by Willy Wang, MBA '13 (8/24/12)
As a first year student at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, I attended Johnson’s Japan/Korea Trek earlier this summer. The general structure of the trek was that we had mandatory company visits and optional cultural experiences. I had been to Asia before, but the wealth of knowledge I acquired from the trek still surpassed my expectations. I learned so much with regard to history, culture, my classmates and myself, that I will forever cherish these 12 days.
Day 1 - Tokyo
Most of us arrived in the afternoon before our first full day, which optionally began with a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market for those committed enough to meet in the lobby at 3:45am. Thanks to jetlag, a handful of others and I made it out to see the spectacle of tuna auction and to taste arguably the freshest sashimi available to humankind.
Following our excursion, we met back at the hotel for our 8:30am departure time to our first company visit with CEO and Cornell alum Mr. Hoshino of Hoshino Resorts. As head of one of Japan’s most upscale hotel brands, Mr. Hoshino gave us our first taste of Japanese attention to detail when discussing his hotels’ authentic meals (which I would later have the privilege of having!) and staff that is all trained to perform every function to ensure quality of service and deal with seasonality. Luckily for us, we would all come to understand and appreciate the quality firsthand with our upcoming stay at Hoshino’s flagship resort.
Next, we headed over to a lunch meeting with Mr. Ryota Matsuzaki, a seasoned Japanese technology entrepreneur. During his informal talk, we would learn that those like him are rare in Japan, but there is a growing movement to instill the idea of risk/reward of disruptive innovations into the Japanese culture. In a historically conservative and homogenous society, businessmen like Matsuzaki are leading the charge of challenging the status quo with their novel ideas.
Our last company visit for the day was Dentsu, Japan’s largest media company. They provided us with an informative primer on Japanese culture and the “4 pillars”: Harmony & Equality, Beauty of Transient Things, Admiring Purity, and Particularity to Details. We were also exposed to the craze around anime and crowdsourced media.
This took us to around 3pm in the afternoon and some free time. I and a few others followed the suggested itinerary and went to see sumo wrestling. All the cheap seats were sold out so we ended up paying more than expected, but it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Day 2 – Tokyo
Mark Milstein, Clinical Professor of Management and our fearless leader – led another group to Tsukiji the 2nd morning as well (I did not go again) and the whole group once again met up at 8:30am to depart for the subway to Kewpie, purveyors of the beloved mayonnaise (previously unbeknownst to me). We learned of the company’s humble beginnings to global supplier, and also gained insight into how sustainability is viewed differently in the eyes of the Japanese consumer. The Japanese seek high quality, but are relatively less willing to spend on sustainable/organic items unless there is a discernible difference.
Lunch was on our own in Shibuya, which felt akin to Times Square. We also discovered the glory that exists underneath Japanese department stores – in essence a supermarket but with artisan displays, free samples, and unbelievably clean.
Our last corporate visit in Tokyo was 7-11 Japan, which also owns all the 7-11 subsidiaries around the world. From my very first trip to East Asia (which was to Taiwan), I had heard that convenient stores here were different. At 7-11, we learned about the operations, supply chain, and product innovations that have made these convenient stores such a success.
For this evening, we had an alumni event at the Tokyo-American club. We met alumni as far back as class of '57 and various stages of their career. They were all supportive of anyone who wished to work in Japan and of deepening Johnson’s relationship with Japan.
Before the night was over, I had a final to take at the hotel. We left for the trip before the school year officially ended, so I and several others had finals to take while in Japan. I took my final at 10pm following the alumni event so it was in real-time with those taking the exam in Ithaca. It made for another long day but I’m certainly grateful for the flexibility!
Day 3 – Karuizawa
The morning was spent traveling by Shinkansen (bullet train) to Karuizawa. With temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than Tokyo, Karuizawa is a popular destination for summer retreats. It has also served as a site for both summer and winter Olympic events. For us, Karuizawa served as a welcome respite from the nonstop schedule since arrival. Our stay was at Hoshino Karuizawa (mentioned in Day 1), complete with 2 hot springs, incredible scenery, and traditional Japanese wear. Many took advantage of the resort offerings. Uyen and I opted for a “Kasuke” dinner. At night, I went to a stretching/relaxation session taught by one of the staff.
Day 4 – Kyoto
Alas, our day in paradise was over and it was time to head to Kyoto. We arrived in the afternoon after spending most of the day traveling by Shinkansen, which gave us the opportunity to have a traditional boxed lunch on the train.
Our first destination in Kyoto was Kiyomizu Temple. The female classmates who were participating left early to get dressed like geishas. Then, we all met up to explore the temple, which is one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
For dinner we went to Gion, aka Geisha District, but we did not check out any real geishas.
Day 5 – Kyoto
With another free day to explore Kyoto, most of us hopped on a bus and headed to check out 3 more World Heritage Sites. Our first stop was Rokuonji Temple, a gold-leaf coated Zen Buddhist temple where we were also able to enjoy Japanese tea in the garden.
Within walking distance was Ryoanji Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple that features what is considered to be one of the finest examples of a Japanese rock garden.
We grabbed lunch in the area at a conveyor belt sushi place (not unlike the ones that can be found in the US), and then cabbed to Nijo Castle.
Not satisfied, yet, for the day, several of us continued on to two more places that are perhaps lesser known than the World Heritage Sites but every bit as interesting: Sanjusangendo Temple and Fushimi Inari Shrine (thanks to our amazing TAs for the recommendations!). Sanjusangendo Temple is Japan’s longest wooden building (possibly the world?) and houses 1000 buddha statues, with no two alike. There were no pictures allowed inside but there are public domain photos available on the internet. Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine with thousands of torii gates of all sizes lining the landscape.
For our last night in Japan, one of the TAs organized for the entire group to have “kaiseki” (a traditional, multi-course Japanese dinner). We overlooked the Kamogawa river. It was the perfect ending to the Japan portion of our trip.
Day 6 – Jeju Island
This day was mostly dedicated to traveling to Korea. After our bus took us to Kansai Airport, we had a short flight to Busan and then another short flight to Jeju Island. We reached our hotel, The Shilla Jeju, in time for dinner. Most of us opted for the “black pig” – a Jeju specialty. Afterwards, we went to karaoke. It was a fun night – maybe a little too fun for some.
Day 7 – Jeju Island
The morning was an optional island tour I did not wake up for. After having traditional Korean breakfast at the hotel, we departed around noon for our first corporate visit on the island: the tea plantations of AmorePacific. While AmorePacific does make tea for consumption purposes, AmorePacific is an Asian powerhouse cosmetics company that uses green tea extract for beauty/health purposes. We received a tour of the beautiful lands, went through some exhibits demonstrating their research in the aging process, and received a tasting.
Afterwards, we traveled to a couple sites on the island before dispersing for the day so everyone had their own time for dinner and beyond.
Day 8 – Jeju Island
We checked out of our resort in the morning and headed to the headquarters of Daum, which was recently relocated to Jeju from Seoul. A stalwart in the oligopolistic South Korean internet industry, Daum felt similar to its Western counterparts, replete with gaming tables and other benefits like on-site laundry. I’d say that Daum also won for best giveaway: a handkerchief that outlines their sustainabilty report and a photo puzzle of the entire group in front of the headquarters.
Then, we had our last few hours to enjoy the island before departure. We went to a “mystery spot” that seemed to defy physics – gravity pulled cars, water, and other objects uphill instead of downhill (more info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gravity_hills) – and had lunch at the shore before heading to the airport. It was a quick flight to Seoul and after our bus dropped us off at the hotel, it was free time.
Day 9 – Seoul
Our visits in Seoul started with Hanwha Chemical, one of South Korea’s largest conglemorates and the sponsor of one of the student’s on the trek. We were given two presentations – the first related to Hanwha’s decision to enter the solar market and the second was given by an American expat and his advice/experience on how to achieve success in a foreign environment. I found both to be highly informative and appreciated the diversity we were getting in terms of industry and topic matter.
In the afternoon, we went to visit Samsung Electronics at their “d’light” exhibition space. While it would have been nice to see their manufacturing floor, that would have required traveling out of the city and it was very cool seeing the latest and greatest Samsung products on display, like Smart TVs and transparent LCD doors.
After Samsung we were given free time for the rest of the evening/night, so a group of us went to check out one of Korea’s national pastimes: Starcraft. We found out there was a tournament being held at a broadcast studio not too far from our hotel and admission was free. Having played the game and having heard of professional players from Korea, it was surreal. We also got featured for being in the audience!
Day 10 – Seoul
Our last organized group cultural visit was to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, roughly 2 hours from Seoul. It was fascinating. Only tour groups are allowed to enter the DMZ so we had a guide the entire time. One of the most interesting moments was when we were witnessing the guard stations in the middle of the DMZ and there were North Korean tourists on the other side, visiting the DMZ just like we were! One of the things I learned was that there’s a North Korean guard facing towards North Korea (as opposed to facing South Korea, the “enemy”) in order to stop defectors.
Lunch was included with our tour, which, by the time we returned to our hotel , took us into the middle of the afternoon. I explored the area around our hotel, Itaewon, which is known to be the international hipster area, for a while. There was an alumni event in the evening, which I also unfortunately had to miss because I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to make sure I had a speedy recovery.
Day 11 – Seoul
One last corporate visit on the agenda, and it was a goodie: Korean brewery Kooksoondang. We were treated to an explanation of the soju making process and a generous tasting. I’m pretty sure no one had any complaints whatsoever about this visit.
Day 12+ – Seoul
The official last day of the tour. Classmates flew out throughout the day. A few others and I stayed for longer in Seoul. We Airbnb’d a place to stay and had the pleasure of meeting up with one of our native Korean classmates who didn’t go on the trek but was back in Seoul for her internship. I stayed an extra five days in Seoul and visited the War Memorial, National Museum, Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, as well as enjoyed a Korean music concert and met up with some alumni.
This was my first time to both Japan and Korea. I now have a much greater appreciation for the differences between the Asian countries and the intricate history involved. While I certainly learned a lot about these countries, it also gave me a new perspective on America and its place in the world. Undoubtedly, this trip changed my life and I am better for it as a businessperson, an Asian-American, and a human being.