Around the Block travels to Japan (Part 2)

Commentary

An occasional series about Japanese friends, Japanese experiences and Japanese insights

Tokyo. Our home away from home.

Rebuilt from the rubble of World War II, Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world. It is both ancient and modern…

Old Japanese Inn and Tokyo Skytree

bustling and peaceful…

Shibuya at night and Tokyo park

thoroughly Asian but also Western.

Traditional Japanese kimono and Luke’s Lobster imported from NYC

It’s a city where things get done and those things that get done work!

We repatriated from Tokyo in 1995. Since then the city finished building two completely new subway lines. (Compare that with NYC’s 2nd Avenue subway – started in 1972; halted in 1975; restarted in 2007; phase one…a whopping 8 miles…finished in 2017).

Right now, there are 13 individual Tokyo subway lines covering almost 200 miles. In addition to the subways, which have the largest passenger load of any subway system in the world, there are six private railways plus the national railroad, the JR, covering the city and suburbs. These 20 individual lines are linked, coordinated, clean and on time (albeit, a bit crowded). You can get to virtually any place in greater Tokyo through some combination of these trains…and if you tell someone you’ll be there at 1:00pm, you’ll be there at 1:00pm.

Tokyo transit map

Macy’s Herald Square might be the world’s largest department store, and Saks and Neiman’s might be luxury shopping palaces, but when it comes to merchandise and merchandising, they can’t hold a candle to most Japanese department stores, known as “depātos”; high-end, mid-range, whatever, these stores are shopping paradises. And I haven’t even mentioned the famous basement food halls – spaces that put even Harrod’s to shame.

Mitsukoshi Food Hall

And the food? While I’m not a high-end food snob, this will give you an overall perspective on the food scene in Tokyo:

The Michelin Guide Tokyo 2019 lists 230 restaurants Michelin-starred restaurants around the Japanese capital. Of these, 13 have received three-stars — the highest designation. There are 52 two-star restaurants and 165 one-star restaurants. By comparison, Paris has 113 Michelin-starred restaurants while New York has 76. In fact the top four Michelin cities are Tokyo, Paris, Kyoto and Osaka.

And there’s no place in the world, in my opinion, that beats Tokyo for a cheap bowl of noodles – Ramen, Udon, Soba you pick (and yes, you need to pick as each type of noodle will be served its own shop).

But as I’ve written before, travel is more than the sites and the buildings and the food. It’s about meeting people, developing relationships, making friends and coming back to spend more time with those friends.

John, Ikko, Maya and Saya

No, John, Ikko, Maya and Saya are not the Japanese Beatles. But they do form one of the best families in the world and they are among our best friends.

John and I worked together when I first came to Tokyo. He was a junior account executive at the small Japanese advertising agency I was using to build out my global agency’s, Foote, Cone & Belding, new Tokyo operation. John, who is fluent in Japanese, and I were the only two gaijin in our eight-person start-up. Despite this, and despite the intrenched competition of international advertising behomoths in Tokyo like JWT and Leo Burnett, we were able to win several overseas accounts, including Northwest Airlines and L’Oreal.

While I left Japan, John stayed and embarked on a successful career in executive recruitment. Ikuko (Ikko) is a lovely Japanese woman from Kyoto who studied overseas in Australia, speaks perfect English and is a joy to be with. John and Ikko married and are the proud parents of two of the greatest young ladies we know: Maya (now 13) and Saya (now 11). We reconnected with John, Ikko and the girls on a visit to Tokyo right after the Fukushima disaster and meet with them in Japan and here in the U.S. as often as possible.

Our relationship with John and Ikko is kind of like “big brother/big sister.” It’s a relationship Sharon and I treasure.

But the real treasures are the girls.

Smart, funny, talented…Maya and Saya are joys to be with and incredibly worldly and interesting.

Making Japanese candy in 2017 with Saya (L) and Maya (R)

Maya is a wonderful classical pianist. Pretty as a picture, she’s one of the most inquisitive kids I know. We have conversations about world affairs and books and music, with her taking it all in like a sponge seeking more and more information and knowledge. I think our best conversations have been about “Hamilton” the musical. After she devoured the book about the show, Maya and I have spent hours talking about Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson and how what they did is relevant to our world today. And we started these conversations when she was 10!

Saya is a concert violinist way beyond her years. Last summer she attended a prestigious music institute in the U.S.; when she plays, she seems to go into a semi-trance…just Saya and the music. It’s a beautiful sight. But there’s more than music. In a visit to us in the summer of 2016, in a break in a lunch conversation, Saya turned to me and asked, “Ted, what do you think of Hillary Clinton?” She was eight years old and lived in Tokyo. Incredible!

This year she told me that she had watched one of the Democratic Presidential debates. So, I asked her what she thought. Among her comments:

Bernie Sanders: He’s like the grumpy old man on Sesame Street

Andrew Yang: He thinks he’s funny but he’s not.

Joe Biden: He’s OK, but he doesn’t finish his sentences. And sometimes when he answers a question he doesn’t make sense.

I don’t know if CNN/Tokyo is looking for a new junior correspondent but…

John, Ikko, Maya and Saya – a big reason we return to Tokyo as often as we do.

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy.

7 thoughts on “Around the Block travels to Japan (Part 2)

  1. I loved reading about your travels and friends! I think we need to take direction for many things from Japan shopping subway and most of all the education of their children The sisters seen delightful❣️

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. Thanks. We should talk. There are many things to love about Japan. How education works in Japan however, is something we can talk about. In many cases it’s not really geared for learning but for standardized testing.

      Like

  2. How fortunate you and Sharon are to have cultivated such a beautiful relationship with your friends. In this often turbulent, combustible world, it is refreshing to read your insights and affection for Japan, it’s culture, achievements and people. Thanks Ted for sharing this account…….kind of like the idea of “ a brotherhood of man!”

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  3. We enjoy reading your stories about us, Ikuko-san’s family, and a lots about our country. Your words from your heart are always warm, real, and sometimes sharp!
    We really love You and Sharon as our American brother and sister and your bedroom is ready to have you anytime .

    Like

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