the mountains until they had to suspend work after the 1999 earthquake. More earthquake damage appears as we get nearer Istanbul, much of the population still lives in prefab shelters.

It was late when we arrived in Istanbul, but a glorious sight awaited us – the view of the city when driving on the Bosphorus suspension bridge. Illuminated palaces, mosques, minarets, all framed by the green banks of the Bosphorus and the many boats plying on it. This is one of my personal “top ten scenic views”.

More meetings Thursday and Friday. With Turkey being in deep economic shit, the everyday topic of conversation is the exchange rate. I am not surprised. On the day of my arrival the TRL dropped 20%, then recovered 15% the next day. Something to do with ministerial reshuffles and the IMF. With such a yo-yo currency, economic planning is impossible, all business prices are denominated in DM or greenbacks. Turkish stuff is ridiculously cheap – I bought a load of towels (Turkish cotton being one of the worlds finest) at a quarter of the Italian price.

Speaking of meals, here are my gastro recommendations for Istanbul:

Gelik – Sahil Yolu, Ataköy (just next to the Crowne Plaza)
Kasibeyaz – Senlikköy, Catal Sokak 10, Florya (near the airport)

Gelik is an “Et lokantasi”, a meat restaurant, and Kasibeyaz is a “Kebapcici”, a Kebab restaurant. Hard for me to tell the difference, I seem to have kebap in both! Both feature the great Turkish cuisine: an avalanche of starters (aubergines, hummus, raw pressed meat and garlic, salads etc) then kebap of every type: lamb skewers, minced lamb, lamb meatballs all with the excellent local bread. Gelik has an side dish consisting of Baked rice with mushrooms and dill. To finish: I love künefe – a sort of shredded wheat with honey and soft cheese, served hot.

To drink: Bira (self explanatory) and raki (aka ouzo in Greece).

Istanbul – Ankara

Departed Rome for Turkey, flying to Ankara via Istanbul. The approach to Istanbul’s Yesilköy airport is spectacular: you fly right over the city, and the grand sights of Constantinople scroll past the window. First the Bosphorus and its green shores, flotillas of boats large and small negotiate the narrow stretch of water linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Then you see the two giant suspension bridges linking Europe to Asia. The Golden Horn with the Galata bridge swings into view, then the hill of Sultanahmet with the six minarets of the Blue Mosque and the great dome of Ayasofya. Next door the Topkapi palace with its Sultans, harems of concubines…..ah, the great mysteries of the East!

I am brought down to earth with a bump on rwy 18 and deplane into an ultramodern stainless steel terminal building. Negotiate the way through immigration and customs and then onto the connecting flight to Ankara. It’s just a short hop, barely an hour and we are there, smack in the middle of the Anatolian plain.

I expected a dry, dusty place, but no! Ankara is a pleasant green city with many parks and wide boulevards. Traffic is disciplined and low-key, none of the jerry-built apartment blocks that surround Istanbul. It’s a modern city, having been planned and built in the 1920s and 1930s after Atatürk chose the spot as the national capital. Government dominates the place, with ministries, embassies, military estabishments etc.

To be followed…..