I go downstairs after work to wait in the lobby of the office building. I am surrounded by models of rail cars built by this company over the past 120 years. Alone at the reception desk there is a young woman who is technically my coworker. She sits at the reception desk all day and treats customers with the appropriate amount of grace and style. She was hired for her perfect manners, her quiet charisma, and her good looks. While I wait for the other wine tasters I ask her about her job. She is not allowed to read or do any kind of study between customer visits. It is not good for customers to see the receptionist putting away documents when they arrive. She is to seem like she was waiting for the customer the whole time. I know from previous conversations she has a degree from a prestigious university. She laughs at the situation she is in.
Ms. Yamada and the company president appear and are ready to go. Outside a car is waiting. The driver stands a little straighter when he sees the president appear. The president directs me to the seat behind the driver, usually considered the seat for the highest ranking passenger. The president tells me in English that he prefers the extra legroom sitting where he is. He is trying to make me more comfortable.
The car is not a taxi, more like a very short term rental limousine. There is no meter. The times, payments and destinations have all been arranged in advance by Ms. Yamada, who sits up front with the driver and fine tunes our arrival to coincide with Kuniko’s arrival at the wine tasting. Between me and the president is a control panel. It is kind of a desk and control panel combination, actually. There are buttons controlling almost every function normally on the dashboard of a car. This is a desk for doing business and I realize the car is a custom business model, made to shuttle important people around. The president merits this kind of transportation now.
We arrive a few minutes earlier than the estimated time, and Kuniko is patiently waiting for us. We go inside an office building, surrounded by brand shops. On the ninth floor we enter what seems to be a regular office. The company builds parts and equipment for ships, planes, and trains. They also import wine because their company president likes wine. One board member explains that wine is 1% of their business. Today it is the focus, and there are a lot of people attending the wine tasting.
We hang up our coats and stash our briefcases. Ms. Yamada is treating us like guests and rushes to get coat hangers for us. Inside the conference room they have set up a wine tasting, with French, German and California wines that they sell in Japan. The wine is in the center of the room, and they are surrounded by people in suits drinking and talking. It is a full room and it is sometimes hard to get to the wine. Around the outside of the room there are foods to eat. Pâté, cheese, quiches, pork rolls, bread.
I have attended more wine tastings than I can count and so I am comfortable in the environment. We taste some good wines and I decide I will buy a few later. Kuniko and Ms. Yamada discuss the wines they like, and the president navigates the crowd and looks for wine recommendations from us.
The room is full of people but the mix of attendees is odd. I realize that there are lots of older men in suits, some younger men in suits, and quite a few younger women in suits. No older women, and the younger women appear to be aides for the older male guests. The older men want to be seen at the event with a beautiful woman so they bring women from their office. The women get free wine and maybe dinner after so they don’t mind. It is a classic win/win situation. I’m happy that I have my own beautiful woman with me at the tasting. Kuniko navigates the wine tasting like a pro.
The president talks with various people. I stand next to him during some of the encounters and it is oddly fascinating to watch. A man about my age approaches with a younger woman trailing behind. He greets the president with an unmistakeable hungry look in his eye. The president produces his business card and the man instructs his assistant to produce his card to give to the president. They make some remarks and the small talk is over. The younger man’s eyes pass over me as a curiosity but move back to the president quickly. His job here is to make an early connection and hopefully build that into a business relationship much further down the line. There will be no business talk here. They leave, and the president hands the business card he received to Ms. Yamada who organizes it in her bag for him. The president goes through this ritual many times. He attracts attention because of the power he holds as a major company president. When he talks to me in class he laughs at the attention he gets and I know he is perfectly grounded. I imagine how many business cards must be piled up on Ms. Yamada’s desk.
As the only white guy in the room I am not ignored. Every time I scan the crowd people look away quickly. A board member of the host company comes to say hello in flawless English. He asks me about my company but I can tell he is not really interested in the answer. He wants to practice his English and he talks about his job and his career. These are familiar topics for him and I don’t mind letting him explain. I talk all day at work so it is nice to listen. He is called away to make a big business decision.
A childhood friend of the president works as a corporate officer at this company. He invited us because my company is a customer of his company, but also because of the childhood connection. He comes to say hello and he remembers me from the last time I attended. We talk and I can see the kindness in his expression. He is a good person and he is happy that other people can come and enjoy wine and relax. He has no business motives for talking to us and I am surprised how easy it is to see the difference, compared to the hungry men with beautiful assistants. He tells me that I am invited to come to the wine tasting any time, with or without the president.
We finish our tasting and start to head for the door. Various company executives have maneuvered into a line so they can personally say farewell to the president as he leaves. We trail in his wake but are associated with him so get the same treatment. The president has kind words for each person and they bow and see us to the lobby. Ms. Yamada makes sure everyone gets their coats. We ride the elevator and head outside, slightly buzzed from the wine and ready for dinner.
Ms. Yamada hails a taxi and we ride to a restaurant on a street in Sannomiya I have never walked down. We enter a restaurant that I have never been to. It is labeled an oden restaurant, but we learn soon that the title is not adequate. Our table is waiting and we start with a beer. It is refreshing after all the wine.
The menu is recited by the owner. She is a little older wearing fashionable glasses and looks like she would not take shit from anyone. The interior is traditional and the staff friendly and not so uptight. Across from our table are six old guys recapping a business deal. At the counter are some older men eating with women thirty years younger. Hundreds of bottles of sake line the wall behind the oak counter.
We order sashimi to start. The choices are unusual and described with aplomb. We choose items to share. Grilled eel wrapped in toasted nori. Steamed shirako custard with ponzu. Sashimi of grouper and yellowtail. There are no prices mentioned. Customers here don’t ask about prices.
Sake is recommended. We pour in the Japanese style but Ms. Yamada is too fast and notices whose tiny glass is empty before the glass’s owner notices. We try three kinds of sake and conversation warms up the more we drink. The president looks tired and happy and relaxed. Kuniko and I are usually in bed by this time. We are happy to be in this new situation. I hope we look happy.
We get around to ordering oden. The staff reaches under the table to produce a wooden tablet that was hidden. She folds it open with a reverence that is hard to believe and we see a handwritten menu of oden items that you can order individually. We smile at the staff who produced the menu so seriously and imitate the motions. Not mocking, just impressed as hell. She giggles when she sees us and looks a little embarrassed.
We order lots of different kinds of oden. Soft boiled eggs floating in a bacon-y kind of soup. Gobo root in tempura. Shrimp balls. Rice cake tied up in a fried tofu bag. Top notch oden, and far different from what we normally eat. We finish with a bowl of ramen, cooked in a rich clear broth with no pork fat in sight.
Ms. Yamada takes out one of the president’s business cards and leaves the table. I see her give it to the owner. This is an acceptable form of payment. We thank them for taking us here and I wonder who will pay in the end. The company? The president? Who knows. Kuniko has anticipated this situation and gives the president and Ms. Yamada each a small gift of chocolate that she bought from a high-end store. They accept the present and say we didn’t have to go to the trouble. We say it was no trouble at all. It is a ritual that is performed without thinking.
We leave and the owner and the head cook see us off. They know who the president is now and they want to show that he was an important visitor. The head cook looks bored and it is the only crack I see in their perfectly orchestrated dinner presentation.
The president heads to the nearby bus stop because it is quicker than arranging other transportation, and we say goodnight. He told me before that he now does dinner parties like this 3-4 times a week. I wonder when it stops becoming fun and starts becoming obligation. I hope his liver will hold out until retirement.
We walk with Ms. Yamada to the train station and part ways there. Ms. Yamada did a lot of work to make things happen smoothly. She was there to enjoy but she also was working. She might not even be aware of it. We thank her and promise to repay the favor sometime. Everyone says that at this stage of the evening, but we actually mean it. My wife and I board the train home. I am happy that I don’t do this all the time. It is Wednesday night.