From June 15-July 3, I joined 18 other MBA students on an Asian Field Study academic immersion program that visited Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Over the next few weeks, I will recount the best of those adventures here on Drink with Aloha. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed living them.
A ninja taught me how to drink in Japan.
Well, technically the ninja didn’t teach me how to drink, but they actively facilitated my first truly Japanese drinking experience. The ninja acted as a sensei, guiding me down the path – I mean this in the most literal sense possible – to cultural alcohol enlightenment.
You could say a ninja took my Japanese drinking virginity. That’s right. I lost my virginity to a ninja.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can’t just hop right in the sack with the ninja drinking virginity story. We need some backround, some setting, some ambiance, some foreplay, if you will. That’s how ninjas roll.
Late last year, my parents traveled to Japan with a local business group, HAPA, the Hawaii Asian Pacific Association. (Yes, my parents played an active role in the course of events that eventually led to a ninja deflowering me. I find this as weird as you do.) Essentially, HAPA is a group of successful local business types who take lavish Asian business excursions in the name of commerce. From what I’ve gleaned, a “business excursion” is a vacation where you travel with other business people and sprinkle a company visit or “business meeting” (slang for Michelen three star lunch with wine) amid two weeks of fine dining, sightseeing, and massages. And you wonder why people go to Business School…
During one of the “business meetings”, my parents met with the Japanese Young Business Leaders (JYBL), a networking group organized by (you guessed it) young Japanese business leaders. The group consisted of intelligent, progressive innovators interested in expanding the scope of their busienss and potentially expanding their horizons outside of Japan. The group thoroughly impressed the HAPA folks and my parents gushed about meeting them upon their return.
Dad: “One of the members works for Pokemon!”
(Working for Pokemon is the Japanese equivalent of working for Virgin Records. Seriously, even the other JYBL members were excited that one of their members worked for Pokemon. It took all of my willpower not to ask if he could introduce me to Pikachu, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
My friend Boogie was also attending the Asian Field Study and her parents are also Hapa members who met the JYBL. So, during pre-trip discussions, Boogie and I decided to get the contact information for the JYBL and set up a social event in Tokyo. Our parents gave us the email addresses for Takato Utsunomiya and Shunsuku Tsukamoto, two of the groups founding members. Boogie sent out a short email asking if they were available during our time in Japan. Little did we know, this seemingly innocuous decision would set off a chain of events involving ninja stars, swords, fire, hidden treasure, a desperate blind run through a series of catacombs underneath Tokyo with the only light coming from a single latern, and the eventual loss of our Japanese drinking virginity to a ninja.
In other words, a typical Tokyo business meeting.
The email exchange started so innocently. Pleasantries exchanged, details discussed, and a general agreement to meet on the night of Monday, June 18th. On Monday, we received a vague email from Takato:
I have 2 plans according to the number of attendants from Hawaii university. So, let me know the number of people.
Anyway I will go to Hotel Villa Fontainne Shiodome at 7:00 PM today.
Boogie replied back:
We have a group of 5 people. We look forward to meeting you.
That was the last contact we had with Takato.
Monday started at 4 AM with a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction, included a visit to the Fujitsu innovation center to learn about their super computer and wrapped up with a trip to the 7-11 headquarters to learn how they’re taking over the world one crustless sandwich at a time. (Seriously, all Japanese sandwiches have the crust cut off. Every. Single. One. There must be warehouses somewhere in the outskirts of Tokyo filled from floor to ceiling with millions of bread crusts. If you told me all Japanese stuffed animals were filled with bread crust, I would believe you.) We returned to our hotel around 5:30 PM, showered, dressed, enjoyed an ice cold Kirin from the vending machine on our floor – God bless the Japanese for their vending machine culture – and headed to the lobby to await our mystery Japanese hosts.
Our group included myself, Boogie, Shack, Blondie, and CodeRed. We sat akwardly in the lobby waiting for our blind date with two guys who looked like their names were Takato and Shunsuke. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, you understand our dilemma. Every person looks like a Takato or a Shunsuke. My informal count of potential Takatos got to 17, narrowly eclipsing my potential Shunsuke count of 13, when two guys walked in who looked young, professional, vaguely-leaderesque, and immediately raised my Takato/Shunsuke counts to 18 and 14 respectively.
Boogie took the initiative, walked up to the two young men and started the introduction.
Takato (grins): Yes. Nice to meet you.
The rest of the group hopped up and made introductions. Takato was mild-mannered, polite, and confident with a pair of dark rimmed glasses and a comforting look that instantly set you at ease. Shunsuke was stylish and more relaxed, weraing a dark jacket over an unbuttoned collar shirt. He sported a vaguely American demeanor and polished North American accent, we later learned came from spending extensive time in the States. They let us know that we were waiting for their buddy Haruto, before heading to… an undiclosed location for what would apparently involve drinking and possibly dinner. Details remained vague.
After a few minutes, a young Japanese guy wearing dark slacks, a blue short sleeved collered shirt and a devilish grin that belied his placid exterior, strolled up and shook hands with Takato and Shunsuke. Enter Haruto.
The three instructed us to split up into three groups and have each group get in a cab with one of them to head to our destination. Split up? Get into cabs with strange Japanese men to drive to an undisclosed location in Tokyo? Count me in!
Blondie and I hopped in a taxi with Haruto as the cab driver effectively disoriented us on a circuitous route to our destinty. Haruto did his best to distract us from our impending fate by letting us know that he’s an entreprenuer, who started a company that does digital marketing for dental clinics in Japan. This may sound like a niche market, but there are more dental clinics in Japan than their are convenience stores (and I’m fairly sure that there are more convenience stores than missing sandwich crusts in Japan).
After 15 minutes of weaving, the cab driver decided we were suitably lost, so he pulled up to a large, non-descript warehouse. Not a restaurant. Not a high rise. Not a bar. A warehouse. A large, sprawling complex with corrugated metal siding and a small door – small by Japanese standards, which is to say virtually non-existant – leading to a steep spiral staircase descending to darkness. Blondie shot me a look that clearly conveyed the message that if we died, we would die together and shuffled closer to me as we near the door of abyss.
At this point, Boogie and CodeRed arrived with Takato who encouraged us all to head down the mysterious entryway. The four of us ducked down to step inside the black stairwell and headed down a wooden, spiral staircase, leaving Shack alone with our three hosts. The horror movie plot was proceeding perfectly as the four Americans headed down a creaky staircase into the untold horror of darkness while one of their friends remained with the locals. What could possibly go wrong?
I began rehearsing how I would explain to Shack’s wife that we lost him in Tokyo. Yakuza hit? Godzilla attack? Freak miso soup accident? Before I got past the point of deciding whether to blame his assured disappearance on Boogie, the stairwell hit a dead end. A dark stairwell leading to a make shift coffin. We were in the Japanese version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The only thing missing was a disembodied voice telling us that the “room had no windows and no doors.”
Without warning, a side panel of the room was violently thrown back and a lady ninja with a sword on her back, holding a lantern popped through the opening and yelled, “Quickly. The enemy is descending upon us. We must move. Hurry!”
I’ve swam nose to nose with ten foot sharks. I’ve evaded the police and a group of angry Spaniards throwing kitchen appliances in Barcelona on an absinthe fuled escapade. I’ve had hoodlums in Amsterdam try to steal my wallet while barking at me like a dog. But nothing in my life up to that point could have prepared me for a tiny lady ninja jumping out from behind a hidden door like a deadly human jack-in-the-box and informing me that my life was in dire peril.
Without hesitation, the she-ninja turned to a side wall and broke through a side wall with a swift ninja roundhouse kick. (Eat your heart out, Chuck Norris.) The wall exploded into a mist of splinters as the ninja lept through the opening of what appeared to be the mouth of a cave. A rush of cold air escaped the cavern opening and the four of us exchanged looks of utter disbelief, attemping to validate whether we really just witnessed Lady Shinobu explode through a wall like Lucy Liu in Kill Bill. Before we have a chance to think, the ninja turned around and screamed, “The enemy will be here any moment. Move. NOW!” and sprinted out of sight taking with her the lantern, the only source of light in the room.
Left with no other choice, the four of us plunged headlong into darkness.
[Too be continued...]