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!