Monday, March 24, 2008

Mr. Kurauchi at Shimo-Kitazawa

Mr. Takashi Kurauchi is an international expert on Hydrology. I had known this quiet, thoughtful gentleman during his tenure in India and was eager to meet him in Japan. Luckily, he had just returned from Cambodia a couple of days earlier.

We met at Shinjiku Myands Tower – he looked much the same. While walking with him in the cold drizzle towards the subway, I never thought it would lead to an evening of wonderful new perspectives.

We took the Chuo line from Shinjiku to Shimokitazawa, a suburb that reminded me of the wada's of Pune: Narrow lanes, tiny shops, small theaters and a wide-wide range or eateries. We walked up and down these lanes, crossed the railway line a couple of times and then settled down in a quaint Okinawan eatery called Panariba.

Okinawan cuisine is quite different from the regular Japanese food. It lays greater emphasis on meat (not fish), spices and an amazing variety of 'sea-vegetables'. We started with Goya-chan-pure, a combination of bitter gourd (not at all bitter), tofu, Yamagurage, Umi-budou (sea grapes), along with the first glass of Awamori on-the-rocks. Awamori is a distilled rice-alcohol from Okinawa. At 60+ proof and a hint of sweetness it certainly one of the finest drinks I had ever tasted!

As the drinks settled in, I was introduced to Tofu-you, a specially fermented cube of tofu with a nice peanut-buttery flavor, and then Goya-totsu and Hirayachi (a pancake).

Along the way I learn't more about Mr. Kurauchi and of the Japan he helped build as a "baby boomer". When he moved to Tokyo 35 years ago to study at the famous ToDai (University of Tokyo), it was in Shimo-Kitazawa that he took up a rented room. It was quite a different place then. Everybody in the neighborhood was middle-class; all worked hard to make ends meet. He had supplemented his income by selling kai (shellfish) on the streets. When student protests led to a closure of the university, Mr. Kurauchi had worked as a laborer at the Osaka Expo (1970), helping build the Soviet pavilion there.

Growing up in an era of turmoil and tough discipline had its uses - it instilled a work ethic that became the hallmark of everything Japanese – respect for monodzukuri (manufacturing) skills, manual work and technical savvy. From the simplest things –drawers, hinges and water-taps to the most complex systems like the bullet trains, everything works perfectly - just the way they ought to.

Manufacturing accounts for 93% of Japan’s exports and 22.5% of Japan’s real GDP. But will this ? Mr. Kurauchi is not so sure… the younger generation has a different approach to life. Monodzukuri is not as valued in today's world of instant gratification and financial jugglery. The link between hard work and success has weakened.

After dinner, we went to an amazing place called Masako Jazz Cafe. It was established in 1953 and according to Mr. Kurauchi, it looked much the same during his college days. Cozy wooden interiors, low chairs and tables bathed in a gentle light; flowers, mementos and paintings of Jazz legends on the walls, and an absolutely perfect hi-fi system playing soul - Nina Simone & Piano. We sat around for a while, sipping coffee, lost in the music.

When the songs paused, I opened my eyes to see a small notice stuck on the wall.
It simply said, "Honored guests staying on for more than two hours are requested to order additionally" - after all, business is business!

Mr. Kurauchi saw me off at Shinjiku station after handing me a packet full of gifts. As I walked towards platform No.7 for the Chuo line, I was convinced that this one evening had taught me more about the spirit & substance of Japan than anything ever before...

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