Memories from my Tour to Three Countries of Northern Europe



Several years ago, I willingly took part in a tour of inspection, which was organized by a certain large company, to Northern Europe because I had long wanted to go there even once in my life. The tour of 42 members was very packed: 4 cities in 3 countries within 6 days; however, I still freely enjoyed some of the cultures peculiar to North Europe in a short period of time.


First, we visited Helsinki in Finland. The scenery seen from the window of the bus bound for the midtown area seemed very fresh to me: a little inorganic and unusual space with green trees and white buildings, different from any other foreign country. There weren’t any profound historical buildings like in London, Paris and Rome, and harmonious buildings of almost the same height stood regularly. The streets without any flashy advertisements or signboards in garish colors were quite clean, and the entire towns with fewer people and cars were quiet and peaceful. All of them made me very impressed.


One of the reasons why the streets looked orderly was the well-equipped cycling paths. I found the people of Finland had a high level of morality because I didn’t see any vending machines, stalls, illegally parked cars and bicycles, garbage or cigarette-butts on the streets when I was walking around. I could relax very much during the slowly passing time maybe because I thought it natural to live restlessly and busily in the crowded city.


At the University of Helsinki, we listened to the students’ speeches and I admired their fluent and witty deliveries despite their inexperience of studying in Japan. I thought the Finns were a very diligent and highly cultured people because they could naturally speak some foreign languages as well as English, even after considering their necessity of learning foreign languages because of historical and geographical reasons.


Next, we visited Oslo in Norway. We looked around the floor of City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony is held every year, and I learned that Alfred Nobel decided to hold only the Peace Prize award ceremony in Norway wishing for the reconciliation and peace between Sweden and Norway. I was surprised to know the history of the long conflict between the two neighboring countries even in Northern Europe.


At the entrance of City Hall, there were big wall paintings with the motif of Norse mythology, where the supreme god Odin and the goddess Freya with other gods and goddesses were painted in a narrative style. I had and have miniature schnauzers which were named after Norse mythology: Freya was a female dog which passed away 4 years ago at the age of 13, Odin is a 16-year-old male dog, Skuld and Ould are female dogs which are a little younger than 2 years old. My son named them after a god and goddesses of Norse mythology; therefore, I thought of my dogs when I was looking at the wall paintings. Later, I proudly talked about my dogs and their names, but unfortunately, they showed only a little interest in my story.


We left Oslo and moved along a zigzag railroad in the rough mountains by the Bergen Railway which ran through the southern tip of the Scandinavian mountains and the mountainous railway for Flam. The land was covered with deep snow even at the end of October and I could not forget the fantastic and beautiful scenery as if I had been in Norse mythology. The sightseeing guide on the LCD monitor in the vehicle was performed in English, French and Japanese, to my surprise. It showed that so many Japanese went there for a fjord and aurora tour.


We were supposed to transfer from the train to the fjord sightseeing boat at Flam Harbor, but no one in charge came out even after the boarding time. We were a little irritated to see the sailors smoking cigarettes relaxingly and leisurely. After about 1 hour, they announced that the boat was under repair because of engine trouble, and finally the boat left the harbor 2 hours behind schedule. It was almost evening when the boat put out to sea, so after a little while, the sun set, and we couldn’t see the superb view of the fjord any more in the total darkness. And what was worse, it became rainy and foggy, and we couldn’t do anything but stay in our cabin. Even so, I still enjoyed the fantastic and mysterious atmosphere of dim lights of scattered houses in the dark.


On the way back from Flam to Oslo by bus, we had a look around Borgund Stave Church, World Heritage Site. It was a wooden architecture of the Church of Norway, which was built using advanced architectural technology without any nails or metallic material in the 12th century. This church has been repeatedly repaired and preserved in very good condition since it was built. Later, I thought that I should have looked around the church more to learn that this church was the model of Elsa’s ice palace in the Disney movie, “Frozen” which was a big hit in Japan.


We went back to Oslo, and set sail for Copenhagen in Denmark, our next destination, on a large passenger ship. The ship left the harbor in the early evening and arrived the next morning. While I was on the board, I was deeply impressed by the beautiful morning glow in the eastern direction, the Sweden side, and Kronborg Castle towering solemnly on the small hill in the western direction, the Denmark side.


Unlike the fantastic and calm atmosphere which I experienced in this tour, Copenhagen was a busy city with many people and cars, and it was one of the biggest international trade cities in Europe. The time passed as quickly as I felt in Japan, and it made not only me but also some of other tour members feel comfortable.


The local tour guide gave us some information about a popular souvenir from Denmark to wealthy madams and ladies in Japan: an eco-bag sold at supermarket “Irma” for about JPY 500. Therefore, I left Tivoli a little earlier than the scheduled time and went to the supermarket. I laughed unconsciously to find other middle-aged and elderly male members of my tour were packing together and buying many eco-bags even though they all were presidents or directors of some of Japan’s best-known countries. (However, I also bought the eco-bag.)


In this tour, I stayed for a few days in each city and looked quickly and superficially around only famous sightseeing spots. If I have another chance to visit Northern Europe again, I want to spend a lot of time traveling by train around Sweden in addition to three countries I already visited, and I also want to experience local culture in rural towns which aren’t shown in tour guide books.






The Chinese Business Episode about a Banquet or Dinner



In many books and on various sites on the internet related to business with foreign countries, Chinese table manners when having meals with clients, which we should know in advance, are written about. My experience showed me that these manners are very friendly and meaningful. I will introduce some of them here.


Several years ago, 4 members of my company were invited to dinner at a Chinese restaurant by our clients, 6 executives of a local company in Beijing. There was a red package of cigarettes beside a finely folded napkin on the dish on the round table in front of each of us. However, as I stopped smoking several years before, I asked the local employee to interpret that I was sorry, but I would not smoke. All the clients were smiling and talking with him. He told me that they were the most expensive and delicious cigarettes called “chun-fa”, which were distributed to all the attendants at the National People’s Congress (the Chinese assembly). They told me that I should try a puff if I had ever been a smoker. I had prior knowledge of Chinese manners about cigarettes: hosts are to offer cigarettes to their guests at a party or dinner. Besides, I was interested in cigarettes which government officials would smoke, so I accepted their offer. Indeed, I enjoyed the sweet and rich flavor of the cigarette and said repeatedly to them, “Hao-chi! Hao-chi!” without flattery. The clients were glad that I accepted their offer, though I had given up smoking, and told me that I did not have to smoke another cigarette if I didn’t want to. Needless to say, they didn’t mind at all even if I declined to smoke, but it is regarded as a good manner to accept their offer pleasantly if I can without any trouble. Afterward, I was offered cigarettes many times, so I smoked only 1 cigarette without telling them that I gave up smoking, and brought the rest of the cigarettes back to my coworkers.


Next, speaking of alcoholic drinks, in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city, beer, wine and Shaoxing rice wine are usually drunk, and in Beijing or Tianjin, the north part of China, bai-jiu (a Chinese alcoholic beverage made from grain with high alcohol) is popular. In China, at any banquet or dinner (even among family or friends), a person in the highest position among them, who is called “rao-pan” (a chief), usually proposes the first toast (gan-bei: drinking up without pausing), and all the people present follow him. Even after the first drink, drinking alone is regarded as unfavorable, so it is considered to be polite that several people look one another in the eyes and drink at the same time. When we drink bai-jiu with about 50% of the alcohol content even in a small glass, we need to be careful of not getting “blind drunk”. The rao-pan sometimes taps a table with his glass to propose a toast to all, and then everyone drinks up his glass, and shows others its bottom for proof.


Not only rao-pan, but also any other host member is always careful of all guests, and they smilingly make eye contact and lift a glass for a toast when a guest stops eating or talking. If we don’t drink alcohol, we can drink water or tea from the beginning, or if you cannot drink alcohol any more, you can slow down by saying “Sui-yi” (drinking as much as you like) instead of “Gan-bei!” (Bottoms up!) Like cigarettes, we don’t have to force alcohol on ourselves. However, there is no doubt that they will accept us as close business partners when we drink as much as possible with them even if we easily get drunk. Especially, executives of national enterprises looked tough for the first time and only had a superficial talk, but after drinking together at a banquet or a dinner, most of them became friendly with us.


In a Japanese banquet or dinner, business talk tends to be avoided. In contrast, a banquet and dinner in China are an important social meeting place to know one another, where they talk very openly including business matters. Chinese people are usually cheerful and friendly, and their table manners seem to be based on the spirit of hospitality.










Our Taiwan Travel Memory



I have been to Taiwan several times on business, but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time for sightseeing on my business trips; therefore, I participated in a tour of sightseeing spots with my son during our summer vacation.
In spite of our anxiety about the typhoon in the sea near Taiwan, till just the previous day, we left Japan. Our flight from Kansai International Airport arrived at Taipei Songshan Airport almost on schedule. While we were waiting in line for an immigration check, my son said to me, “Here comes Arashi!” (literally meaning “storm”), so I thought he was talking about the weather and replied to him, “Probably because of the typhoon.” He whispered to me, “No. Look, they are Arashi!” and turned his eyes to the young men who were coming to the end of the line just next to ours. They looked like ordinary young boys, but as I looked closely at them, I recognized them as members of a Japanese boy pop group, Arashi. Their flight from Haneda Airport (Tokyo International Airport) was delayed and theirs and ours arrived almost at the same time, so we luckily could see popular artists up close. We passed the immigration check, picked up our luggage and went out to the arrival lobby. At that moment, my son and I were welcomed by innumerable camera flashes and a great cheer by female fans who covered the lobby. Actually, Arashi, walking just ahead of us, caused this turmoil. We had mixed feelings that we didn’t want to bother them or that we were under the illusion of being popular stars ourselves. The next day, big photos of Arashi in the arrival lobby were in local newspapers. If only we had walked several meters closer to them, we would have also been in the newspapers.


In this tour, everything was just new to me, and I fully enjoyed popular sightseeing spots. Besides the uproar in the airport, we had a very interesting experience during our free time of the tour thanks to one of my working companions. On the second day of the tour, after sightseeing during the daytime, we met him and had dinner. After dinner, he asked us if we would like to have a drive, so we took a taxi to the suburbs for about 30 minutes and went along the winding road up to the hill in the pitch-black darkness, where only lights of the vehicles were seen. I asked him where we were, and he answered we were in the tea plantation area (the Muzha District, Maokong) to drink tea. We went deeper into the mountains, got out of the taxi at the tea house with lights and a signboard, and entered the shop.


There was a counter like a reception in the tea house. We bought tea leaves and some sweets from shelves with tea cans and sweets on the wall, and made tea for ourselves at the place where boiled water and tea sets were equipped. We could choose seats wherever we liked to enjoy the self-made tea. The working companion, who graduated from a university in Taiwan, often came to this tea house since he was a university student; therefore, he seemed accustomed to making tea.


That was not a common tea house but had many tables with hundreds of chairs on the large terrace in the shape of 3 or 4-layer stairs on the huge site. It was already past 10 p.m., but a group of a dozen members who appeared to be students were loudly chatting, a couple were happily pouring tea for each other and many others were enjoying tea in a very good atmosphere. Tea houses like this were dotted in the Muzha District. Tourists rarely visited them, but many local people would relax there. The tea houses were in the mountain where it was cooler by some degrees, so especially at night in the hot season, many people came to the tea houses. Young people sometimes had an argument or chatted until dawn. We were much interested in how to choose tea leaves and tea sets among many variations; how to make tea and how to drink tea. This experience in which we came in touch with a part of Taiwanese life was left most vividly in our minds. These tea houses are introduced in travel guidebooks, however, not so many tourists went all the way to the tea plantation area, but they go to the tea houses in the downtown area. Therefore, I always recommend the tea houses in the Muzha District to those who plan to go to Taipei.




Business Episodes in Singapore



About 20 years ago, at a factory of a major Japanese electric appliance maker in the western part of Singapore, a production system had some problems, so my company was requested to provide technical support and I went to Singapore with an engineer for the first time.


While we were investigating the cause of the trouble of the production system in the huge factory on the shore, we had lunch at the staff cafeteria. I was surprised that the big and clean cafeteria, which was fully equipped with facilities, sold a wide variety of dishes and what I ate was very delicious. The recruiting targets of the factory were various races including ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians, so satisfying welfare facilities and a good labor environment were necessary to obtain high-quality workers for the long term, somewhat different from local European companies.

さらに従業員のマナーの良さと礼儀正しさにも驚かされました。 同工場の日本人管理職に聞くと、採用後に一通りの教育はしますが、日本式のマナーや礼儀を強要したことはないそうです。人種の違いで考え方や表現の仕方が異なりますが、社内の共通語は英語(所謂シンガポール英語のシングリッシュ)で、お互いの意思の疎通に問題はないとのことです。 一概に勤勉で真面目な人が多く、従業員同士のトラブルもないと聞きました。

In addition, I was also surprised at the employees’ good manners and courtesy. I asked a Japanese manager why they acted like that, and he told me that he provided general work training but never forced them to accept Japanese-style manners and courtesy. Ways of thinking or expressing oneself varied from race to race, but they could smoothly communicate with each other in English (Singaporean English: what is called Singlish). Generally, many of the employees were hardworking and no disagreements seemed to occur among them.

シンガポールでは中国系が人口の約74パーセントを占めており教育程度も高く、14パーセントのマレー系や9パーセントのインド系の国民を圧倒しているようでした。 技術打合せにおいても中国系の人々が積極的に発言することが多く、上昇志向と自己主張の強さを感じました。 彼らはアジア圏の様々な国で強い存在感を示しています。

In Singapore, Chinese, who accounted for about 74 percent of all the population, seemed to outnumber Malays (14 percent) and Indians (9 percent). Chinese tended to speak assertively in the technical meetings, and they seemed to have strong ambitions to rise in the world and have their own ways. In many Asian countries, they play important roles.

昼食を終えて外の空気を吸いに建物を出たときに、再び驚きました。 早朝チャンギ空港に着いて同工場にタクシーで移動した時には気持ちいい晴天であったにもかかわらず、昼には辺り一面が薄暗く焦げ臭い臭いが漂っていました。 おそらく近隣で火事があったのだろうと普通に考えましたが、現地従業員に対岸のインドネシアのスマトラ島からマラッカ海峡を超えてマレー半島に流れてくる野焼きや山火事の煙だと教えてもらいました。 それにしても目に染みるし、むせこむような酷い煙でした。 現地の人達はマスクをするでもなく平然としていて、住民の健康面への影響はないのだろうか心配になりました。  4月から9月の乾季だけで毎日ではなく、一日の内でも風の強さや向きにより影響度は変わるみたいであり、我慢できないほどではないのかも知れませんでした。 なるほど夕方その日の仕事を終えた時には煙たさはほぼ消えていました。 この煙害(ヘイズ)については長年に亘り関係国の政府間で改善に向けて対策を講じているようですが、未だに妙策はないようでした。

I was surprised again when I went out of the building for a breath of fresh air after lunch. I smelt something burning all around though it was nice and clear when I came from Changi Airport to the factory by taxi in the early morning. I naturally thought there was a fire in the neighborhood, but one of the local workers told me that it was the smoke of a burning field or a forest fire from Sumatra Island in Indonesia beyond the Malacca Channel to the Malay Peninsula. The really terrible smoke made my eyes tingle and my throat choke. Local people without masks didn’t seem to care about the smoke. It was said that the smoke came only during the dry season, from April to September, and it didn’t come every day, but I was worried about the influence on the residents’ health. It was also said that the degree of influence of the smoke changed by the power or direction of the wind even for one day, so they might endure the smoke. Indeed, the smoke almost disappeared when I finished my work in the evening. The governments of related countries have long taken measures to reduce this smoke pollution (haze), but they have not reached a conclusion yet.






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