Category Archives: JAPAN

Business Travel Writer Ian De Stains Profiled

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Ulara Nakagawa is a native of British Columbia, now living in Japan and writing for The Japan Times, where we found this interesting article about Ian De Stains, who recently published a handbook for business travelers. Nakagawa writes wonderful profiles, and one of her own nuggets of travel writing wisdom is, “Japanese cable TV is like being in kindergarten on drugs.” In this piece, the mode is more sedate. Here she quotes her subject, De Stains, on the priorities of life:

It doesn’t matter how much you achieve in your professional life. It’s what are you doing in your community. Are you making a difference? Do you fit in? Are you rewarded by how you’re living?

De Stains has been executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan for 22 years, running this enterprise from an office building in Kagurazaka (pictured), a district of Tokyo renowned for the excellence of its traditional cuisine. He was born in Yorkshire, England, a hard place to be “foreign” in, but unlike many other out-of-place kids, once he got into a good school, things turned around.

Next, he achieved the rare distinction of acceptance to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (or RADA), where Anthony Hopkins, Glenda Jackson, Ralph Fiennes, John Hurt, and hundreds of other world-class stage actors learned their trade. From there, De Stains went on to the British Broadcasting Company, which sent him to Tokyo to make radio and TV shows for an international audience, learning about the country and culture and informing his viewers at the same time. Then it was independent consultancy, and then a career with the British Chamber of Commerce.

But the main thing has been the volunteer charity work, for which he was awarded Britian’s top honor as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, usually shortened to OBE. Brought up with a family tradition of community service, he finds his greatest satisfaction in helping others. In a way, his book, Japan: The Business Traveller’s Handbook, is an extension of this altruistic impulse. Part of a series from Interlink Books, it advises the business traveller (they spell it with two L’s in Britain) on the many details that make the difference between mediocrity and success.

Here’s some more good stuff for business travelers (and travellers): At Lonely Planet TV, Asha Gill offers a number of helpful hints, like don’t forget to use your online social networks to find out which of your counterparts from other companies might be in, for instance, Tokyo at the same time you are.

This one’s for everyone: advice on avoiding the “Ugly American syndrome,” by Examiner expert Jane Lasky, who has also written on tipping, etiquette, and many other important matters. (Lasky once went on a five-day trip to Hong Kong and ended up staying three years. This is what some might call extreme travel.) Lasky is a bit pessimistic about one form of communication: “Humor,” she says, “just doesn’t travel well. Most likely, the joke will be either misunderstood or not understood at all.” Well, six of one, half a dozen of the other. Humor seems to work like a charm for Kevin, just about everywhere, going by the evidence in The Third Tower Up From the Road. From his stories of international interaction, we often get the distinct impression that goofy is good.

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rick Steves offers a page of solid advice starting with, “When I’m in Europe, I become the best German or Spaniard or Italian I can be.” He also suggests such radical notions as, rather than just visiting cathedrals to gawk at the statuary, go to church. Yes, to blend in with the natives and get a real sense of absorption in the local culture, actually attend a service. What will they think of next?

Which leads us to ask: What non-touristy, indigenous experience have you found most enlightening in your own travels?

Kazuragaka photo courtesy of Cloneofsnake , used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Travel and Spiritual Journeys in Japan

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Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has earned well-deserved awards for her work, which mainly explores the theme of why some people feel compelled to leave their native culture and find a new one. At The Red Room, she interviews Todd Shimoda, author of the novel Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware, which Tokunaga calls:

…a fascinating and compelling book that weaves themes of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. You’ll be drawn in by Shimoda’s spare but elegant prose, which reminds me of the writing style of Haruki Murakami.

It’s about Zack Hara, a young man in Los Angeles whose life is stalled in a void of apathy and depression. In search of his roots and himself, he goes to Japan, and things get worse before they get better. (Reviewer Jeff Snodgrass calls the novel “metaphysics in the guise of a pulp mystery.”) In real life, Shimoda has done incredibly abstruse work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and so on. In this interview, he explains the concept of mono no aware, a mindfulness that incorporates intense emotional reaction to things.

Apparently, one of the less desirable avenues through which confused souls try to approach this state is the suicide club. Another avenue, a very wide and broad one, is art, which brings up the incredible, impeccable artwork by Linda Shimoda that illustrates Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware.

Some people travel because of inner needs. To connect with one’s own ancestors is a frequent reason to go from one place to another. And then there are people who simply feel they were born in the wrong place. And the ones who are on some kind of vision quest. And those who just want to see a big robot, or a big Buddha. When Japan is the destination, a seeker might contemplate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and war and peace.

In this strange story called “The World Tour Compatibility Test,” by Elizabeth Koch, two young lovers, Westerners in Japan, are in search of their own relationship. Along the way, they visit the Todai-Ji Temple, on the recommendation of none other than Kevin Dolgin. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Nostril: The Daibutsu, Nara, Japan,” is the name of the essay where they they got this idea. What people do is try to slide their bodies through the nostril of the Buddha. As Kevin notes, “the intricacies of Japanese religious practice are impenetrable.”

Daibutsu means “Big Buddha,” and Joshua Williams tells us everything a civilized person needs to know about giant Buddha statues. That’s the spiritual side. On the literary side, a writer might want to mingle with her colleagues, as Karen Kay describes in “Tokyo, Japan and the wonderland world of the Thumb Tribe.” Kay analyzes not only the literary scene but the many-faceted culture:

Japan’s new literary elite gather to sip espressos or cocktails and work on their latest bestselling novels…. sophisticated, designer-clad authors who tap out their blockbusters on their mobile phone handsets

Artists go on their own kinds of quests. They might want to track down the ancient art of Bunraku rather than depend on the imported version. Robed puppeteers in teams of three manipulate large puppets, while a narrator tells the story. Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier provides an in-depth explanation of this art form at Yahoo! Canada, among other places. Artists like to go see things like the giant robots or mecha that are sprouting up all over Japan. At Cartoon Leap, there’s a wonderful photo sequence of how to build one of these things.

photo courtesy of digika , used under this Creative Commons license

Tokyo, Japan: Akihabara, Electric Town

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Edan Corkill has a reasonable explanation for everything, but we suspect he’s basically one of those interesting monomaniacs who feel they were simply born in the wrong country, and who persevere until they have emigrated to where they belong. Corkill was born in Australia and relocated to Japan as soon as humanly possible. His bio is worth a peek. Recently, he reported, in The Japan Times, on a proposed new cultural landmark: “Is a national ‘Manga Museum‘ at last set to get off the ground?” This would be the National Center for Media Arts (NCMA), and the problem here is, the Democratic Party of Japan has some objections. Corkill says:

Promotion of Japan’s so-called media-contents industries (including manga, anime, TV and film) has recently become a high priority within several government ministries…The DPJ thinks the plan was fast-tracked either on the orders of, or to curry favor with, Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is a fan of anime and manga…. But the degree to which Aso was really involved in the plan’s genesis is debatable.

As always, a lot of politics and politicians are involved. But after some snags, it seems the plan is finally gaining momentum. We’re talking about not only a first-class facility for shows, but a research center and archive. It’s good that there will be a place where anime, manga, video games, and whatever technological art form is next invented, will be granted their props.

Over at BBC News, Michael Fitzpatrick, who also writes extensively about Japan for Western periodicals, takes a closer look at Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso, a self-confessed geek, and at the country’s prospects for improving its economy through digital products.

The location of the hoped-for museum won’t be announced until September, but it does seem like the kind of thing that should be in the Akihabara district, the technophile paradise where you can buy any gadget ever to roll off an assembly line, and then some. The car-free, pedestrian-only area is the center of a whole subculture of underground, “garage” game developers who find there the components for homebrew software and hardware. People seem to say “Akihabara” more when they’re talking about where to go for ready-made electronics and parts. They seem to say “Electric Town” more when talking about the wonderland of arcade games, and the cafes frequented by kids dressed up in fancy outfits. Either way, it’s a William Gibson novel come true. Both aspects are part of the otaku culture, built around electronics, comic books, anime-related entertainment, and gaming. Otaku means something like nerd or geek, only it’s a badge of honor, kind of like how American kids in the Sixties called themselves freaks.

Currently, attention is focused on the large number of businesses – mainly cafes and eateries, but also such mundane establishments as dry cleaners – staffed by girls dressed up like cartoon housemaids. The results range from winsome, fluffy little chickies to visions that are actually kind of scary. A writer known as Alamance calls it the “strange world of men with highly focused educations, alongside fantasy women or women enacting fantasies,” and posts some really neat pictures of the area. Hundreds of such maids belong to a professional organization called the Maid Cooperative. It seems pointless to drag in the political/psychological/etc implications. If cute young people want to dress up, why not? Elsewhere, Mdee Dubroff further explores this cosplay (costume play) subculture, with yet more characteristic and charming photos. On the other hand, a blogger named Jake, from Southern California (!), finds the whole phenomenon weird and creepy.

Akihabara has other features, such as a capsule hotel, where you sleep in a thing that looks like a giant microwave oven, or a coffin with a window. Inside, there’s room to lie down, a TV, a radio, and an alarm clock. Separate accommodations are available for storing luggage while you’re out shopping or going to meetings. Or having your cell phone blessed, as Brian Ashcraft did at the local ancient Kanda Shrine. In fact, the priests there will perform a purification rite over any of your electronics, as Ashcraft describes at Wired News. But be warned. Another source reports that the only place in Akihabara where you can get breakfast on a Sunday morning is McDonald’s.

And if you go there – write and tell us about it!

photo by heiwa4126 , used under this Creative Commons license