Japanese Perfectionism

In the several times that I’ve been to Japan, I’ve always been at awe at the Japanese strive for perfectionism and dedication to work. This Japanese concept of “kaizen” of continual improvement in the pursuit of perfection or “kodawari” is noticeable the moment you step off the plane and onto Japanese soil.

I remember my first few times landing in Narita and noticing a unique phenomenon while waiting for baggage.  Typically for me, waiting for baggage is something I feel happens  in a daze. In most cases, I get off a long flight, and walk the walk through immigration and to the baggage claim. I find a spot and watch the bags roll off onto one another and onto the belt. Everyone stands and waits patiently for their bag to come and if you’re a small lady, you might struggle if your bag happens to have fallen on top of someone else’s bag.   In Japan, however, efficiency is key.  As airports most likely want to move people in and out of the airport as fast as possible, design and process are important. To help the travelers, as bags roll onto the conveyor belt, a man helps stack them in order. The bags are placed vertically, with the handle facing up and lined next to each other. They stay on the conveyor belt perfectly lined up waiting to be picked up.

It’s a simple action but is one that makes your travel so much more enjoyable.  There’s more space on the conveyor belt for other luggage and it’s easier for everyone to take their luggage. Travelers are efficiently and politely moved out of the airport. You enjoy a seamless customer experience.

Earlier this year on our snowboarding trip I saw more examples of this Japanese dedication to perfection.  When getting on the ski chair lift, the chair lift operator would without fail know perfectly where to brush off the snow before you fall on the chair.  For example, when I took a four seater chair lift by myself, I noticed that in the split second that the operator had time to brush off snow from the seats, he would accurately brush off the snow precisely where I would sit and lean back. The other three seats had snow, but where I sat, it was nice and dry.

Another example Alex and I noticed was when we were resting at the restaurant looking out onto the slopes. By the restaurant was a little slope area that had been cordoned off by ropes. Over time the rope had slacked a little but it wasn’t noticeable unless you really observed. In many other countries, I’m sure this would have been overlooked. The observant and dedicated Japanese slope patrols however noticed, and we watched them stop to pull the rope just that little bit tighter.

I believe it’s this Japanese dedication to perfectionism or “kodawari” that also makes their products so desirable. Japanese products are well known worldwide for their craftsmanship and unique designs. Everything is made with care and whether the customer sees it or not, as much care is given to the outside as to the inside. Every detail is thought of.  This is also reflected in their excellent customer service.

I wonder though, if future Japanese generations would continue on to carry on this culture of perfectionism.  If future generations lose this sense of perfectionism, then one of the  unique charms of the land of the rising sun would have been lost and their products less desired.  For now, let’s hope that we can all adopt a bit of this Japanese perfection into our work ethic. Let’s all continue to improve and strive for perfection. Let’s remember “Kaizen” and “Kodawari.” Good night!

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A Memory Stuck and New Years in Tokyo

Written on 2nd January 2017
I’m in writing heaven. I’m sitting on a train looking out at snow covered trees and rooftops and thinking about a moment roughly ten years ago. Some moments stick with you more clearly than others. About ten years ago, I came to the realisation that I should stop buying stuff I didn’t really need and instead spend my money on traveling and collecting memories. It’s liberating. I still have random spending plurges but they are significantly less frequent. I am also donating vociferously.

This year, Alex and I decided to take a trip to Tokyo during New Years before we head up north to Otaru and Kiroro for snowboarding. It’s out of the norm for us. Usually New Years is spent at home. Now that we’re out, I realise that it gives the trip a different kind of flavor. Every country has their own tradition during New Years and the vibe is different. 

If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, you’d know how crazy busy it can be with everyone on schedules and rushing to get to the destination. The Japanese are orderly, so no matter how busy it is, it’s quiet yet buzzing. Try standing still at Shinjuku station on a busy workday morning and you’d know what I mean.

During New Years however, the vibe is different. From the 30th to 1st, every thing slows downs. People are still hurrying around, but it’s with a suitcase and luggage to go home for the holidays. Faces are relaxed and the general atmosphere is one of relaxation. You can feel it in the air.

Restaurants and shops close early on the 31st so plan your eating schedule well. On the 1st, many shops and restaurants are closed though apparently more and more are remaining open. Even though they are open, I feel that the English speakers seem to be fewer in number.

On New Years Eve and New Year Day, people go out to pray at temples and shrines. We went to the Meiji shrine. It’s also a day of shopping. From the 1st to 3rd, shops go on sale and people go crazy shopping. More details to follow. 🙂

We’re almost arriving at Otaru now. xoxo  

Autumn in Paris: Day 2

Paris is beautiful anytime of year and I wonder if there is ever a day when the city is not filled with tourists.

Everywhere, every moment of the day you are almost bound to bump into a tourist, me included. I’ve been there so many times on and off yet I can never seem to have enough of this eternal city. It’s vibrant and filled with art to stir your senses and soul. There are also quiet corners and parks for you to grab a little bit of quiet time.

Our second day in Paris we continued our walk along the banks of the river Seine towards the Louvre. We walk to the Champs Élysées and pass the gardens. (I forget what it’s called) but a particularly beautiful maple in all its autumn colours stand out amidst the fallen leaves and the gloom of a sunless day. We stop for awhile and take in all the colours listening to the rustle of the leaves on the ground. Then as if emerging out of hiding, a pair of police horses appear from the trees. Large and majestic I wonder what Paris was like in the day of horses and carriages. It must have been quite the place to be.

We continue on to the Place de la Concorde (formerly Place de la Revolution) where now stands an obelisk from the Egyptian palace of Karnak. It reminds me of my trip to Egypt and a time when all the world was encaptured by it. On one side of the pavement there is a plaque that mentions how this is the square where Marie Antoinette was guillotined during the French Revolution.

Crossing to the Jardin des Tuileries, I smile. Parks are peaceful and refreshing places to be. Once part of the Tuileries Palace, it became public after the revolution. Its beautiful even though only fragments of summer remain. Chairs surround the large pond and fountain and a sculpture bows and swirls in the wind like couples dancing. It’s a beautiful park to walk through especially with sculptures of modern art to tease your senses before emerging in front if the pyramid and the Louvre.

Lines and lines of people wait to gain entrance so if you go, I recommend to go early and buy tickets in advance if you can… it’s definitely worth it if you love museums like I do.

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Lisbon day trip: Sintra

It’s my last day in Lisboa and I have to say I am starting to miss it a little already. Though the buildings are reminders of former glories and current harsh times are reflected in the state of the buildings, there is a certain charm that grows on you and finds a place of its own in your heart.   Traditional shops making handmade shoes and gloves can still be found, old trams still run up and down the hills, neighbourhood baths still in use, people here are still living the traditional life. Outside of Lisbon, you see another side of Portugal.  A more romantic side where rolling hills, deep valleys and moorish castles stand atop mountains.

We went to Sintra via train which is a mere 40minutes from Rossio station. A train leaves every ten minutes so its fairly convenient.  If you buy the Lisboa card that gives you discounts to sites and public transport ( 24, 48, 72 hours) the fare is included.  Just seeing the beauty of Rossio station is a lovely start to the trip.  On the train if you sit on the left you will see views of roman aqueducts.

At Sintra, upon arriving I recommend turning right and taking the bus 434 or 435 to major sites. 434 takes you to the moorish castle and the highly recommended Pena palace, the former summer residence of Portugese kings. 435 takes you to other famous palaces of millionaires and convents. All unesco world heritage sites.

We went to Pena palace and at first sight I wondered if this was a fairy tale castle built for tourists yet it was indeed built for kings and queens. Its colourful and a mixture of moorish and european architecture. There are small castle towers and courtyards with beautiful views of the ocean. Surrounded by forests you could spend an entire summer day roaming around yet in autumn it gets a bit chilly.

I could go on and on yet I must go now..

Always in my mind: Happy Birthday MY

It’s been two days since my good friend’s birthday and believe me the words have just been flowing in and out of my mind in an endless stream that ebbs and flows.  There are so many things I want to say, so many things I want to write, yet having only 24 hours in a day, I could not quite fit everything in without fear of making myself collapse from exhaustion.  So here I am to write a birthday ode to a lovely friend who just celebrated her birthday two days ago.  You know who you are. You are always in my mind.  This is for you. I hope you like it.

Good friends who are always there are few in number.  Good friends who’ve you known for over 20 years are even rarer.  Yes, can you believe it, I’ve known you for over 20 years. I’ve known you since my primary school days.  Time though isn’t everything.  What’s more important, is that throughout the roughly two decades we’ve known each other, you have remained the same sweet and gentle person you’ve always been.

Not once, not ever have I seen you frown or expressed any signs of anger.  There is always a smile, a calm face to greet your gaze.  When you are happy, a light sparkles in your eyes and your smile lights up the entire face.   A few words from you suffice to let us know your thoughts.  No nonsense, but full of calm and good will.  No trickery, no ill feelings, no bad vibes.  There is not a person in this world who I think could do you harm.  You are always so serene, so gentle, so happy.  Stay that way.

Not having stayed in Bangkok throughout my entire life, we lost contact, but that was once again renewed when I later came back.  Birthday lunches, ladies day out, we will meet again.  There is always a reason to keep in touch, even if it is just for a nice lunch out.  What I’ve always found funny though is that not being a Thai, you have actually lived in Thailand longer than I have.  Even funnier, is that soon enough, we shall be living in the same area.  Minutes away.   I suppose then, we shall be meeting each other more.

I hope you had a wonderful birthday my dear friend. (Birthdays are celebrated week long right? :):)) I’m happy to have you as a friend and to the many more years to come.  Stay forever the wonderful person you are, forever calm, forever serene, forever happy.  That is indeed a lovely way to be.  See you in a few days my dear friend 🙂

The Art of Tipping

I was thinking about growing up the other day and how some skills you acquire along the way depends a lot on where you live.  Living in Thailand, as in any other asian country, life requires one to tip other people every now and then.  A tip for good service, tip for the valet, tip for a good job..etc.. the list is endless.  We live in a country where services abound.  Tipping is not just about how much you give, it is lso a lot about how you ‘tip’ so as not to offend the other person.

I remember when I first had to tip.  I had no clue how to do it.  I’d take out a bill, fold it in half and just hand it out right there and then for all the world to see.  The reaction was often a bit of a startled face, a little step back.  I realized because the person receiving it felt offended because here they were being publicly given money.  No matter how grateful you felt for the service, like carrying your heavy luggage up three flights of stairs, or valet your car, the other person does not appreciate a huge public nnouncement. It is just a no no.  No, they are not receiving charity.

After years of tipping, it now comes to me quite easily.  There’s a simple little gesture of the hand, a little bow and the whole action is done discreetly.  Both are happy and off we go on our paths.

How to do it?  Many of you might already know how (or even have better ways) but for those of you who don’t, here’s how I do it.

1. I fold the banknote bill in half and then once again so that it is one fourth in size.
2. Place it in the palm of your hands, held together by the thumb, index finger and middle finger.
3. Ensure that the thumb is towards the bottom so that the four fingers that line the top will hide the banknote. (Your hand at this point looks like a downward sloping triangle.)
4. When you give the tip, lean yourself forward slightly with your hand slightly outstretched as if you were going to give a handshake and drop the bill in the receiver’s hand.

The person receiving the tip usually knows what to do and will stretch their hand out to receive it will a little bow.  The folded bill allows the receiver to discreetly put the folded bank note away and allows them to quickly get back to carrying the next luggage, or valet the next car.

How do you tip? Do you have any techniques to share?

Two Worlds at Once

It’s the end of August. This time last year I was in Malaysia visiting a good old friend just before Malaysia’s independence day. This year, I am in Bangkok, and am instead keeping touch with good friends through other high tech means such as Skype, Google+ and Whatsapp. It really is quite amazing all this technology. It brings people together. Yet, it can also bring people apart.

You might have noticed that since the advent of BB messaging and chat programs on iPhones, smartphones, androids, many of us (me included) sometime zone out of conversations and instead grin at our phones. We are living in two worlds at once.

One moment, I’m in conversation with the person next to me, the next, I’m in a conversation with someone else on the other side of the phone. Maybe that person is in another country. I don’t mind it at all, but sometimes I think we ought to put down our phones and enjoy the person next to us. Enjoy the conversation a little more. Enjoy what is happening around us.

I’m still working at it. I have a tendency to just pick up my phone and constantly check it for messages. It’s addictive. You hear a little “beep” and you feel a sudden urge to check it. It’s annoying. I want to get rid of this addiction. I see the iPhone lying still in front of me, and I just want to pick it up and play on one of its many applications. I like the feel of the rubbery skin I bought for it.

I suppose, sometimes we really should just turn off the phone, put it away in our bags and really enjoy the people around us, especially during lunches or dinners. Perhaps we’d get to connect a little more, really enjoy the company and learn a little about the person next to us. Connect more without the phone when we are surrounded by people. Connect with people through the phone when you are alone. Maybe that’s how we should balance out all these online chats….

What do you think?