Trip to Orient – Feb 2012

Trip to the Orient

In February 2012, I was given the opportunity to travel to the Orient for IBM; China & Japan to be precise. Going to Shanghai and Tokyo for a two weeks on business was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

To China

Our trip to the orient didn’t start off well at all. As we arrived in the Chicago airport my colleague, Terry, and I were greeted with two flight delays then the ultimate cancellation due to equipment failure. On the positive side of things, it’s always best to have equipment failure on the ground before you take off. But that put our arrival in China behind by a day.

Rebooking my flight was an adventure. After a long wait in line behind one of those difficult customers, I walked up to the counter and proudly said that I would be easy to deal with because I had flexibility in my travel. Wrong. Because I used airline awards to subsidize my upgrade to business class, the airline automatically rebooked me on another flight to Shanghai in business class. Their route was going to take me from Chicago to Newark to Paris to Shanghai.

The gracious host in the Admiral’s club worked on options for almost 30 minutes before we settled on the two best choices. I was tired so it took me a while to decide which option was best. The first option was fly business class Chicago to London (8 hr) with a 6 hr layover then to Shanghai (11 hr) arriving on Saturday at 9:30 am China time. Option two was to stay in Chicago overnight and fly out on the original 10:30 flight to China (14 hr) but in coach. You probably did the math in your head a lot faster than it took me. (I said I was tired) Right, 25 hours travel time in business class versus 14 in coach but with a full night’s sleep in a free hotel.

After my assistant artfully changed our arrival time in Shanghai and made changes to all our transportation there, we quickly realized it was a net win. We did a little work on Thursday and started over the next day fresh and ready to fly to the orient. I was told my seat would be in the first row of coach yielding me first class leg room. Wrong. Turns out, I was shoe horned into the last seat of the first coach section, backed into the bulk head. In my head, I had this vision of the plane landing early as we flew over Canada because I couldn’t handle the small space for such a long time. Much to my amazement, I was able to soldier through the discomfort thanks in large part to the small statured gent who sat next to me yielding me some much deserved elbow room all the way to China. In spite of the fact that the airlines had personal media centers in every seat, mine didn’t work for crap. Good thing I had my iPad, iPod, and my Laptop. That kept me going during the time I couldn’t steel a couple hours of sleep.

Shanghai Arrival

Entering Shanghai it was very apparent this is a modern town beyond expectations. The building that looks like a can opener is the Shanghai World Financial Center building as seen from the road coming into town from the airport, set behind very modern-clean apartment buildings. The roads were extremely clean and well maintained. Along side the freeway, there was a partition where bicyclists and motorbikes road safely portioned from the mainstream traffic.

We barely opened the car door at the Shangri-La in and our personal greeters escorted us directly to our rooms from the car. I mean there were two greeters, one for me and one for Terry. My greeter assured that I was comfortable a she took care of all the paperwork swiftly and personally from my room. I never saw the front desk. Before I knew it, my bags arrived. With most hotels, the bellmen can’t deliver your bags in less than an hour after you reach your room. Even the Four Seasons in Maui took over an hour to bring our bags up. I was quite impressed, especially given the hotel rates are roughly $170 per night. Now, quick math for you; I have interacted with no less than three service workers that far exceeded any service I’ve ever experienced and not one of them would accept a tip.

The view fro my room looks out over the Huangpu River over to the east side of the river to what they call the “Bund”. To the right is the TV and Radio Tower building, the tallest TV tower in the world and at one time the tallest building in China.

After freshening up, we walked across the street to the mall. Quickly we noticed tons of high-end shops; the likes we’ve never seen before. There’s high-end shops in Vegas or Wailea, Maui but this place was loaded with high-end on top of high-end. It made both Vegas and Wailea look like the poor end of town. We ran into Jason and his family and stopped for a light dinner.

Breakfast at the Shangri-La reminds me of the Four Seasons. Except, the Shangri-La breakfast puts the Four Seasons breakfast to shame. The Yi Café has no less than 10 different very large stations all decked out. The first was a pastry station with every imaginable pastry you could find. There was a fruit station, an entire room with two stations of juices and smoothies, and on the other side of the juice room were several other stations for omelets, meat, and all sorts of food that I’ve never even seen before. Everyone knows I enjoy breakfast. This was particularly good so I had to enjoy it again befoore we flew to Japan. Tung, our IBM friend, informed us that he had established status with the Shangri-La chain such that they gave him free breakfasts. Oh. I envy his status. I could only afford this luxury twice.
Shanghai Personal Tour

After Breakfast on Sunday, Terry and I took a private tour of old Shanghai. The concierge recommended this tour style. Honestly, it was worth every penny, which was only $40 more than the group price. We got a private driver and an English speaking guide that really knew her stuff.

We started in Old Shanghai where you really got the sense you were in China. It was nothing like the modern Pudong financial district. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were confronted by merchants selling their wears, everything from watches to iPods. The streets were loaded with people. The buildings had the classic Ming Dynasty style upwards curved roof tops. Many of the door ways were adorned with Dragons, Lions, and other Chinese style decorations. You couldn’t walk 15 feet without seeing another shop selling some sort of product.

Our first stop on the tour in Old Shanghai was to visit the Yu Yuang garden, built in 1577 by a Chinese Government Officer. The officer was trying to please his parents with this beautiful 30 acre garden. It took him over twenty years to complete the magnificent garden. Unfortunately, his parents didn’t live to see the entire garden finished. But it became quite a place to see. Early in the 19th century during the Opium War, the garden was savagely damaged as were many of the government official’s properties. Over time, the garden was reduced to 1/6th it’s original size but restored by the government to its original beauty after WW II in the late 50s.

Our guide is well versed in the facts of Yu Yuang Garden. We learned that all gardens have a bridge over water to protect evil from entering the garden. Over the bridge is a wall, common to gardens in China required for Feng Shui. Did you know rocks are valued as much as Jade in China? The rocks in this garden are said to be priceless. Some of the rocks, shipped in since the renovation in the 50s were incredibly valued.

Outside the imperial palace, dragons were illegal. The government official that built this garden during the Ming Dynasty must have been the worlds first lawyer because he found a loophole. The dragons used in his decorations were not real dragons because they only had four toes and everyone knows dragons have five toes.

We departed from Yu Yuang Garden and walked passed the world famous tea house. Leading to the tea house is a zig zag walk way over water. There are 9 zigs in the walk. The number 9 in China is a special number being the last odd single digit.

From the Yu Garden, we went to the Confucius temple. Apparently, most cities in China have a Confucius temple. This temple was also a school and a tea house. The school was a private school funded by Confucius himself. Students kneeled while the professor taught.  Etched on the walls of the temple is one of Confucius’ famous five books.

Our next stop was in the “French Concession”. The history of this area was brought about after the Opium Wars. The wars came from an imbalance of trade with China and the British Empire. China wanted to trade directly with the west without going through western proxies like Britain’s East Indies Company. So, they restricted all western trade to one port. The western response was to infiltrate China with opium redressing the imbalance. The Emperor demanded action destroying the opium supplies coming into China and placing the users under siege. After two wars, Britain and China settled with the treaty of Nanking, also giving Britain Hong Kong for 100 years. Essentially, Britain, France, and the United States were each given concession areas within the city of Shanghai, much like a foreign embassy.

Interestingly, it was within one of these concessions, the French Concession, where the Communist Part of China was born. Following a lengthy civil war, the communists gathered in the French Concession to plan their takeover.

it was during our tour of Shanghai that my car envy kicked into overdrive. Shanghai is said to have the highest per capita of Bently’s. Perhaps, but I saw countless BMW’s and Mercedes. Terry was so nice to tolerate my envy. He even asked our tour guide to pause while I walked back to see my first Austin Martin in person – owner in the driver seat while I admired his vehicle.

Why We Are Here

Sunday night, we met with Matt, our AP host for the week. Matt is originally from Australia but resides in Singapore while he’s on assignment working for the Growth Market Unit here in Asia. We decided to have dinner in the hotel at Jade Restaurant since it had been a busy day for all of us. Poor Matt almost didn’t make it to Shanghai. His flights were cancelled. The backup flights were full and they didn’t want to let him on the plane. Somehow, he managed to get in the last seat of the last plane out of Singapore.

The plan was to review the week’s agenda over dinner and get a good night’s rest quickly. Like many restaurants in Shanghai, the Jade had photo depictions of most dishes on their menu making it easy to point and shoot your way through the meal. Terry ordered sweet and sour pork, Matt some kind of braised beef stew, and I picked pork ribs. ….Surprise! The pictures in our menu do not reflect actual size. The guy’s meals were sized for giants. My pork ribs looked like they came off a guinea pig. Good thing I wasn’t very hungry.

On the way to work, we headed toward the center of the city and the tallest buildings in Shanghai. Turns out, IBM is located in the second tallest building in China, the Jinmao Tower. We have the 13th floor. Given how superstitious I learned the Chinese are, I’m guessing our rent is cheep. Next to our building is the tallest building in China at 421 Meters, the China World Financial Tower – the same one we noticed on the drive into Shanghai from the airport. To the left of these two monsters, they are working day and night on a new building that is planned to become the tallest in China and second tallest in the world. You can see a depiction of how the three giants will look in 2014 when they are finished with the latest edition to the Shanghai skyline. Our workshop started on Monday and went off quite nicely. Our hosts were very well prepared and took ownership nicely, making our jobs easy.

When I returned to my room after our first day, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the hotel staff who not only delivered flowers but also a piece of birthday cake celebrating my day. The card reads, “Dear Mr. Coventry, Happy Birthday to You! Best Wishes! Your Room Attendant, Debbie.” Now, I know English isn’t their first language so I read that card three or four times before I decided the flowers were not from my wife. I assume the Chinese writing on the cake reads “Happy Birthday”. Yep! It was good!

One of our hosts, Tung, who had lived in Shanghai for four years, insisted that we visit the Bund before we move on to Tokyo. He was too gracious to escort us there on our last night. Tung had quite an interesting life. He was a refugee from Vietnam when Saigon fell where he and his family floated in a boat to Hong Kong. Soon after, his family immigrated to Australia where he grew up. He worked for IBM in Australia, Shanghai for four years, and now resides in Singapore. He speaks four languages and two dialects of Chinese. It was so much more interesting to tour Shanghai with Tung as our guide.

We visited the Bund where we learned the original Shanghai city was established. In fact, the entire city on the east side has been built in the last thirty years. It’s hard to imagine that only thirty years ago, the east side of the river was farm land. Now the cityscape is one of the most modern in the world boasting two and soon three of the world’s tallest buildings.

Tung pointed out the Peace Hotel where it was believed many cold war spies found refuge over the years. Looking back over into the east side of the river evoked futuristic movies like Blade Runner where city buildings posted advertisements. The future is here.

We had dinner in the French Concession at a terrific Bestro. It was very European – just a terrific night. Before we headed to Tokyo, I insisted on another round at that breakfasts buffet, a great decision before we ventured off to the farther east. After breakfast, once again, we were treated to a lovely ride in the S-Type Mercedes with the music of our choice and wi-fi while we enjoyed the sights of Shanghai skirting through the busy Friday traffic.

Tokyo, Japan – Saturday, February 25, 2012

We were spoiled in Shagnhai, so I tried my best to have low expectations for our trip to Tokyo. Right away things didn’t start out well. Our Air China flight out of Shanghai was delayed almost an hour. We piled into the plane like cattle. The plane was uncomfortably warm and cramp. After going through customs, we were whisked onto our “Limo” bus – no time to exchange currency.

My assistant told me the ride from the airport would be about an hour. Somehow, I knew things wouldn’t work out as designed when the bus driver showed a sign to buckle our seats and I couldn’t even get the belt to unlock. Once it unlocked, the darn thing wouldn’t latch. Ninety minutes later tolerating an overheated bus and we finally arrived at our hotel. The Hotel Intercontinental ANA is a nice hotel but compared to the Shangri-La, it’s a let down.

Tokyo is an interesting city. Most of the highway into town is elevated. There are layers of activity in this city like some futuristic movies depict major cities, ground level activity, elevated roads, subterranean, and sky scrapers that pierce through each layer of human activity. Our hotel is no exception to that. My room is way up in the clouds, 24 stories above the ground. Below my window, you can see the elevated highways. At the street level, the busy shops cater to thousands.

Self-Guided Tour Day 1

Terry and I decided to venture out and try some self-guided sight seeing after lunch. We escaped through the hotel’s lower level into the subway and out to Asakusa, an historical former center of Tokyo. After a long subway ride to the last stop at Asakusa, we rose to the street level and walked into a market area that clearly looked like the stereotypical Tokyo, Japan, with a little Americana blended in (see McDonald’s). It turned out to be easier to navigate the subway than I feared.

This outdoor, covered Nakamise mall area winds around this former city street with shops galore. Everywhere we turned there were people walking or on bikes darting in and out of these shops. As we walked along the shops, many of the shop keepers had “hockers” drawing people into their stores like a carny at the fair. The two guys in white behind the counter are selling tasty treats like donuts that had all kinds of stuffing like fruit, chocolate, and fish. That’s right. They stuffed fish in their delightful treats. Certainly not for me but people were buying them. Must be an acquired taste.

Behind me is the official Nakamise shopping street. Along this street on both sides are about 90 stores dating from the Edo era. They sold everything you never thought you needed like chopsticks of every kind. I’ve never seen so many chopsticks offered.

Sensoji Temple

Once we emerged from the Nakamise shopping street, we enter the Sensoji Temple. The Sensoji Temple is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan built in 628 when Japan’s capital was Asuka. As we entered the temple, we walked through the Hozomon Gate. Originally erected in 942, the gate burned down during an air raid during WW II and reconstructed in 1964. The Main Hall is the oldest portion of the temple. Originally erected in 628, this temple is visited by over 30M people each year. You can’t have a Buddhist temple without a buddha. Here is a pair of Buddha’s. The smoke you see in front of the hall has a big pot with burning embers. Buddhist followers are drawn to this pot to cleanse their spirits. If you ask me, they only way they get clean is when they get home an wash off that smokey smell.

Traditional Tokyo

It was time to venture into more of what the locals call traditional Tokyo. We passed another batch of old shops hocking their wears. Then we happened along a strip with local restaurants on both sides of the street. We noticed one of the most peculiar things (center picture below). These shops are small and clearly set up to be outdoor eateries. It was cold so, every restaurant has plastic veneer hanging from the roof acting as temporary walls. What’s amazing is that almost every shop was full with patrons sitting around tables that were smaller than picnic tables. Outside every shop stood a bundled up hocker calling out their sales pitch.

We turned the corner onto a busy, modern street, and what did we see but a “Mister Donut”. That’s right. Mister Donut is alive and kicking in Tokyo. I thought that brand died when Dunkin Donuts took over, clearly not in Tokyo.

Self-Guided Tour – Sunday, February 26, 2012

Today, we ventured out again in spite of the fact that I was just not in the mood. Deb said to get up off my but and follow Terry around. Love ya, Deb. You can tell how excited I was from the picture Terry took of me while we were en route on Sunday.

This time, we headed to the Ueno area of Tokyo. Our first stop was the Yushima Tenmangu Shrine, established in 458, and enshrines the Sugawara Michizane, the God of Learning. On the grounds are about 300 Japanese plum trees in the precincts that were planted in connection with Sugawara Michizane. The architecture is constructed entirely of Japanese cypress. Located at 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, this is a Shinto shrine. You may ask, I thought the oldest temple was the Sensoji Temple. Turns out there are two major religions in Tokyo, Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto predates Buddhism in Japan. It is distinctly Japanese in origin. Over time, the two blended some traits and beliefs but Buddhism came to Japan from India through China.

Shinto Religion

Shinto (“the way of the gods”) is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people and as old as Japan itself. It remains Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism. Shinto is the original and oldest religion in Japan that predates Buddhism in Japan, which came to Japan from India through China.

Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.

“Shinto gods” are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto’s most important kami.

We were about to head out to our next stop on the walking tour when we happened upon this group of people dressed in white surrounding what looked like some sort of religious carriage. Terry and I were taken by the ceremony under way. We were so enthralled; we stayed almost through the end of the ceremony. Later, we found out we witnessed a Shinto event that only happens once a year. So, it was quite a treat to see this in person. Turns out these carriages are holding their Gods and what they’re effectively doing is giving their God a “taxi ride” around its precinct – trying to please their God. This is a yearly festival on a day particular relevant to the shrine where it takes place. During this festival the local kami are carried in effigy round the town or village in an ornate litter (like a sedan-chair) called a mikoshi.

It was after 1:00 and by this time, we worked up quite an appetite, so we tried a little of the local fare. First, we stopped by this vendor making what looked like mini football shaped donut holes. The artisan artfully squirted batter into the bottom of piping hot griddle where 36 evenly spaced cups accepted just enough batter to make his football shaped donut holes. We couldn’t resist trying them out. Desert before lunch, well of course, we are adults after all. They tasted like warm-soft fortune cookies. Good but nothing to write home about. The entertaining part was how artfully he made his products. Wish I had caught a picture. Guess it was time for some real sustenance. We stumbled on this vendor making chicken and pork sticks. Barbeque chicken sticks were good – good enough for two helpings.

We walked over to Ueno Onshi Park to catch the sights. First stop in the park was the Shitamachi Museum. This museum near the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park has life-size replicas of Shitamachi (old downtown) buildings dating back to the late-Meiji and early-Showa periods at the turn of the century. You can see and try traditional Japanese children’s toys such as kendama and menko. Another related exhibit is the house of a sake merchant, originally built in 1910 and later moved to its present site.

This older gentleman offered to walk us through the museum and personally explain everything. That was worth the price of entry. He explained how most shop keepers of early 1900s Tokyo had shops where they made products like the shoes he demonstrated for us and lived in the second floor of their shops. Those shoes didn’t look too comfortable. The guide agreed saying that as a boy he wore those types of shoes and thinking back, they weren’t comfortable at all compared to modern shoes. The souls of the shoe were made from a solid piece of wood. The straps were hemp rope wrapped with colorful-decorative clothe. On the far right, we saw a traditional copper smith shop where the shop keeper often kept a God centrally mounted designed to ward off fire, which was quite dangerous in a copper shop made of wood and paper.

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