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!

Dog tales: Jesse and his bloody snout

It’s a Monday and Mondays deserve stories that will put a smile on your face. (Hopefully I will succeed) So here goes my story of Jesse and his bloody snout as told by Alex, Jesse’s dad. It happened a few months ago, I remember not exactly when.

It was a sunny day, extraordinary for the monsoon season, but then this year was a strange year with the rain strangely missing and then sometimes not. And as sunny days goes, James, Jesse, and Zoey would find themselves running around the garden, chasing birds, snapping at insects, killing lizards, jumping at toads, running through hedges and digging holes in the garden. That is the daily life of my dogs when they aren’t sleeping (which dogs do for an average of 14 hours a day), and when Alex and I aren’t home.

So each day, Alex comes homes to happy, dog wagging tails that wag so hard they look like they might just fall off. On that particular sunny day though, Alex came home to wagging dog tails but something was off. James the Labrador was running around as innocent, optimist Labradors do, but with an air of distraction and confusion. Zoey, the protector of the house, was running around back and forth from the middle of the garden to Alex while gently whimpering. Jesse was quiet, still as Siberian huskies are, dog wagging happy but with a bloody snout.

Alex thought to himself, as any concerned dog owner would, “Oh my, what happened to Jesse to have such a bloody snout and will he be okay?”

Panic sets in.   He walks over to the middle of the garden, where Zoey keeps running to, and sees a black snake almost two meters long, lying still but its head moving around.

“Oh shit, was Jesse bitten by the snake?” Dear oh dear little Jesse (who isn’t so little) this might require an emergency trip to the vet. Hope not.

Fortunately, some quick thinking sets in and Alex goes find our neighbor who has some knowledge regarding snakes. The neighbours come in, take a look at the long black snake and tells Alex it’s a rat snake and not to worry. Rat snakes are not dangerous and have no venom.

A deep sign of relief follows. Jesse was safe and Alex need not worry about the snake. The neighbours pointed out that our dogs, which we had feared for their lives, had attacked the snake and broke its back.

At that point, feelings of fear changed to sorrow.   Our dogs had broken the snake’s back when it was out searching for food. And now, the snake was to be our neighbour’s dinner.   From the northeast of Thailand, they were elated to have some delicious snake for dinner. Apparently it tastes like chicken.

That was the excitement of the day. I feel bad for the snake, but then I’m also happy my dogs are safe and that I wasn’t there to see it.

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?

Bangkok Day Trip: Ayutthaya’s Wat Yai Chaimongkhon

On the day you go to visit Bang Pa-In the summer palace, you can also opt to go to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya were there are beautiful ancient temples at almost every turn.  I had been to the ancient capital in my younger days when my Thai Professor took me on a trip to learn about our culture.  I’m grateful for all she has taught me and the time she has spent.  Last time I went to Bang Pa-In I wanted to visit the temples in Ayutthaya too but since I spent too much time in Bang Pa-In absorbing its beauty I made it to only one temple, but what a magnificent and beautiful temple it is:  Wat Yai Chaimongkhon

This temple predates Ayutthaya and was initially a monastry constructed by King U-Thong in the buddhist era of 1900 (B.E.) for monks who had been ordained in Ceylon.  This temple witnessed the fight between the then Kingdom of Siam and Burma over power and territory.  It was a matter or who would be King and who would reign over this vast Kingdom.  There was a particular battle though between King Naresuan of Siam and Phra Maha Uparacha of Burma which I am most Thai nationals must have heard of or read about in Thai literature.  A poet beautifully described the battle and the slaying of Phra Maha Uparacha of Burma which happened on elephants.  Yes, back then there were no airplanes nor armored vehicles.  We used elephants and the greatest of warriors were swift and agile on the back of these warrior elephants. It is said that with one fatal blow of the sword,  Phra Maha Uparacha was slain.

In honor of that decisive victory King Naresuan therefore had the Chedi (Stupa) at Wat Yai Chaimongkon built and to this day it is the highest structure in Ayutthaya.  It’s so large you can climb up and see the view from the top. Mind you its a bit of a steep climb.  Once you reach the top,  you can make merit by praying to the buddhas which are seated inside the chedi and place gold leaves on them.  It’s a tiny little area, but outside on a lower level is a little balcony which enables you to walk around the chedi and observe the view.  Below you can see areas that were used for meditation and where monks lived.

My favorite part of the temple though is not up in the air but down below.  Around the other base of the Chedi the walls are lined with buddha images cloaked in yellow.  It’s beautiful and amazingly peaceful. Most of the crowds go up the Chedi.   You feel at peace walking along the walls under the trees.  This is how peaceful temples must have been in the past. Its mysterious and takes you back in time.  This temple afterall is more than 600 years old (we are now in 2554 B.E.).  There is just so much history here.

Further along you will also find the reclining buddha and smaller shrines where you can pray.

It should take you roughly an hour, but if you like taking pictures or just walking and taking in the atmosphere you might take longer.  🙂   It’s definitely worth a visit though and I must say one of the most picturesque temples.  I will definitely have to make my way back to Ayutthaya one day.  Once it stops raining and the sun isn’t so hot,  I’ll be out and about a bit more.  Are there any other temples you’ve been to and really liked? Please share 🙂  Afterall today is Visakha Bucha Day 🙂

 

What Sacrifice Means…

After the earthquake I wrote an email to a Japanese colleague asking her of her troubles and hoping that all was fine. Her response made me teary eyed and it’s something I still remember till this day. She told of her hardships and how they were having trouble with electricity, but it was the end that hit me. She apologized for having caused me concern and worry. Wow. I was breathless. Here she was in trouble, her nation was suffering, and still she apologized for making me worried about her!! I admire her.

My experience is but a fraction of what others have experienced. Since that unfortunate day of earthquakes and tsunamis, I’ve been hearing endless stories about the Japanese discipline and sense of morality. How even in times of suffering and the Japanese will not loot nor take advantage of those less fortunate. Other people’s lives are taken into deep consideration. Afterall, everyone is in this situation and everyone has their own troubles. Everyone has loss their homes and loved ones. It’s time the people helped each other, not time they tried to gain from other’s misfortunes. There is no selfishness. No thought of me, myself and I. Others are more important.

I hope that we can all learn something from the Japanese. I know I have.

Below is a forward I got earlier last week that I think is a wonderful reminder to us all to think a little more of those around us and perhaps of the word “sacrifice.” Sacrifice a little of our own happiness for the greater good of others….
________________________

THIS letter, written by Vietnamese immigrant Ha Minh Thanh working in Fukushima as a policeman to a friend in Vietnam, was posted on New America Media on March 19. It is a testimonial to the strength of the Japanese spirit, and an interesting slice of life near the epicenter of Japan’s crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It was translated by NAM editor Andrew Lam, author of “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” Shanghai Daily condensed it.

Brother,
How are you and your family? These last few days, everything was in chaos. When I close my eyes, I see dead bodies. When I open my eyes, I also see dead bodies.

Each one of us must work 20 hours a day, yet I wish there were 48 hours in the day, so that we could continue helping and rescuing folks.

We are without water and electricity, and food rations are near zero. We barely manage to move refugees before there are new orders to move them elsewhere.

I am currently in Fukushima, about 25 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. I have so much to tell you that if I could write it all down, it would surely turn into a novel about human relationships and behaviors during times of crisis.

People here remain calm – their sense of dignity and proper behavior are very good – so things aren’t as bad as they could be. But given another week, I can’t guarantee that things won’t get to a point where we can no longer provide proper protection and order.

They are humans after all, and when hunger and thirst override dignity, well, they will do whatever they have to do. The government is trying to provide supplies by air, bringing in food and medicine, but it’s like dropping a little salt into the ocean.

Brother, there was a really moving incident. It involves a little Japanese boy who taught an adult like me a lesson on how to behave like a human being.

Last night, I was sent to a little grammar school to help a charity organization distribute food to the refugees. It was a long line that snaked this way and that and I saw a little boy around 9 years old. He was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.

It was getting very cold and the boy was at the very end of the line. I was worried that by the time his turn came there wouldn’t be any food left. So I spoke to him. He said he was at school when the earthquake happened. His father worked nearby and was driving to the school. The boy was on the third floor balcony when he saw the tsunami sweep his father’s car away.

I asked him about his mother. He said his house is right by the beach and that his mother and little sister probably didn’t make it. He turned his head and wiped his tears when I asked about his relatives.

The boy was shivering so I took off my police jacket and put it on him. That’s when my bag of food ration fell out. I picked it up and gave it to him. “When it comes to your turn, they might run out of food. So here’s my portion. I already ate. Why don’t you eat it?”

The boy took my food and bowed. I thought he would eat it right away, but he didn’t. He took the bag of food, went up to where the line ended and put it where all the food was waiting to be distributed.

I was shocked. I asked him why he didn’t eat it and instead added it to the food pile. He answered: “Because I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally.”

When I heard that I turned away so that people wouldn’t see me cry.

A society that can produce a 9-year-old who understands the concept of sacrifice for the greater good must be a great society, a great people.

Well, a few lines to send you and your family my warm wishes. The hours of my shift have begun again.

Ha Minh Thanh

Old Vienna: Coffee at Demel and Central

Amidst the boxes I’m happy I finally found my box of photo CDs.  I’m delighted the DVD reader reads them well and the photographs are still there after almost a decade.  I shall have to back them up.  With digital cameras, I take more pictures but print less and then end up losing some when my harddisk crashes. Technology.  Looking through my Vienna photos, I am reminded of the coffee culture there.  There are cafes or “Kaffeehaus”  on almost every road.  Each with their own atmosphere and their own unique style.  Stories abound as to how it all started.  Some say when the Turks were defeated in 1683 they left bags of coffee,  hence started the coffee culture in Vienna.  Fascinating.  Now coffee is known worldwide.

I have two favorites in Vienna.  Cafe Demel and Cafe Central.  Demel is wonderfully beautiful and dates from 1786.  The Hofburg towers above the small road from Demel at Karntnerstrasse and the selection of cakes and candies are in such intricate little boxes I want to keep the packaging.  They not only look good, they taste good.  Empress Sissi of Vienna is said to have ordered candies and other goods from this coffee shop. 

When you enter, you immediately see a long counter of candies and snacks.  There used to be seating in the front room, but now they have converted the entire area to a little shop.  Luckily, I had the opportunity to enjoy the ambiance of the old room that dates back over 200 years.  It’s a small coffee shop and there are crowds of people but the atmosphere is just wonderful. Inside you can watch them making chocolate and there is even a little museum.  (http://www.demel.at/) There is also plenty of seating in the back.

However, if you want to go to a more spacious coffee house and enjoy coffee with live classical music, go to Central cafe. Housed in the Palais Ferstal which was originally built for the Stock Exchange, it is in a beautiful architectural style of late romantic historism. (According to their website: http://www.palaisevents.at/en/cafecentral.html not exactly sure what that term means, but I like the architectural style anyways)

Central Kaffeehaus is a place for philosphers, thinkers and writers. Even Sigmund Freud and Trotsky used to come here.  I like it.  There are newspapers in various languages for you to read free of charge.  If you go there in the afternoon around 3pm there will be live music of either Strauss or Mozart or other famous classical music  performed by a Violinist, Cellist and Pianist.  I forget if they play everyday or not, but I suppose you could call and ask.   Nevertheless, the music sounds magical.  
 
Especially so when its cold outside and you need somewhere warm to just sit and relax.  I remember going there amidst the snow fall.  It was cold and getting dark, but the warmt that greets you inside clears all that away.  The high archs, painted ceilings and lighting that take you back in time makes you feel warm and fuzzy.  All this whilst taking it in all with one sip at a time. This is the soul of Vienna.  This is what I love.  
 
Even if you don’t drink coffee, like me, you can just go there for tea or cup of hot chocolate.  Their chocolate there is good, more than good.  It’s rich and chocholaty. Just the way I like it…yeah.  Their Apfelstrudel is also so good. I like Apfelstrudel.  Somehow the ones in Bangkok just don’t taste the same.

Vienna: A City with Many Faces

What better month to start my virtual trip to Austria than in the month of love?  Amongst the number of european cities I’ve visited, for me Vienna, Austria was by far the most romantic city of all.  Even more romantic than Paris.  You could wonder if it perhaps depended on whom I went on the trip with? My answer is no.  These were cities I went around exploring on my own and cities I grew in love with.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris, but somehow I love Vienna more.  It’s one of those things you just don’t know why, but you do.

To understand a city, one must first know a little of its history so here’s a brief primer.  Originating as a Celtic settlement before turning into a major trading center under the Babenberg dynasty, the city became the Imperial city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The empire ruled from the 13th century to the 18th century and spread from modern day Italy to Russia and even encompassed Bosnia.  Threatened by the Turks, the empire survived and did not collapse until after World War I.  It was then later annexed by Nazi Germany in the “Anchluss” of 1938.  As a result, buildings were spared from bombings and their rich cultural past remains intact for all to see.

When walking around the old town of cobbled streets, you can feel history in the air.  Austria has a rich coffee culture which dates back to the time of the Turks, museums filled with artwork that just take your breath away and music that is second to none.  This is the country of Mozart, Johann Strauss and Beethoven.  This is where the debutante ball originated with the famous Viennese Opera Ball (still held every year) and the New Year’s Eve Concert is still played annually.

Not only did music strive in Austria, so did the arts.  This is the birthplace of revolutionary new styles of the Art Nouveau.  Gustav Klimt and “The Kiss” were created there.  Otto Wagner the architect and the Winer Werkstatte created beautiful buildings and pieces of furniture with curves and square edges.  I love their style.  This later spread on to Brussels where I first discovered Art Nouveau.  In that same period, Sigmund Freud too developed his theory of pyschoanalysis in Vienna.  I saw his house.

There are so many sides, so many aspects of Austria one could spend years, but I have only a few minutes of your time and so for tonight I shall end it here.  Tomorrow I shall take you on a brief tour of the Old Town.  In the meantime, let us pack our bags, clear out our minds and get ready for this virtual trip to Romantic Vienna.  🙂

I like, You Like : Peace

I like, you like. We all like different things.  Life is strange, everyone of us like different things. It makes things complicated sometimes, but then it is also the spice of life.   Imagine how monotone and plain everything will be if everyone on earth all liked a particular shade of blue and loved the exact same food.  We would be one big monotonic human race. Boring.

Oftentimes though, we forget that others like different things.  Sometimes we like things done a particular way or like things a certain way to such an extent that we come to think that is “THE” way to do things, the ONLY way.    We’d start thinking, “I like A and B, because of C and D.  And because I think so, it is the best way.  Everyone should like and do it the way I do.  If they don’t, they are making a mistake.”

We get so obessed in our beliefs and so set in our likes we project ourselves onto others, all the while, forgetting that he/she is not like me.  He/She is NOT me.  We get annoyed if they disagree. 

That is not the way it was meant to be.

Each and everyone of us develops his/her own likes and dislikes as we grow older.  To see another person clearly, we should realize that he/she doesn’t have to like the same things as we do.  I mean, even the simplest things like colours can be argued about.  For example, just look at the colour “pink.”  Some like pink, some like dusty pink, some like shocking pink.  There are so many shades and each appealing in different ways.  Some dislike pink altogether and like grey, dark grey, charcoal grey. 

Even colours differ, how can we expect everyone to like the same foods, same books, and have the same ideas as us? 

Love everyone for who they are.  Note and observe their differences, their likes and dislikes and life becomes a lot more fascinating.   It allows us to learn about different things and experience new aspects of life that surround us.  Forget not that he/she is NOT me and that everyone has a right to choose what they like or don’t like.   Bathe in our differences and life will be so much more pleasant.  This world would also be so much peaceful…If only we had world peace.  Peace my friends.

Please “alight”

Languages are funny things.  They evolve and transform over time.  Different countries use different versions of the same language.  Cleaning up some things from my previous trip to Singapore, I was reminded of this funny word I noticed while I was there.  The word “alight.”  Now I haven’t been to England for over a decade so I’m not sure if this word is still used widely there, but in Singapore it is used when you take the underground or as they call it the MRT. 

Upon approaching stations where you can take connecting trains, the speaker will announce “Please alight at XXX station for XXXX.”  It comes out in a clear, crisp and perfectly accented english. It’s easy to understand and the word makes perfect sense, but somehow everytime I hear the word, it makes me grin.  It sounds like a different world. A different time.

I don’t remember having heard the word “alight” being widely used in the US when I was there, but that was a long time ago. (Not on the East Coast or in Philly anyways)  Do you know where else “alight” is widely used?  Or are there other words that somehow pique your interest as “alight” did mine? 😛  Please share 🙂

Fitness fashion: Did you know?

When you go to the gym or fitness to workout there is a certain sense of  fashion at each one.  In some places in Bangkok, the norm is just an old t-shirt with a pair of shorts, anything goes.  In other gyms (which may cater to the more young and ‘hip’ professionals) the norm might include form fitting tops and matching bottoms especially designed for sports.  Those were the main differences I had observed in Bangkok.  In Singapore though, there is a much more colourful sense of style in fitness clothes.

The mix of clients who come to the M-hotel in Singapore is diverse and multi-cultural.  Singapore is diverse and multi-cultural.  Everywhere I go I see a mix of expatriates from the western world, indians, chinese, and people from other countries.  However, I never expected that this cultural diversity would be apparent in the gym.

I never knew before how muslim females dressed when they went to the gym to exercise.  The thought just never crossed my mind.  I  knew that swimming required swimming suits that covered up the body, but I did not realize that the same would apply to those running on the treadmill.  For the first time, I saw how it was done.  A muslim lady worked out covered from head to toe. Her head was covered with a headscarf and she wore long sleeves and long pants. That was her gym outfit.

Then another thing I never thought about was Indians working out.  Now I’m not sure if perhaps the Indian lady I saw was on holiday and without gym clothes, but she dressed in a beautiful sari complete with a shawl while running on the treadmill. Of course she wore the pants version of the sari.  Forgive me, but I know not what they are called… It was beautiful and certainly added olour to the gym.  She had her shawl tied up beautifully while she ran..I am amazed.

Then there were the super-fit athletes.  I spotted a man in full running outfit getting ready to go out for a run. Around his waist he had one of those professional looking belts with small water bottles and a place for energy food.  I guess he must be a marathon runner… Then there was another lady who was so lean and in such beautiful form-fitting clothes you could tell she was fit.  I wonder when I can get that body, if ever.

What do you wear to work-out?  do you have any other interesting fitness outfits to share? 🙂