Thursday, November 09, 2006

Article: Traveling for work

There are good things and bad things about having a job that involves travel. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week as I find myself in Kawasaki, Japan. Looking out of my hotel window, the city stretches on forever, blending seamlessly with Tokyo—the largest city in the world—to the north and with Yokohama—the second largest city in Japan—to the south. It is not a pretty sight.

Of course, the fact that I live in Buda is a good indicator that I’m not enamored with cities in general. But Kawasaki is particularly ugly. It would take some time to count the number of smoke stacks I can see from here. Kawasaki is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guides to either Tokyo or Japan. No tourists come here; the city has nothing to draw them. In a way that’s nice. In all of its ugly, industrial squalor, Kawasaki is authentically Japanese. But it is also boring and depressing.

Each morning I travel from my hotel to work on the extensive and efficient train system that circulates the citizens of the metropolis throughout its great expanse. I am lucky to be able to travel a little after the main pulse of rush hour. Still, the station is so densely packed that it is difficult to move. The Japanese walk quickly, efficiently, not bothering much about what or who surrounds them. I find myself dodging constantly. On a crowded street in the US, I think people would move out of my way. In Japan, this isn’t true. I have been bumped many times.

I arrive at work around 10 o’clock in the morning and enter a building that is a patchwork of many industrial buildings each grafted onto the next through a series of long, narrow hallways. In order to find my way, I keep track of the colors of the floors: gray, then left at the dark green, up the speckled stairs, right to the blue carpet hallway, turn left onto more dark green, down the long hall with the parquet wood to more dark green, across an enclosed bridge with flowers on the window ledges, more dark green, left at the patched up brown floor, through a sliding door onto gray carpet and finally I am there. Across the street the company has two brand new 50 story towers. I wonder what they are like.

I work with six Japanese engineers here. They all seem nice. I am giving them a tutorial on how to use the tool our company provides. Only one does much talking. Even though Japan is an industrialized nation, and even though these people are highly educated, they don’t speak English. Even the best English speaker of the group has a lot of trouble conveying his questions.

The thing that makes this at all possible is that many of the engineering terms have no Japanese equivalent. As they talk among themselves, I can hear these words, complex and multi-syllabic, weaving patterns through their speech. The Japanese language is composed almost exclusively of single consonants followed by single vowels, like the word Kawasaki itself. When an English word such as processor or software enters the sound stream, it is obvious.

By the end of the day I am tired and it is already getting dark. The train is packed, I am lucky to find a seat. I wander around near my hotel looking for someplace to eat. The streets are packed. This is the shopping district and everyone is out shopping. I open a wooden door and enter a tiny restaurant. The entire establishment would fit in a child’s bedroom at home. The proprietor almost certainly does not speak English. I use the few Japanese food words I know and sit patiently waiting to see what will appear. So far I’ve been lucky, The Japanese eat some things I would refuse for ethical reasons but I have yet to be offered anything like that.

Next week I am taking a few days off to go to Hiroshima and visit a national park. I am going to see things that tourists see and do things tourists do. I will see the other side of Japan. Unlike most tourists, I will carry with me something of an understanding of the life of Japanese working people.

View from the Kawasaki Nikko hotel.The Kawasaki train/subway station during a bit of a lull.

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