As I board a train in Norway, I realise my little twelve-day jaunt to the Asian economic powerhouse has ruined me: we’re six minutes late in departing from Oslo to Bergen, and I audibly tut. At least in Japan I would be safe in the knowledge that would someone would have the decency to die for this tardiness. Additionally, Japan ran so effectively and so calmly, that when I now take public transport, I’m aghast at people having the temerity to converse with one another. Out loud and everything. Even children are heard. Heard! Can you bloody believe it?!
After all these years I can finally claim to understand the fascination and love tourists have for the country. Every western civilisation should have a Shinkansen/bullet train. Every nation should ban smoking almost everywhere. And all should have a door to a cavernous temple housing 1001 golden life-sized Buddhas for no other reason than just looking astounding. Despite not being a foodie in the slightest, I quickly became accustomed to small, authentic two-man restaurants (chef and waiter) that served only a few dishes but did so swiftly and with aplomb. Whether tokoyaki, katsudon or some beautiful juicy steak (and rice, naturally) the food is always high-quality, albeit a little pricy. Then again, Norway makes my soul shudder: a can of coke costs £3.50. I almost rioted. No wonder why Norway champions the peace-prize, they’re teetering on the edge!
In my last few days in Tokyo, amongst visits to the myriad of world-class gardens, there were two stand-out experiences. The first was whizzing around the streets in a real-life Mario Kart. Hitting 80km/h on the Rainbow Bridge was a definite highlight, which doesn’t sound quick until you understand there is only about six inches separating your arse from tarmac. Incidentally, lorries seem like tower blocks at that height! And the second incredible experience was teamlabs, a sensory and technological artsy-marvel, akin to waltzing through the mind of Kubrick whilst watching Interstellar and taking a trip on mushrooms. If you’re in Tokyo, go for it!
For all the bustle and millions of bodies in Japanese cities, I already miss it: the quiet efficiency; the engineering excellence; the quality of the food; the calmness of the people; the peace. And this coming from Norway of all places, which itself embodies all of those things. I may well be broken.
There are few great Levellers in this world (Mark Chadwick maybe?) but a benchmark that cuts through race, religion or gender are nominally death and taxes. After a week in Japan, I’d probably add to that how you eat a bowl of udon noodles in broth. I’m a delicate petal of an eater, tiptoeing around the fact I may hurt the food’s feelings as I eat it, but even when the most-lovely of lovelies arrives at a bowl of udon noodles things become quickly unstuck. Add a dash of chile and some kind of mystical root, and then its on! Slurps, noodle-sucking, sniffles, deep breaths, loud exhales, sweat beading on the brow, the occasional burp, the dish has it all! Empress or cobbler are undone by noodle soup!
Less class-uniting is the okonomiyaki, a sensational crepe/noodle extravaganza formed on a hot plate. They even give you a little trowel to plough into it. Last night I used said trowel, neatly quartering the round mess and halving again once I’d transported it onto my plate. I then tuck into it using chopsticks, munching bitesize. I’m not bad with chopsticks, so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Getting distracted with some baseball, I carried out my little process, and got to the last morsel to notice some instructions on eating okonomiyaki in what passes as a guide for gaijin. Turns out you’re supposed to use the trowel for shovel the food into you, and what made it worse was the chef had handed me this bloody thing at the start of the meal, at which I simply tossed it aside and became engrossed in a game in which I don’t understand. Useless, bloody useless!
I’ve had a wonderful few days though, enjoying Tokyo, the shrines of Kyoto and seeing a man get arrested for flying his drone (not me, hasten to add). I’ve trundled down the coast to the quite incredible Hiroshima, and am still staggered at the number and ages of schoolchildren that diligently ploughed through hours-worth of extremely graphic and tear-jerking testimonials. What I didn’t see though was any acknowledgement of how it got to that stage i.e. why were a-bombs dropped at all? Far less political though, and about one million percent enjoyable, was the retreat of Miyajima. An island about half an hour south of Hiroshima, the village was a lovely break from the hustle of the big cities. Well it was at about 11pm and 5am when I was out taking photos and being attacked by mosquitoes anyway.
What has bowled me over though this week is not only the dedication and inventiveness of the engineering of the country (I listed on a bullet-train ride – that’s another marvel! – all the well-known Japanese technology or engineering companies – its ridiculous!) but the sheer calmness of the people. Whether squeezing onto a train in Tokyo, caught in traffic with some idiot has parked across the road, the Japanese are unflappable. No tooting of horns, no ‘oiii, wanker!’ when shoved on the underground: they are immensely respectful, quiet, gracious, friendly and calm. And why not when your toilet seats are electronically warmed and with a touch of a button you have a gentle spray of warm water cleaning your bum. It’s the future, I tell you, especially if you’ve just had a spicy udon soup.
Japanese Tech and Engineering Companies - Toyota, Subaru, Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki, Mazda, Hino, Yamaha, Mitsubishi, Lexus, Nissan, Daihatsu, Sanyo, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Matsui, Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Sharp, Kodak for gods sake, Hitachi, Fuji, Fujitsu ... all from this country of 140m people? Don’t forget Nintendo, Sega, Bridgestone and Yokohama Tyres!
Family holidays are wonderful: the warm glow of beaming faces, eyes full of love and unbridled affection for your long-missed kindred. Those golden moments blessed in a tight embrace. This is your family; this is where you belong. The seemingly endless travelling in trains, planes and cars have been worth every hour, every minute and every dollar to reach them. At long last, you are home. Your soul is at peace. This euphoria lasts about twenty minutes.
Then comes the pep-talk that you, now an elder, need to have with the rest of your family, usually amidst doing something inane like shopping where you can send soldiers off for supplies to get one-on-one time. This holiday shall be different, you declare. Not like the time you were 'lost' in a department store and not like the time there was a screaming match culminating in wishes of death and abandonment of homes because someone was a particularly mouthy six-year-old. Oh no, you insist, this time it will be fine. Absolutely fine. Fine. You reiterate the mantra to yourself at the check-out. It’ll be fine. 'I'll grab those mentos and some coke though' you inner self asserts, 'they could take my head clean off' . But it’ll be fine.
The country of my upbringing is a place made of pure solace: the very trees and grass are hewn from it. And yet it’s from these very homes in this verdant paradise that we huddle in sitting rooms, looking out onto a vast world through the television, a distant land of natural disasters and another American gun-violence day – a constant fixture in a broken society. Cameras pan to strewn bullets on boulevards cordoned off by police tape. Neighbours gush to the journalists of ‘often quiet man with access to an arsenal of weapons.’ Your family exchange horrified gasps, again, where gun violence has, again, extinguished the lives of innocent people. Again. The same questions arise – ‘Why?’. ‘Why would someone do this? How could it get so bad?’ And there you sit on the corner, munching on your muller-rice, thinking, ‘I wonder if it was the 11th or 12th time he was asked that morning, why he don’t you kids yet?’
A Reed family holiday looms.
A book titled ‘Regrets of the Dying’ doesn’t immediately lend itself to rib-busting tummy tickles. Actively hunting down such a book in fact tends to elicit some concern amongst friends. It is though not only uplifting, but if anything, its life-affirming. I’m on the right path. During a turbulent week at work, this is always a welcome sign indeed.
As with every large corporate, the company I work for are going through a sizeable re-structure, probably their biggest in their history. After years of build-build-build, they’re digitising and automating, cutting the number of services on offer, and therefore cutting the staff that support those services. It’s a large-scale process improvement initiative effectively, one that most would agree is overdue. There is always though a ‘however . . .’, as most restructures are like radical weight-loss schemes: “I shall shed ten kilos this week by cutting off this leg that I barely use!”
Although the upper-tiers of management are endeavouring to approach it the best they can, the business analyst in me looks at why we have arrived at such drastic measures in the first place. Process improvement is part of every business. When you neglect it for a long time, then drastic course directs are necessary. Whilst we may focus that the current captains of the ship are trying to steer us in the right direction, where was the stewardship when we were sailing down crapshoot creek in the first place? Didn’t anyone see that we were developing product after product with little gain, with some platforms costings hundreds of thousands of dollars per month with literally no revenue. I mean, none. Zip. For years. And so how much trust do you put in the people that steered you into a warzone to then clamber out of it, sacrificing a few to save weight?
The other side of this is the demise of the collective. We all know that over the two years, up to eight thousand people will lose their jobs. In the days of unions, announcements like this would lead to forty thousand people telling the bosses to shove their jobs up their arse, and seeing the share price tank as no one turns up for work. In the days of individualism and the demise of unions, we watch on, hoping that personally we’ll be safe, whilst friends are walked out of the building.
Whilst I may reflect on the regrets of the dying over the coming week, it’s sometimes easy to forget the regrets of the living. If redundancies are instead viewed as opportunities to try something new, it opens up the world for you to find something that truly inspires. Having ‘the end of life' a guide can help. To quote from Bonnie Ware’s lovely book on palliative care, her patient John declares, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard . . . what a stupid fool I was . . . the chase for more, and the need to be recognised by our achievements and belongings, can hinder us from the real things, like time with those we love, time doing things we love ourselves.’
Writing and writing...