Osaka 3 – The Karaoke bar!

Soo….I am in Osaka, having slept like a baby after my full sauna/bath/scrub down/massage treatment the previous evening. Today’s schedule involves a trip to visit the factory and head office of a cap making company. I have met the boss of the company before, he came to visit us in Italy two years ago and his underlings came last year. We haven’t done any business together, mind you. In the inscrutable Japanese manner, we have “built relationship” and my MIJ assures me this will be “most valuable” in the future. We will see.

The company is way out in the countryside, so we take a train out of Osaka towards Nara. We get off at a station surrounded by rice fields, take a cab and go to the factory. We are greeted by the Prez. With him are his two underlings. They are identically dressed in the light grey company uniform. The meeting proceeds in a friendly but formal Japanese manner: no need to exchange biz cards this time as we have already met, but we have a formal exchange of gifts. Gift-giving is a very important part of Japanese biz culture, and here it is not the actual value of the gift that matters, but the manner of the presentation and the quality of the exterior wrapping. Hence the gift is presented with two hands, with much bowing and scraping. It is opened not in the presence of the giver, but later. I give a bottle of grappa to Little Tofu, and a box of chocs to his minions. I receive in return an exquisitely wrapped box of Japanese sweets. We drink green tea.

Factory visit ensues. I don white overalls and hair cap, then observe whirring machinery and smile politely. Back to the meeting room. The underlings open their notebooks, and evidently reading from a prepared script, one of them asks in English “What do you think of our factory?”. I reply with polite generalities. More polite questions and answers, then it’s my turn to ask: “How do you propose to distribute our products?” Much discussion in Japanese ensues, then a reply: “We will create a new division!” Well, I am sure they could do that, but it’s not exactly a marketing strategy. Further questions entice no greater details. Nevertheless, they seem confident enough, I sincerely hope that the famed Japanese “relationships” and “connections” will lead to concrete results.

We leave the factory in the Prez’s car, on the way to their R&D centre about 30 km away. We stop for lunch at a Japanese fast-food restaurant looking just like an American diner. From a glossy menu with pics, I order soba – cold noodles with deep-fried prawn. A quick meal, nice and tasty.

On the way to the R&D Centre, we have time for a little sightseeing: The Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara is one of the wonders of ancient Japan and we stop to have a look.

Within beautiful parkland (full of hungry Japanese deer!) stands a gigantic wooden shrine, apparently the largest all-wood structure in the world. The original building dates back to 728, but unsurprisingly, was destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times.

Within the shrine is an equally gigantic bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha, known as Daibutsu, portrayed sitting on a lotus leaf with right hand raised in blessing. This statue dates back to 749. I am very impressed, and so is MIJ, who has never been here before.

The Company’s R&D centre is impressive, with many researchers in the regulation company uniform sitting in front of CAD/CAM workstations. A video is shown, more introductions are made and business cards exchanged with all and sundry. Another green tea, then much formal taking of leave: “we are honoured to have received your visit, look forward to long and positive collaboration, blah, blah…”. I bow politely and murmur similar platitudes. The formal meetings at an end, we make an appointment to meet the Prez and his underlings at our hotel for dinner.

18.30 – dinner time! The Japanese eat early! The Prez leads us through the streets of Osaka and we enter what appears to be a large private house. This is in fact a posh restaurant, kimono-clad ladies greet us at the entrance, we remove our shoes and are taken to a private dining room with view over a small garden pond. Tatami mats on the floor, a low table, equally low chairs. Two large pots full of water and a few leaves of seaweed are brought and set to boil in front of us.

We are about to eat shabu-shabu, yet another style of Japanese cuisine! The kimonoed ladies busily bring it plates full of ingredients to be set to cook in the water: mainly large plates of very thinly sliced Kobe beef. Have you heard of Kobe beef? Only in Japan do you find this delectable meat, taken from cows that are fed a diet including beer and that are given a regular massage!! The beer stimulates the appetite in hot summer months and the massage, well, reduces stress and muscle stiffness. Logical, isn’t it? Result: Highly tender meat, with a marbled appearance as the fat is distributed, and is not just on the edges. Literally melts in the mouth. Price: Don’t ask…

So the water boils, and we put in the slices of beef to cook. A quick swish around with the chopsticks (shabu-shabu literally means swish-swish), a dip into sesame seed or soy sauce and into the mouth – Delicious! Mushrooms, tofu and some greenery are also put in the pot as a side dish. We drink Asahi Super Dry beer and cold sake. Incidentally, drinking etiquette in Japan requires that you never pour your own drinks but they are poured out for you. The instant I take a drink from my glass and set it down, it is refilled by the Prez, and I do the same for him. Needless to say, glasses that are always full increase alcoholic consumption! Amongst cries of “Kanpai!” (Cheers) the evening proceeds merrily. Ritual photographs are taken, more bowing from the kimono ladies and then we are ready to leave.

But the evening isn’t finished yet! The Prez leads us through the streets to an apartment block. We enter a lift, get out a few floors up then enter a karaoke bar! The Japanese name for a karaoke bar is “boxssu“, which is very apt as the entire place is no larger than my bedroom! A bar lines one wall, a TV is above it and a lady pours the drinks – which here is whisky! The back wall is lined with bottles of whisky all neatly labelled with a name: the idea being that you buy one bottle, drink some of it and then save it for another time at the same boxssu. We sit on a settee opposite the bar, two other punters with a couple of girls are sitting on bar stools, drink in hand, ready to sing! You must know the basic operation of karaoke: thousands of different songs are listed in a book the size of a telephone directory, you take your pick, punch in the corresponding number on a remote control and when the song comes up on the TV screen, you get up and sing! The Prez does his song and he has excellent voice. Now I actually quite like singing, but as my voice resembles the call of a male bullfrog, I am rather embarrassed to sing in public… but then again, a few whiskeys on ice loosen all inhibitions! My greater problem is that my choice of songs is limited to a few pages of that directory and my Japanese friends insist that I sing “canzone“. Canzone is Italian for song, but I interpret their request as being one for Neapolitan songs! Not my genre at all… and I can’t read Neapolitan dialect either! But here goes… I launch my Luciano Pavarotti impression with Domenico Modugno’s “Volare”, then a duet of “O Sole Mio” with one of the girls, change of rhythm with U2s “With or Without You”, grand finale with another Neapolitan classic, “Santa Lucia”. I am rapturously received, glasses of whisky are poured, recording contracts are signed….no, no, forget that last bit! Anyway, we get out of the boxssu content. We have truly cemented our “working relationship” and are thoroughly pissed!

Ah well, this concludes my trip to Japan. Will I be back? I’d love to, but MIJ had better get some serious business going first!

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!


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!