Sunday, December 12, 2010

Beer-battered fish and chips, and the X Factor

TOKYO - Today we planned to drive all the way to Yokohama to have spaghetti pomodoro at the Yokohama Grand Hotel, a lovely old-fashioned hotel that has been around since the turn-of-the-century. But mid-morning, we suddenly got lazy to do the long drive and decided instead to visit one of our old haunts and a particular favorite for Sunday brunch, the Oak Door of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Roppongi Hills.

I was very glad we did so after all, as they had an excellent and reasonably-priced brunch and lunch that was very good value for money in this most expensive district of this most expensive city in the world. I had the lunch set which included a lovely salad and proper beer-battered fish and chips, followed by a dark chocolate tart with chocolate orange ice cream on the side.

Ground zero for fun

As I looked around this dining room I once knew so well, I observed that nothing much had changed. They still had their open kitchen with their great steak room, and that fantastic bar where -- once upon a time -- all of Tokyo's hottest brokers and moneymen would converge on a Friday night to spend the equivalent of a downpayment for a house on drinks. Tokyo around 2006-2007, with the stockmarkets all over the world merrily racing each other to the top, was a fantastic place to be and Oak Door was Ground Zero for all the masters of the universe from the international financial world, spending a thousand dollars as if it was only a hundred. I myself had benefited immensely from this fantasy world, and I remembered so many enjoyable dinners at Oak Door and other trendy places in Tokyo with friends flush with cash and success, who had not a care in the world.

Tokyo's disappearing expats

The global recession is over (we hope!) but Tokyo still has to recover its footing after falling so far. And one thing I noticed today is the lack of foreigners eating brunch at Oak Door. This isn't just about Oak Door, as well. The lack of expatriates is noticeable everywhere in Tokyo -- by the empty flats for rent in posh neighborhoods, to the dwindling enrollments at expensive international schools and dropping memberships at private clubs.

Anyway, back to Oak Door. Prior to the recession, this restaurant was teeming with foreigners and their friends and families, and so it was a great place to catch up. You could walk in for lunch on a weekend and bet good money that you'd bump into someone you knew. Oak Door has not lost its popularity at all. It's just that Tokyo has lost its foreigners. When the recession happened, so many foreigners in Tokyo's financial industry lost their jobs, and so many foreign firms closed up shop in Tokyo for good as well. The result was an almost massive exodus of foreigners out of Tokyo, and out of Japan for that matter. Personally, I think almost all of my foreign friends in the financial industry have left for better places like New York, London and Hong Kong -- all places where energy levels are higher, pay is better, and tax rates are lower relative to Tokyo.

The X factor for success

So over my very good meal, I got to thinking about our fabulously successful friends and those who had not made the cut and had disappeared into the night, in the aftermath of the global recession that had crippled the world's financial centers and almost brought everything to a standstill. We had a couple of friends who had started out at very typical financial jobs in Tokyo and who had gone on to launching their own funds and become masters of their own destinies. One of the most successful of these friends once used to work alongside my husband in a British financial firm, and even today -- after losing quite a lot of money in the downturn -- we reckon he's still worth US$2 billion. Another friend who started out as a small-time analyst and who lived down the street from us, now manages a wildly successful hedge fund with offices in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The most egalitarian industry in the world

"What's the X factor?" I wondered aloud. Most of these guys were all relatively smart and had had a similar start in life and similar jobs. They were also working in the financial industry, which I believe is the most egalitarian industry in the world. It doesn't matter where you come from, who your family is, what color you are, or where you went to school. The most important thing is that you have the smarts to make more money.

"If I think about the guys who really made it big, I have to say they were really smart," my husband said. "Way smarter than the rest."

Then he added, "And they had focus and perseverance."

I had to agree. I always feel like I'm hit by a bullet when I talk to these very successfulguys -- that's how strong the force of their focus is; and it's a focus you don't ever see in ordinary people. They have a life force that is whole and almost overpowering, even when they're just over at your house for lunch on a Sunday and not thinking about work. Even I come away energized and raring to get back to work and get on with my life, after meeting one of them. Their passion for what they do and their zest for life is just infectious.


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