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With ETP in the Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto

October 24, 2008

Well, I think I have to start with apologies for making you wait so long. Indeed, I found out that I am a really bad blog writer. Maybe it’s the effort of writing in English or selecting and loading up all those pics. It takes time! But I was also awfully busy. I went to Europe twice, wrote some essays on Japanese history, finished a book, threw myself into the Biohouse project and the Dream technology of my internship company, made another big party at Lotus Calyx and finally enjoyed the summer in my lovely little downtown Tokyo district Jiyugaoka, crammed with an infinite number of cafes, restaurants, bars and interesting shops.

Cable Car Cafe, my favorite place in Jiyugaoka for reading and writing

The trip to Kansei in June became an absolute highlight of our stay in Japan. The Kansei area with its main cities Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe is considered to be the “heart” of Japan, while the Kanto area around Tokyo is the “head”. Some say that compared to this lively southern region Tokyo is a rather stiff and formal “salary men city” where you don’t meet much of entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed Tokyo is under tight control of Japan’s public service and the political class – which is to a large extent the same. How different life in Kansei is!

Departure at Haneda airport

Let’s start in Kobe. On the shore of the Inland Sea of Japan, this industrial harbor city has been changed fundamentally within seconds in 1995. The Hanshin-Awahi earthquake killed 5.500 people, injured 26.000 and left material and economic damages of more than 200 billion US$.

Folded Hanshin expressway

The drama within the catastrophe was the embarrassing incapacity of straitjacket-ruled public services to respond the needs of this situation. At the same time private initiatives of Japanese people and volunteers more than compensated this failure of the public service. After that incident there was a “volunteer [borantia] revolution” and a “NPO [non-profit-organization] boom”. We visited the prefecture of Hyogo where the Vice Governor confirmed how much this event changed the attitude of the Kobe population. They still feel great gratitude towards the foreign countries that helped them generously and they were the first to spontaneously help China in the great Shichuan earthquake early in 2008.

At Hyogo prefecture, here with ETP manager Helene Retsinis Stalsbo

We also visited the successful mail order company Felissimo – without really understanding their business model. Customers order by subscription and get “surprise parcels”. If they chose specific items, they only can vary style and size, not color. Most of the products are low cost/low quality, like the items you find in 100 Yen shops. This system is unique in the world – unthinkable in Germany – and the sales director assured us that Japanese people just like surprises.

Felissimo’s parcel assembly line

Then we went to Procter & Gamble Japan. It took this company 20 years to become profitable in Japan. They made all imaginable mistakes. P&G did its first market entry with the fantastic idea of selling their 3-temperature detergent Cheer. It took them a while to notice that Japanese washing machines don’t have different temperatures because Japanese wash laundry traditionally with cold tab water – something that puts me off because my shirts get never really clean. For P&G the whole operation was pointless, of course. Yet they are doing well now because they have specialized. Japanese consumers buy and use two times more skin care, personal hygiene products and diapers per capita than the US or any European country.

Julien Ragueneau, now called “Juju”, in Kobe

ETP group in Kobe at Akashi Kaikyo bridge connecting mainland Honshu to Shikoku island;
it is with 4 km the longest suspension bridge in the world

On the bridge standing on a glass floor – not me!!

Reception in Kobe, above JJ Ikegami speaking

The view from my room in Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel
on the harbor which looks like another planet

Here is the proof! I always said that Christina is kind of a “baggy” type

Yulin rehearsing her speech for the kimono maker
Everybody got his or her turn. Mine was at Matsushita
I don’t want to talk about it…

Next station was Osaka. I expected as much of it as I knew beforehand, and that was close to nothing. But when we arrived in the center of Osaka at our excellent Hotel Nikko, I felt an incredibly strong and energetic tension in the air. The streets and alleys are very spacious and everything radiates wealth and generosity – well, I might exaggerate, but we were all quite bewitched.

Sunset on Osaka seen – again – from my hotel room

The trouble was that I lost my camera there in a karaoke place where we went after the okunomiyaki dinner and a nice bar that spoiled us with excellent red wine. Well, when we got up next day I didn’t know where I was and what the plan is. While I was not yet sober we went to visit the popular sake brewery Gekkeikan. Can you imagine my state after trying extensively the different kinds of these vintage spirits? Fortunately we got right after that a delicious kaiseki with about twelve courses at Kyoto’s famous restaurant Sakamura Ro which is run by the same family in the twelfth generation. Well tuned on sake, I was intrusive enough to ask for more sake to accompany this extraordinary lunch. I knew Japanese culture on my side because it was usually quite unthinkable to have such a meal without a respectable drink.

Preparations for our kaiseki in Kyoto

The final visit was at the kimono maker Kimura who invited us into his living room where he held an extensive and colorful speech. After that, some of the group turned back to Tokyo and others went back to Osaka. Anna, Miklos and myself, we wanted to stay in Kyoto. We were extremely lucky because we were able to book on the spot a big room in the beautiful Yoshimizu ryokan, something I tried unsuccessfully over email and phone from Tokyo. This ryokan is located in the middle of the nice Maruyama park right next to the old amusement district Gion.

Yoshimizu Ryokan

Have a look into the lobby of this enchanted place

The first night we had a dinner with my friend Tsutsumi-sensei at a hidden luxurious place right next door where prince Akishino is a frequent guest. We could breathe some of this extremely refined and affluent Heian culture (794-1185), memories of the most peaceful and prosper times in the very heart of Japan – for aristocrats at least. Next day we made extensive walks through Kyoto. I was happy to see finally the Kiyomizu temple with its fascinating wooden architecture. I have been waiting for years for this moment.

Kiyomizu temple, built in 798 as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Shintoism and Buddhism

In Gion you can’t avoid to meet geishas. Or are they maiko, apprentices for the geisha business? Who can guess?

Climbing down through a gangway to a deep pond encircled by a bamboo wood we found here a silent and beautiful tofu restaurant

Later on we discovered the “Smallest Ukiyo-e Museum in the World” where Anna and I got to learn the fundamentals of wood block printing

This evening we went to Sumida river and discovered a completely different Kyoto, young, passionate and stylish. Listen to the nice acapella performance. We were craving for a shabushabu and again we were happy to find an excellent place. On the veranda we had a nice view on the banks of the river. But there we wittnessed a strange ritual: many young people took party off their clothes and stepped into the river where they sang together. And they were all sober, there was no alcohol in the game! In a way I am happy to one or two things in a while here that I really don’t understand.

Kyoto’s youth singing acapella on the banks of Sumida river

Miklos hypnotized by delicious shabushabu

Another strange ritual of Kyoto’s youth, staying in Sumida river and singing

Is it Hulk looking for beer? No, just me holding a Japanese mini sized can

On Sunday we went to see the famous “Gold Pavillion” Kinkakuji and the stone garden Ryoanji. Then we felt like having a quick onsen session for relaxation. We were lucky again because we found a completely renovated and very well designed community onsen where we got exactly what we wanted. Thus, the Kansei trip was one of the most enjoyable moments during our ETP program.

Back in Tokyo we had also fun – here Nakanishi-san, Fabienne and Christina in a place called Red Bar for obvious reasons. Later that night we had a fight with some crazily drunken Japanese in the street and went on to a karaoke.

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