Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bit of Manila in Japan


Very unusual of me, I actually spent most of this last weekend in a place without an Internet connection. Thank goodness it was for a very good reason, as I now realize that I don't like it when I don't have online access for more than 24 hours. That's almost never happened before, by the way, as so far I've managed to find some kind of connection even in the most remote of locations.

Friends and associates know that the only time I'm ever truly offline is when I'm airborne -- and until a few years ago, that wasn't even so since Internet connections were once pretty readily available in business and first class of most major airlines. I think they had to suspend services because someone somewhere wasn't making enough money; but I really hope they bring it back again soon, as affordable online access inside the plane -- it was something like US$30 per flight, if I remember right -- just made long-haul flights incredibly bearable. I used to save all my online shopping for the 14 hours between Tokyo and New York on Japan Airlines.


This weekend, I was in Kagoshima, a very old-fashioned, proud and samurai city in southern Japan. I'd traveled all the way from Manila, stopping over only briefly in Tokyo to catch my domestic flight, to join a reunion of female classmates from my days at Sophia University in Tokyo. One of the girls had married into a fine old samurai family who'd become innkeepers, and who now ran a beautiful onsen ryokan (Japanese hot springs inn) in Kagoshima, with a picturesque river running next to it. This was the venue for our class reunion.

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that I've been living in a suitcase for most of this year so far, and things are just going to get more travel-heavy from here. So I pretty much overstretched myself to travel across the Asian continent once again this weekend to meet up with some friends, when I could just as well have been relaxing for once in Manila, enjoying my newly re-decorated home. However, I felt I needed a change of scenery (No kidding. This was my fourth city in five days, by the way, so I don't really know why I felt I needed something fresh to clear my mind; but I did) and I hadn't seen my classmates in years.


The other draw to getting on another airplane, however, was to revisit Kagoshima, a city I like a lot and have so many good memories about. I'd visited Kagoshima many times before, and most especially in the 1990s when Japan was still a very rich country and Japanese were still wary of and extremely respectful of foreigners. During those days, foreigners who could speak Japanese fairly fluently did good "business" going around the country at the invitation of some local group like the Rotary Club or the association for international relations, to speak about what they thought of Japan and the Japanese.

I'd been in the newspapers and on TV in Japan fairly often then, so I was often invited to give such speeches. It was pretty amazing, really, when I think about the kinds of people and groups who invited and hosted me in various parts of Japan. It was through their kindness that I got to see so much of the country. I was invited by community groups, doctors' associations, insurance companies, schools, politicians -- you name it, I was on their speaker list.

And it was for some speech about Japan before the city's association to promote international relations that I visited Kagoshima a couple of times. They'd fly me over from Tokyo, book me at the nicest hotel, listen respectfully to whatever I had to say in my speech (which would take anything from 30 minutes to two hours -- and basically you could say whatever you wanted), and then take me out to an excellent dinner afterwards.

The next day, some prominent family would usually volunteer to show me the local sights and take care of me (yes, more good food) until it was time for me to board my flight back to Tokyo. I always had a great time doing these speeches and it was this way that I met many interesting and important people all over Japan. There are certainly far worse ways to spend one's time, when you're young and looking to see more of the world.


This was also how I got to know Kagoshima very well, and to realize just how similar it is to Manila. In fact, out of all the cities in Japan, I feel Kagoshima is closest in feel to Manila -- and this is perhaps why I liked it so much. The city is rather small, as far as Japanese cities go, and the community of movers and shakers is also pretty moderate in size.

Within Kagoshima society, everyone knows everyone as they're either related by blood or marriage, or they've gone to the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods. And they're all in the same Rotary clubs and civic associations. They see each other at least several times a week and it's like one big extended family. The result is a fairly informal community, which is an anomaly in itself since Japanese society is very formal. If you think that sounds a lot like Manila's business and political circles, it certainly does.


The way people in Kagoshima do business is also a lot like Manila. For one thing, it's one of the very few places in Japan where people are pretty relaxed about the concept of time. In most places in Japan, if you set a meeting for 330 pm, the Japanese you're meeting will probably arrive at 315 pm and circle the block a couple of times before appearing exactly at 330 pm. But in Kagoshima, if you say 330 pm, it's going to be 345 pm or even 4 pm. At least that was the case when I used to frequent it a lot.


Finally, the food and weather are most similar to the Philippines, compared to other places in Japan. There's a lot of pork dishes in Kagoshima because the black pig that makes the best tonkatsu -- kurobuta tonkatsu -- comes from here (and that's the best tonkatsu in the world, by the way). So as a pork-eating Filipino, this was an extremely comfortable place to be in. And the weather's pretty tropical so they actually have palm trees and foliage similar to the Philippines.

More in the next few days about what I did and what we talked about in Kagoshima. It was really an interesting weekend.

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue


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