Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gentleman in Japan

Japan has a well-deserved reputation of deep traditions and subtle social rules. Westerners on a private or business trip in the country are sometimes petrified by the possibility of committing an unforgivable offense. One should not worry, as Japanese are very tolerant of etiquette mistakes by foreigners. A basic knowledge of Japanese lifestyle will certainly help, but it is not necessary to master every etiquette rule. The most important is to show an open mindset and respect for the people you meet and the customs of your host country.
Manners aim at making social life easier by preventing avoidable personal conflicts and ensuring one does not become a nuisance for others. This starts with a clean body and appropriate appearance. My English teacher gave us a very useful piece of advice before a key oral examination: “take a shower in the morning, and wash your teeth before speaking in front of the jury”. This is especially true in Japan in summer, when the humid heat makes the crowd unbearable. It is also impolite to blow one’s nose in public, so you should head for the restrooms.
Dress should be adapted to the context. This should not be hard as Japanese people mostly wear western clothes. You should just remember that people usually dress-up more than in the west for office work and for ceremonies. A suit and a tie, preferably in plain color, will be perfectly suitable. “Casual Friday” is not enforced everywhere so you should enquire before bringing your jeans to the office. In universities and research labs, you may dress in cotton trousers and a shirt or a polo shirt. Between students or on week-ends, whatever clean clothes will be OK, but you may want to choose plain colours to blend more easily in the crowd.
Good manners start with abiding the rules, which are more seriously enforced than in some western countries. You should abstain from lighting a cigarette in a non smoking area, use your phone in a “silence” zone, cross at red lights or overtake other people while standing in a queue. If your Japanese acquaintances suggest that you respect a custom or a minor rule, you should show your flexibility by apologizing and abiding the rule, without challenging its soundness. By doing this, you will learn more on local customs. If you complain, your Japanese colleague will explain wearily that “This is the way things are done in Japan”, and you will feel uneasy. Abiding the rules is also compulsory in the only activity in daily life when one can kill at all time: driving. The “highway code” is the first book on good manners. You should be aware that in Japan, pedestrians and cyclists share the same space on the pavement. Both should be careful, and pedestrians should avoid sudden change of directions. Punctuality is key to good manners, especially in Japan when no tolerance is made for late arrivals, be it for business or a private appointment. You should build a realistic schedule that will allow you to be always right on time.
In all countries, a gentleman listens carefully. Many westerners have the habit of interrupting their counterparts to show they are smart by making an exciting comment. This is considered extremely bad manners in Japan, and in many other countries, so you should refrain from doing that. If you do not speak Japanese, you should be extremely patient while speaking English, as the locals may not feel comfortable communicating in a foreign language. You should ensure you speak slowly and clearly, while avoiding colloquial expressions that are often hard for foreigners to understand. You’d rather say “Rough estimate” than “Ball-Park figure”. Jokes are often poorly translated, so you should favor easy to-understand humour. Dirty jokes should be avoided at least when everybody is sober and ladies are present. Some foreigners develop an ‘almighty’ feeling in Japan, as they speak decent English, have blond hair, are praised by their Japanese colleagues and are taller than most people. If this happens, you should avoid bragging and being arrogant, as this is considered vulgar.
During private conversations, you should avoid discussing controversial topics at all cost, especially if you are convinced you are right. It is not very smart to discuss, even with close Japanese friends, about awful war crimes, Whale hunting, or some marginal and perverted local lifestyle, often inaccurately reported in western media. Even if your point of view was correct, nobody wants to be taught lessons by a foreigner. This is true in all countries, but especially here, as social harmony is praised. If you start discussing such as topic, you will mostly create an embarrassed silence. But some people may start an argument with you, and you may land yourself up in trouble, as on most topics, European, American and Christian history is not cleaner than the rest of the world. You should rather ask your acquaintances to explain one aspect of Japanese life. At least you will learn something, and everybody will be delighted that you show interest for the country.
Nothing so far was specific to Japan, but some basics about the country lifestyle may come handy. The first rule enforced with no exception is that shoes should be taken off when entering all private homes, but also in temples, sports locker rooms and Japanese style rooms in restaurants. Areas forbidden to shoes are always elevated. If you are not sure, you should ask. A “shoes OK?” in English while showing your shoes will be understood everywhere. Even for a business appointment, you may end up in a restaurant where shoes should be taken-off, and you should always wear clean socks without holes. Mocassins are more convenient, but shoes with lace are perfectly acceptable.
If you stay in a private home or go to a public bath, you should follow local customs: wash yourself thoroughly outside the bath, and wash the soap off completely before entering the bath. You should not empty the water after your bath as it may be used by other people. This rule does not apply to your personal bath in a western style hotel where you can play with soap as much as you wish.
Meals are the core of social life, and the time where most etiquette mistakes can be made. But again, a few simple rules are enough. Japanese people eat with chopsticks, but perfectly understand that you may not master their use. The best thing to do is to ask for advice and try your best, even if it does not work perfectly at first. Japanese people value more the effort, the famous « gambaru » (がんばる) or « do your best » than the final result. As some point, you may want to ask for a fork and a knife, which are available everywhere, explaining that else, the dinner may be too slow because of you. Passing food from one person’s chopsticks to another’s is taboo in Japan, as it is part of the funeral rites – family members pass the bones from one person to another with chopsticks. Rice is eaten blank, without adding sauce in it, but you may ask for “furikake”, a mix of spice, if the rice is too bland for you. You should never forget to thank warmly your hosts at the end of the meal. Most of the time, your host will pay the bill, but it is more polite to enquire and propose to pay.
It is perfectly acceptable if you cannot eat some food at all, and you can explain it to your Japanese hosts, so that they adapt the schedule. It is always better to warm in advance and discreetly. The strangest food for westerner is raw fish: “sushis” and “sashimis”. If you do not want to try, you may invent a fake medical reason for avoiding them. But you should certainly try local food. Most Japanese food is pretty standard stuff, with fish, meat, and vegetables cooked in a sour and sweet Soy sauce (醤油, Shoyu). You do not have to like everything. Some ingredients such as Natto (納豆), sticky fermented soy beans with a cheese smell, are disgusting for most Japanese people, but if you try even once, it will be really appreciated. Drinking alcohol is the way social bonds are created, so you should always participate in drinking rounds. Your neighbours will make sure your cup is always full. If you do not want to drink much, or at all, just taste alcohol with your lips, leave your cup full and order a glass of water. Everybody will be grateful you did you best to follow the custom.
Exchanging gifts is common in professional and personal life. It is acceptable to offer even gifts worth a few euros. A small pack of shortbread or some toffees will be very much appreciated. You should make sure the wrapping is elegant, and you may want to offer a renowned brand, as it will always be welcome. You should not praise your own gifts, but giving a few precisions on them if asked for is OK. When you receive a present, you should enquire if it is OK to open it before actually doing so: the local custom is that gifts should not be opened in public in order not to embarrass people who can only offer low value gifts. For every present you receive, you should make sure to offer back a gift of around half the value, but this can happen much later, for example during your next trip to Japan. During weddings, you should offer cash in an appropriate envelope, with bank notes always in odd numbers. For someone who is not a close friend 30.000 Yens (185 Euros) or even 15.000 Yens (93 Euros) are enough. The envelope should be given in the dedicated stand near the party hall.
Let’s mention last that Japanese etiquette is based on « gentlemen first », the opposite of what most western countries practice. European ladies should not be offended that they will sometimes come after men. And gentlemen should be ready to come before the ladies. The best approach is probably to offer Japanese ladies precedence, and many of them will be delighted to accept. If they refuse several times, you should accept to go first to cut the conversation short, and to avoid making a shy Japanese lady uneasy.
In a following story, I will try to give some advicee about being host to Japanese people in the west.
You may want to check also this story with more details on how to work with Japanese people.
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Monday, July 7, 2008

Tokaido Shinkansen

The old Tokaido road (東海道) linked the imperial town of Kyoto (京都) to Edo(江戸), the former Tokyo(東京) following the Pacific Coast of Japan. It is the most peopled in the country as the weather is warmer than on the side of the Sea of Japan. Today, the Tokaido axis links the three greatest metropolises in Japan: Kanto(関東), Nagoya area (名古屋) and Kansai(関西). With Japan development in the 50s, the need of a large capacity and modern transportation system appeared. Japan invented at that time high-speed train. The line is still in service today, with an unparalleled reputation for speed, punctuality, frequency, security and comfort. The Tokaido Shinkansen is without doubt the best high speed train service in the world.
Back in 1940, Japan felt the need to build new rail tracks on the Tokaido road. Japan uses a narrower gauge (1067mm) that did not allow as much speed as the European trains of the time. In the fifties, the Kodama Express linked Tokyo to Osaka (around 550km) in 6h50 (average speed of 80km/h), wheras in the same period, the French “Mistral” service ran the 863km between Paris and Marseille in 7h10 (average of 120 km/h). The project was however canceled due to the war.
In the fifties, economic development meant the old Tokaido trunk line was close to saturation, as it was also ensuring freight transportation on an axis that did not have a motorway in service. The National Train company first thought was to double the tracks on the old Tokaido line, but it was not easy as the tracks crossed many urban areas, and it would have been necessary to destroy the buildings close the the railroad. So the alternative project of 1940 was started again: the building of standard gauge (1435 mm) tracks dedicated to high speed train. They were naturally called Shinkansen (新幹線) “New trunk lines”. The huge works was completed between 1959 and 1964. Many bridges and tunnels had to be built. Elevated tracks, bridges and tunnels account for around 80% of the track length. Some tunnels, such as Nihonzaka’s (日本坂) in Shizuoka (静岡), were directly reused from the interrupted works of 1940. The trains required an important amount of research, as electric engines of the time generated too much vibration. Technologies from the Japanese Naval Air force were introduced to solve the vibration issue by Tadashi Matsudaira and other aerospace engineers who joined the railways after the war. Thanks to the efficient cooperation of the JNR president Shinji Sogo, and his chief engineering officer Hideo Shima, everything was completed on time for the inauguration en 1964. Travel time between Tokyo and Osaka was reduced to 4 hours in 1964, then 3h10 in 1965. It is now down to only 2h30.
In the eighties, Japan privatized the heavily indebted National Railways. The network was separated in six companies, and the lines was attributed to “JR Central”, also called “JR Tokai” (東海), the company also managing standard lines in the Nagoya and Shizuoka region. Proceeds from the selling of the very profitable Tokaido Shinkansen allowed the debt to be paid back. Even today, part of the profit of the line is used to finance track improvement work in rural parts of Japan. Some people estimate that it represents an additional cost of 30% for the passenger. Since privatization, “JR Central” managed the line very efficiently. There was no casualty or injuries in the 44 years the line was in service. Average delay of trains was less than 6 seconds in 2003, including delays caused by earthquake, typhoons and heavy snowfalls.
There are plans to construct a new line based on ‘maglev’ technology between Tokyo and Nagoya following the mountain route “Chuo” (中央線). The last plans from the “JR Central” company plan an entry into service in 2025, and a test line has already been built in Yamanashi prefecture (山梨).
3 different types of train run on the line: Kodama (こだま) is the local service. There is a station every 20 or 30 km to serve medium-sized towns on the way. It usually runs between Tokyo and Nagoya, and between Nagoya and Osaka. Hikari (ひかり) stops in Hamamatsu (浜松), Shizuoka or Atami (熱海) in addition to the main stations. Nozomi (のぞみ) only stops in main station: Shinagawa (品川), Shin-Yokohama (新横浜), Nagoya, Kyoto and Shin-Osaka (新大阪). During peak hours, there are up to 11 departures every hour.
High-speed train is an high-tech industry with heavy investments. However, the passenger experience is mainly the result of the cabin layout. Shinkansen coaches have rows of 5 seats with a 2 and 3 layout. Seats are always turned so that passengers always face ahead when the train is moving. It is also possible to create a friendlier layout by turning back one row of seats so that groups of 4 or 6 people travel facing each other. Leg space is very large, so that even tall people can seat in comfortably in regular coaches. In comparison, French TGV or airplane economy class is a nightmare. Cabin decoration is simple, with white and beige the dominant colors, and shapes reminding of aircraft cabins. A display on top of the door gives information about the trip, news, and weather forecast. In the last generation trains (N700), passengers have plugs for their laptop and internet wi-fi access. The restaurant car service was discontinued in 2003, but there are trolleys selling coffee, drinks and sandwiches. There are coaches without reservations with free placement so that it is always possible to take a train at the last minute. It is easy to arrive by subway in Tokyo station without tickets, and to board a train departing 5 or 10 minutes later.
The Fare for the 450 kilometers between Shin-Yokohama and Kyoto (2 hours) is Y12890 (80 Euros) for a regular seat on Nozomi service with reservation. On a Hikari service, the same seat would cost Y12590 (78 Euros). A non-reserved seat valid for Hikari and Kodama is Y12080 (75.5 Euros). Children up to 11 years old pay half fare, but there are not that many other discounts. A completely flexible ticket between Paris and Lyon on the TGV is slightly more expensive, at 81.5 Euros, but the quality of service is less impressive (comfort, frequency, punctuality). However, there are more discount fares on the TGV (advanced non-refundable tickets can be bought for 62.90 Euros. However, the Shinkansen fares are also used in Japan to cross-subsidize the rural network, and are more expensive as a result.
Japan Railways has an up-to-date English site.
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Sunday, July 6, 2008

The most outstanding view in Kansai

Japan is a mountainous archipelago. More than two third of the land are made of abrupt moutains covered by forest. There are sometimes only a few hundred meters of plain between the hills and the sea for humans to settle. I suggest we leave today for the “Rokko-san” (六甲山) range near Kobe (神戸) to get a spectacular summary of Japanese geography, and to enjoy the most beautiful panorama in Kansai (関西). You may want to end the trip in the hot-spring resort of Arima (有馬), probably the oldest in Japan.
For the less brave, a ropeway leads to the top of the moutain range. The observation platform near the upper station is worth a few minutes to enjoy the outstanding view of Kobe harbor. A bus then allows you easy access to the main tourist attractions. You may also want to hike you way to the summit. Departure of the trail is near the ashiya-gawa (芦屋川) station on the Hankyu Kobe (阪急神戸線) line. You should first follow signs to the « Rock Gardens » (ロックガーデン), then the well-mark track to the summit of Rokko-san. You will spend around 5 hours to climb and go down to Arima onsen. As always when hiking in Japan, you should be adequately equipped.
Mount Rokko is a climatic resort since 1895, when a British resident, Arthur H Gloom, installed a mountain hut near the summit. The place developed then as a resort where residents could enjoy the cool weather. The mountain is an important part of the city identity: the song of “Hanshin Tiger” (阪神タイガー) baseball team is “Rokko Oroshi” (六甲颪) or “The wind of Mount Rokko”. According to Hanshin fans, it is best song after a few beers during an outstanding victory against the Yomiuri Giants (読売巨人), the rival team from Tokyo.
The place has all the usual spots of Japanese tourism. The “Rokko Garden Terrace”, a replica of an European village, is a cluster of trendy shops. It even includes a castle tower, with a wall that reminds more of Japanese suburban houses than of Scottish castles. Rokko-san is also famous for its sheep farm, where local cheese is made. A restaurant near the “Rokko Garden Terrace” of course offers the “Genghis Kahn”, a mutton stew. The oldest golf of Japan was also built nearby, and you may enjoy the botanical garden and the “Country House” that also includes an artificial ski run.
More than the tourist spots, the most pleasant is the wonderful view from the mountain. The terrace at “Rokko Garden Terrace” is a wonderful place to watch Kansai from above. The panorama extends from Kobe to Osaka, with the sea in the background, just a few kilometers away. If the sky is clear, you may also see the Kansai International Airport built on a man-made island. This is a huge metropolis, with concrete as far as the eye can see, but high rise buildings are few and far apart. The Japanese cities are often chaotic: heterogeneous buildings are gathered randomly, with the exception of downtown Kobe, an area that was rebuilt after the earthquake. Reclaimed land area is visible all along the shore. In Kobe, two large man-made islands were built, “Rokko island” and “Port Island”. With the long recession, not all of this expensive land is used. During the earthquake, they proved especially unstable due to the high amount of water in the ground. This did not prevent the city from building an airport on reclaimed land, even further off the shore than Port Island.
Once you enjoyed the view, you may want to come back to Kobe through the other side of the moutain. A cable car will get you to the Arima. The 12 minutes trip above the forest is very pleasant. Once in Arima, you may want to go back to Kobe, but you may also spend a few hours enjoying the hot-springs. There is a legend that a 7th century emperor stayed several months there to enjoy the bathes. The town had ups and downs, and was almost destroyed by a major landslide in the 11th century. It was rebuilt by General Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the 16th century, and has thrived ever since. Two public bathes, “Kin-No-Yu” (金の湯) and « Gin-No-Yu » (銀の湯), can be visited during the day. There are many ryokans if you want to stay overnight.
Access to Mount Rokko

The « Rokko Cable car » goes all the way to the summit of the range. The departure station is close from the “Rokko” train station on the Hankyu line. One way ticket: Y570 (3.45 Euros), return ticket Y1000 (6 Euros). A return and summit bus ticket « Omote Rokko Shuyu Joshaken » is also available for Y1300. Access to the cable car is easier by bus 16 from the Hankyu « Rokko » station and JR “Rokko-michi” station.

« Rokko Arima Ropeway » links Arima station to the summit. Ticket is Y980 (6 Euros) one way, Y1770 (10.80 Euros) for a return ticket. A formula including the summit bus “ Ura Rokko Shuyu Joshaken” costs Y1900 (11.52 Euros).

A one way ticket from Kobe to ARima including the cable car, the summit bus, and the ropeway called “Rokko Arima Katamichi Joshaken” will set you back Y1700 (10.30 Euros).

You may return from Arima to Kobe using the Shintetsu (神鉄) train line, with a transfer in Arimaguchi (有馬口), and then a transfer in Tanigami (谷上) to the Kobe subway. The trip to Sannomiya (三宮) costs Y900 (5.45 Euros) for 30 minutes of train.

Kin-No-Yu: Admission Y650 (4 Euros), opened from 8:00 to 22:00, closed every second and fourth Tuesday of each month.
Gin-No-Yu: Admission Y550 (3.3 Euros), opened from 9:00 to 21:00, closed every first and third Tuesday of each month.
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