Sunday, September 13, 2009

If Japan is the future, when is now?

While waiting for the rain-interrupted signal to return to my futuristic Japanese satellite TV dish so that I could watch Columbo on WOWOW, I was able to waste time on the Internut and made a pleasant discovery:

It seems that there's a fellow named Tyler Brule who is the editor of the magazine Monocle (only 75 pounds per year) and who also writes occasional funny pieces for the British version of the Onion known as the Financial Times.

The Future Dawns with the Rising Sun

My monthly jaunts to Japan are a good way to catch a glimpse of how things might unfold elsewhere in the near (or very distant) future. A year ago, I could sense a return to the land...

As is usual for Mr. Brule---sorry, I am not sure how to get them thar accent marks properly above his last name---he got orgasmic over the service at the expensive Japanese hotels he stays in during his monthly visits to the future. This time, he also exposed the secret back-to-the-farm-movement that has taken hold of the youth in Japan. Perhaps you have somehow missed that mass exodus from the city. If so, you need to spend less time living in reality and more time staying in absurdly expensive Japanese hotels and ryokans* in order to better understand the country. Or maybe you are just stuck in the past which is the present in other countries.

...Though there hasn’t yet been an all-out flight to toil in the fields of Europe and America – let alone the perfect lifestyle packaging that’s helped drive the trend in Japan – it is a socio-economic trend that is likely to take hold...

Git yer clod-hoppers ready! Tater hoein' is the way of the future!

I've stayed in a few Japanese hotels and ryokans. I have stayed in a number of business hotels. The service at business hotels was neither good or bad: it was near non-existent. Wait, allow me to take that back. In the 90s some of them refused to allow me to stay at all because I was not (and am not) Japanese. I am sure Tyler would not know about that as he appears to be somewhat ignorant of the past of the 90s, let alone the present of the future.

I have stayed in some very expensive hotels including an executive suite in Kyoto. The service was good---the hotel restaurant was somewhat better than Denny's and the view of Kyoto was nice. It was so nice that I wanted to go out on the veranda to take a panoramic of the city,** but unfortunately, the doors were locked. I suppose we could have made arrangements with the polite staff, but why was it necessary at a place with mythical out-of-this-world service? The room was nice, but might not meet most folks expectations of an executive suite.

We stayed in the same Kyoto hotel a number of times in regular rooms. Those rooms were not special, but they were at least as good as some Best Western rooms I have stayed in back in the US. We had a nice view of the empty tennis court. No match for a La Quinta room at half the price, but hey, it's Kyoto. The difference in service for the executive suite and the regular room seemed to be that the check in was faster as was the check out and both were done in a special room on the same floor as our suite. For either class of room you'll get a bellhop to carry your bags up and show you how to turn on the lights, heat, and TV---no tip expected. (A woman half a man's size and weight offering to carry his bag which weighs as nearly much as she does, could cause some discomfort for some less modern guys. Unfortunately though, he might have to resort to fisticuffs to keep her from taking it. Could this be the super-service?)

We once stayed in a suite at Chuzenjiko Kanaya Hotel near Nikko. It was a nice suite and we got a good deal on the price. Naturally, being up in the mountains I liked it, but I would have been happy under a tarp. The wife liked it too, but she was more interested in the food and the onsen. The service? The same as their standard rooms. Good but nothing special. For dinner you have a choice of driving or walking a few miles down to the town of Chuzenjiko, or you could eat at the over-priced French restaurant in the hotel. I had venison for the first time since coming to Japan at that restaurant a few years ago. I liked it, although it was not properly prepared and probably had not been properly cared for, so it had a strong wild taste. The wife likes venison and other game, but not if it has a wild taste. The grape sauce did cover it up somewhat though.

We spent a night in a famous ryokan near Hakone and enjoyed what we, being two ignorant hicks, thought was the best sake we had ever tasted. The next morning, the maid took a look at the remaining sake and apologized because we had obviously been served sake that had gone bad. To make up for it, we got a fruit dish at no extra charge. Thank goodness we were ignorant or we might have been po'd.

A few of the rooms we have stayed in have cost us ¥30,000 each person or more per night. Most normal folks who don't have more money than brains would call that expensive; even stupidly expensive. Curiously, I have never seen the type of incomparable service that Tyler apparently gets, so I can only imagine how much his rooms cost.

Several years ago when the movie Lost in Translation came out, my then Japanese tutor hated it. One thing that she especially hated was the portrayal of the service at the hotel where the main characters stayed. "I can't get that kind of service," she sniffed. She appeared to be a sharp woman (she is now in Silicon Valley), but obviously she was neither as knowledgeable as Mr. Brule nor a jet-setting, easily infatuated, in-and-out tourist staying at extraordinarily expensive hotels.

I recall glancing through Monocle when it first came out a few years ago (or at least when it first appeared in Maruzen at Ark Hills) and I read one of the esteemed editor's articles about Tokyo. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember that he had written about how wonderful it was to be able to attend a meeting in Tokyo in a blazer and short pants. Now that must be what is meant by Cool Biz. If only all the ignorant fools who live and work here understood that, then it would make summers much more bearable. Wonder what the folks he met with thought---or said after he left the room?

*Of course a ryokan is not a hotel so it is kinda silly to compare the service of the two.

**The panorama at the top of this blog was shot through the windows. Unfortunately, I could not get the sunset version I wanted due to reflections on the glass of the solidly locked doors. A dawn panorama would have been even tougher to arrange. "Excuse me, but could you send someone up at dawn to unlock the veranda doors so that I may take some pictures?" Maybe it would have worked though as I was in the executive suite and thus obviously a very important fellow.


  1. Armchair Asia11:27 AM

    I am sick, absolutely sick that you beat me to writing about Tyler. Je l'adore.

    The interns and I have been having a laugh over his weekly column all summer. He manages to spend each week on at least three continents and a night in Japan. He thinks Japan's airports are the best. And he is very good at spending other people's money.

    He is, however, refreshing after you meet all the gay men in DC who consider themselves serious policy players. Tyler has no pretense that he makes a difference. He just enjoys himself.

    And I have to admit, I really do think that a three day beard on a strong chin is very appealing.

    Yeah, good men are hard to find.

  2. He makes a good living and enjoys himself? Then I ought not poke fun at his columns 'cause he's doing better than me and most other people I know...

  3. Most Japanese can never know what it is like to be a foreigner living in Japan. Most foreigners passing through Japan can never know either. OTOH, most foreigners I know in Japan live in Tokyo or Kyoto and don't know much of what it is like to live as a foreigner outside one of the big cities. Etc.

  4. Can't disagree with that. One of the problems of living in Tokyo is to try to keep in mind that it does not represent all of Japan any more than NYC represents the US.