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For Guys

Guide to doing business in Tokyo


Thomas Madden (49), American
Lawyer at Bank of America Merrill Lynch

How often do you travel to Tokyo and who do you fly with?
I lived in Tokyo for nearly 20 years before I moved to Singapore in August 2011 and I go back frequently. I prefer Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines. Their services are more predictable and consistent.

One thing everyone ought to know about Tokyo:
Tokyo is a beautiful city especially during the cherry blossom season that Japan is famous for.

How quickly can you get a visa?
Fortunately, American citizens don’t need a visa to travel to Japan if their stay is under 90 days. However, for other nationalities, it would be best to check with the Japan National Tourism Organisation in Singapore (6223 8205) before you go.

Fastest way to get into the city:
Narita Airport is quite far out from the city but the Narita Express train brings you to Shinjuku in about an hour and half. It’s a long haul but train is the quickest if you know where you’re going. The daunting part is navigating from the station to your hotel, especially if you’re not familiar with the city. It may also be a little confusing trying to board the train at the airport. From Narita Airport you can also take a bus that goes directly to most of the major hotels; the time it takes varies according to traffic conditions. The buses are stationed right outside the bus ticket counter so if you’re really lost, ask the staff for help. They’re very helpful and will give you directions.

Haneda Airport is closer to the city and you can take the Keihin Kyoko Railway and Tokyo Monorail back and forth. Taxis are less expensive to get from Haneda Airport than they are from Narita Airport. As for travelling within the city, language can be a problem; it’s usually a hit or miss whether your taxi driver speaks English. Ask a member of the hotel staff to write down the address of the place you’re going in Japanese and give it to the taxi driver; that’ll get you from door to door. If you have more time or are feeling adventurous, the train system is very organised and can get you to most places. Unless you’re familiar with Tokyo and driving in Japan, don’t rent a car for city stays.

When are the good and bad times to visit Tokyo?
The cherry blossom season in spring, from late March to early April, is a good time. The Japanese love their springtime; usually one or two workers are allowed to leave early to stake a choice spot in the park to have drinks with their friends, family and co-workers all night under the trees. Naturally, the air is filled with cherry pollen that might cause allergies to flare up, so wear a mask if you have to – it’s fairly common to do so. Alternatively, autumn, during September and October, has fairly mild weather too.

Golden Week, from 29 April to 5 May, is not so bad in Tokyo as the city slows down from its usual bustle. But if your goal is to see Tokyo in all its glory, you’ll probably want to avoid going there that week.

Any good hotels to recommend?
The Park Hyatt in Roppongi Hills (+813 5322 1234) is an ideal hotel since most businessmen find themselves in that area a lot of the time. Another good hotel is the Ritz Carlton in Tokyo Midtown (+813 3423 8000), which is the place where foreigners hang out. For a traditional old-school Japanese stay, you can try Hotel Okura (+813 3582 0111) situated right next to the American embassy.

What’s the dress code for meetings?
Japan has four seasons so be prepared for colder weather during the winter months. The Japanese usually only pay lip service to casual wear, so don’t be fooled. Always wear a suit and tie unless you’re totally familiar with the people you’re meeting. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, wear a tie and a suit jacket.

Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
In the past, I’ve showed up at business meetings in casual attire, having been told that it was a casual meeting, only to find all the Japanese dressed formally! They always apologise and jest about how no Japanese person wants to be singled out for being inappropriately dressed so despite any former consensus, they all go the conservative route. That said, there’s not too much these days that a Japanese businessman would find overtly offensive from a non-Japanese business partner, save for what anybody else would find offensive. Global business standards more or less prevail.

Tokyo at night 

You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
Nobu (+813 5733 0070) is a good choice. It’s a famous Japanese restaurant chain. New York Grill in the Park Hyatt (+813 5323 3458) has a breathtaking skyline view. For smaller Japanese establishments, try Kyubei Sushi in Hotel Okura  (+813 3505 6067) or Inakaya in Roppongi (+813 3408 5040). They’re entertaining because you sit around a square table where the chef cooks teppanyaki-style and hands the food to you on a platter that’s about 12 feet long. Reservations are advisable for smaller establishments.

Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
Izakaya, which means drinking establishments, can be found almost everywhere in Japan. I would recommend Ninja in Akasaka (+813 5157 3936). You can get all the Japanese staples like sushi, tofu and sake there. If you’re looking for places where you might get hassled there’s a huge intersection in Roppongi with hostess bars. The Dogenzaka area in Shinbuya looks regular in the day but it comes alive at night.

Any unsafe areas to avoid?
Kabuki-cho is the red light district of Tokyo so avoid it at night as it can get rather sketchy and it’s sometimes unsafe.

You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
The Yamanote train line goes in a big circle around Tokyo and connects all the major stations like Shibuya and Shinjuku. If you have a day, just take the train and get off at various stops for some sightseeing. If you only have time for one place, I would recommend going to the traditional Meiji shrine. It’s a meditative place and it feels like you’re not in the city, though it’s very convenient from Shibuya and Harajuku. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a wedding; they’re usually very glamorous affairs. Alternatively, Asukusa shrine is livelier and has lots of personality.

Don’t go to see the imperial palace; there’s nothing much to do there. Skip the Tokyo Tower as well; it’s a bore.

Gifts to take home for family and friends?
There’s a traditional Japanese antique shop in Omotesando called Oriental Bazaar (+813 3400 3933) that I frequent. It’s a fun place for foreigners to pick up something “Japanese” to bring home. You can get beautiful Japanese porcelain and even kimonos. Generally, boutique stores carry more unique Japanese items than large department stores.

How long before your flight do you really need to be at the airport?
You probably can get by with 90 minutes for both airports. The important part is getting your terminal right and you can work it out from there. Usually it’s the check-in that takes the longest, not customs. There are times when it’s crowded but both Tokyo airports, Haneda and Narita, are very organised so the lines move pretty quickly. It really depends on the time and day you’re coming or going but the queues are never too long to the point of getting under your skin. The e-tickets are not too helpful; I can never figure it out.

Narita Airport and Haneda’s International Terminal (which opened in late 2010) have the usual range of restaurants but there’s no particular one that I like. There are good sushi restaurants and a decent selection of regular food with a good wireless connection. If you’re flying business or first-class, you’ll find the lounge pretty comfortable.