Year 2001. In my first professional visit to Japan I went there to carry a 6 weeks training to an Italian team of 6 boys. They have been chosen to be responsible for a start-up of a project of a new printing machine to be installed in the facilities they were working in Latina town, some 60km south of Rome. The new machine to be installed was similar to the one installed in the facilities in Japan so Japan was chosen to be the training place to secure a smooth and successful project start-up in Latina.
They were young but very naif. Four out of six have never travelled out of Italy, let alone to Asia, and 2 out of those four have never actually left Latin area! It was a challenge, a beautiful challenge, to manage them in an extravagante environment for their eyes. There is nothing similar between both cultures and everything, but every single thing is absolutely different. From the way they great, the way and what they eat, the way they drive, they way they ask questions, the way they speak, look, work and behave there is an ocean between them.
Each of them brought two big suitcases. In one they had their cloths and hygiene utilities, while on the other they had brought food! Their wives, knowing the food in Japan was totally different, made sure husbands would not starve. From spaghetti to olive oil, from dry fruits to food seasoning, from tomato paste to grappa, from cheese to limoncello they brought anything your imagination can handle! We stayed at a rather new hotel, just opened 4 months before our arrival, where the staff did not speak english at all. Actually Japanese are not very proficient at other languages and is a fact that, apart from big cities, is a little difficult to communicate. But this was not a big concern for four of them, they didn’t speak english either.
The first and biggest challenge was to tell the hotel this Italian team would like to have their own dinner, the way they cook at their homes… boy! the body language was of no use in this case. After a phone call to get a Japanese colleague to interprete their wishes to the hotel manager things seemed clear and our Japanese colleague asked if he was needed to come to the hotel for more details though it was ten o’clock in the evening. No, it seems all clear. Once alone, us and the hotel manager, I could see her face was confused, reddish and embarrassed. We stack! Then with her right hand, in a delicate gesture manner only Japanese can do, she pointed to the sofas in the lobby and we understood she wants us to wait a while. Some twenty minutes later a young girl arrived and went straight to the front desk and I saw her talking with the manager. We were then called back to the counter, she present herself and talked in english. We started all over again about the Italian wishes but this time we could dialogue which made it easier. She became red face after understanding that the Italians wanted to use the kitchen themselves and put all the stuff their wives have stuffed in the suitcases in the kitchen closed where they keep the dry food and so. That was not possible, she shyly said, with an air of disbelief about what she just heard. She look back and forth to the manager and both seems confused, very confused. After 30 minutes of discussion, seated on the sofas, we came to an agreement. The first day two of them would teach one of the kitchen workers how to cook the spaghetti the way they usually eat – al dente. Teach them how to seasoning the salad, to make their soup, and the cappuccino for the morning!
The day after all went accordingly and with the help of the Japanese colleagues everything was more or less clarified and the routine started. The first two days I took the training program easy so the two colleagues that spend time in the hotel to teach the kitchen staff would not miss anything of the program. We usually arrived from work at around 20:00 and after a shower and a call to the families the dinner table was put ready to 21:00. For my health habits it was a bit late to have a dinner at that time because it would finish around 11:00 after all, but I could not persuade them to change and eat right after our arrival. I adapted.
The waitress was a short middle age lady walking in a very short steps, as it is a polite habit in Japanese culture, but walked very fast with a never faded smile. The Italian team called her “speedy”. She was fast and efficient which impressed very much my team. The kitchen staff did a perfect job according to the Italians, all was done at perfection and they were really pleased and astonished because they actually did not believe the Japanese would manage the menus they learn in so short time. The dinner time was called off after a coffee, an almond biscuit and obviously a grappa. The young lady that helped us in the first day, we learnt right after, was the daughter of the hotel manager. She was coming every day at dinner time to check if everything was fine and clear. She was extremely polite, kind, smily and engaged in the Italian jokes… My team started to overwhelmed her and waiting for the dinner time to see her…
Japanese cultura was/is very much influenced by Bushido Code which was the Samurai moral virtues and to these days that influence is the most rooted in the Japanese mannerism. That mannerism, in some circumstances, can be wrongly interpreted by a western because Bushido in its most delicate concept may seem sensual, still depending the circumstances that code draws almost no difference between politeness and love. For a Japanese there is no place for interpretation wrongness, they live with since they born. But for a western some circumstances can easily be wrongly interpreted… in one of the very early days I have had a meeting with my Italian team for this purpose, they were taking things wrongly from Akiko’s extreme politeness and the jokes were going harder and harder in the wrong direction, making her feel very uncomfortable, she told me much later in my last business trip, 12 years passed! During our talk I showed to the Italian team a little book I bought in my first visit to Japan called Bushido Code, so they would see I was serious about. They understood the beautiful engagement in respecting the other’s culture and all went fine afterward, very fine I must emphasise. Actually they were eager to know more about the Japanese culture than they thought themselves to do.
Around middle of November (15th) Japan celebrates the 7-5-3 Day (a rite of passage for 3 and 7 years old girls, and 3 and 5 years old boys) . In 2001 the 15th November was on a Thursday, the company gave the Friday and naturally the weekend followed. After some culture shock the week before where 2 of the boys wanted to return home and have to see the doctor to take medicine to control their emotions, I organised a trip for that long weekend and relax out of that daily routine. They agreed with my suggestion, we booked seats for the Shinkansen bullet train, the hotel rooms and got off to Kyoto.
Kyoto was the former capital of Japan and to my eyes more beautiful than Tokyo. Its temples and old town are amazingly preserved. The best way to see a city is always by foot and that is what I did with the boys. Following a map I took them from left to right, from north to south by foot. They were exhausted, really exhausted! And some said that they have never walked so much for as far as they could remember. The food was a little problem for them (not for me though) and eventually we managed to get sandwiches here and there.
We end up our Kyoto visit at Kiyomizu Temple before heading to the train station. Here’s a stunning color gamut we get at that place. In he temple I challenged the two boys having a culture shock to light-up a incense stick in the main shrine. I did it first and told them to try by saying this gesture would make them feel better. Told them to close their eyes and imagine there is no God but God, so they could still pray in their catholic way even though the environment was not of a catholic church. Spirituality, I told them, has nothing to do with environments but with our own soul. They did so, they lighted-up the incense sticks and joined the hands as they are used to do in the chapels of their villages and muttered some words. I guessed was a pray in their own way…
This photo is a conversion from analogue to digital because at that time digital cameras were about to be price affordable but not just yet.
When we arrived at the hotel in Gotemba it was almost 23:00. To my and the disbelief of the hotel staff the Italians took charge of the kitchen and started to cook. They have been missing their food for 3 days and were craving for it! Nobody can stop a team of hungering boys… I thought. So did I this time, I didn’t stop them, I just watched.
…coincidently or not, the day after, the two boys were feeling good with a much better face. They stopped the medicine and wished to continuous the training in Japan. From that day till the end they became very enthusiastic, seemed more energetic and excited with this new exotic world they ever imagined it would struck them in the way it did.