A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)
Tashiki, with the onion-framed wire rims, Beatle mop-top, sincere smile and winning sense of humor, gave the impression he had somehow slipped away from working as John Lennon’s stunt double in the “Magical Mystery Tour” movie and stepped into a magical real world that was always of great interest to him.
After spending some time in his youth as a Japanese ex-patriot attending school in Southern California, Tashiki managed to escape the interest of the Big Dumb Corporations of the USA and returned to find a job in Japan. Years later we’d both ended up working for the same multi-national corporation. I’d met him when he visited our site in New Jersey. Now in Tokyo, it was a relief to see a friendly, familiar face. And I might add, a colleague who I knew could communicate with me much better in English, than I was capable of speaking (with my two or three phrases) in Japanese.
This was my first trip to Asia, 2006, not long before the world economies took a nose dive, and our Japanese colleagues on the 23rd floor, in the older, large open office of low-walled cubicles in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, welcomed us with the traditional cross-cultural bowing, exchange of business cards, and handshaking that celebrated our trans-oceanic office arrival. We appraised and complimented each other on our cards, especially the double-sided cards with name and titles in Japanese on one side and English on the other! The ritual complete, the colleagues informed us of “two important things”: the location of the rest rooms (outside and just off the central elevator), and a surprise for us, coffee!
Jet-lagged from the eighteen hour journey, and not yet accustomed to requisite long days of an important Western IT specialist—bringing a new email system to be followed by a hardware “refresh” of new laptops—I was relieved with the unexpected promise of coffee.
We strolled to a little corner of the office which served as a kitchen and lounge. Our colleagues had recently installed a small appliance somewhat larger than a toaster oven. Nearby, between a small frig and a microwave, a shiny, silver table-top carousel held twenty or thirty red and gold, thimble-shaped aluminum containers, but larger—if thimbles, then, those used by a very large seamstress.
An eager and worthy host, Tashiki demonstrated how to pop the coffee “thimble” into the toaster-like coffee maker. He pressed a button or two, and after some grumbling and hissing from the machine, a brown liquid appeared and half-filled a paper cup we had placed beneath it.
The colleagues were excited to share details of this new innovation, and I agreed, making coffee with such convenience was an impressive feat! And, since my stomach doesn’t tolerate black coffee, and already a bit queasy from travel, I politely asked if there were milk or cream so that I might sample the brew in my accustomed manner? We located the cream, or “creamer”, which came in single serve, single use, four-inch-long, drinking straw-width paper or plastic tubes, accompanied by sugar, packaged in a similar fashion, both of which I applied to the brew.
While we took our turns at the coffee machine, Tashiki carefully and passionately explained the adjacent color-coded recycling bins—of which there were at least three. Which bin to use for which items, plastic, paper, other waste. Emphasizing that, as you know, Japanese are a very organized, tidy, and especially clean culture, and as they have an ancient and intimate relationship with the ocean, recycling was “very important to Japanese People”. I could relate to this passion for sustainability, and was a bit disappointed, (but not surprised) by the patronizing amusement expressed in winks and smiles by several of my American colleagues.
It had been a very long flight. Over the arctic ice cap, frozen Russia, and raging seas. My first ever of what would become a number of flights of that distance and duration. I was tired, my eyes scratchy from being open for too long. I located a small, empty conference room, and slumped into a chair under the glaring white fluorescents to drink the coffee. The first wave of jet lag nausea clobbered me unexpectedly, as I sipped. Maybe something was wrong with the paper cup or the creamer. It was that first taste, and politeness aside, the coffee was not so good. It had the stale, manufactured flavor of “instant” coffee, this time worsened by anticipation, by the expectation that there was something special about its production and brewing.
These days, now, many years later, people are familiar with these coffee cartridges, whether known by the name “Keurig” or “Nespresso” or some other marketing moniker. Are they better now? I don’t recall the name of the Japanese innovation at the time, but it was some very similar predecessor to today’s version that, like so many things in the twenty-first century, prioritized convenience over quality.
Not long after that first sample, I made my way to the Men’s Room, pretty typical of any corporate high rise restroom, anywhere—until I opened a stall door. I took a quick look, and figuring that I had stumbled into a “special needs” stall, opened an adjacent unlocked door…same thing: The toilet was clearly retrofitted with additional plumbing and equipment tucked beneath the tank and bowl. Next to the seat, a little “control panel” was attached with buttons marked with icons of lower body parts and water spraying, air blowing, and heat…emanating.
This was one of those novel advanced Japanese toilet seats, nearly unheard of in the USA, except maybe in a James Fallows NPR commentary. But I’d never seen, much less experienced one. So, of course, when the need arose, I sampled the luxury features, though in a public rest room this is a bit, embarrassing, due to the noise of electric pumps and splashing water. One button initiates the bidet (water rinsing) feature, and another an air dryer with several heat settings, and the seat itself was internally heated. This toilet technology was at least as impressive as the coffee maker, and in my opinion executed with a more satisfactory result. Though I was to later find that enhanced toilets were all the rage in Asia, I didn’t see them, not in my room at the Hilton, and not anywhere else in Japan—not that I was looking for them. In other visits to the office Men’s Room, I observed the frequent and long-lasting full occupancy of the stalls, which our matter-of-fact colleagues accepted as a scatological workplace “perk.”
I drank the coffee, I used the toilet, and I installed the new email system.
We completed our mission a few days later, having performed our impressive Corporate IT Magic in Japan, and flew to Taiwan for the next performance—a similar upgrade and installation in Taipei for the slightly less impressionable Taiwanese colleagues. And, welcomed upon arriving at their office, we, as newcomers, were presented with two important bits of information. Which I will review in the next installment…
…to be continued!!