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The Amazing Surprises of Living in a Japanese Home

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The time-tested ways to get a quick exposure to a new country are to go grocery shopping and, if you are lucky enough, be invited to stay with a local. For example, a US grocery store visit quickly reveals national obsessions with teeth whitening, dieting, and red meat. A visit to a Japanese store reveals obsessions with germs, pickled ingredients, and adorably cute sweets in every possible form.

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This weekend in Tokyo I was fortunate to be invited to stay with a Rakuten colleague/HR executive for two nights. I asked her permission to photo my experiences. Being a designer, I really only focused on the appliances and products in her home. I would have to stay a lot longer than two nights to really know anything meaningful about how she lived.

But here goes. Chizy is 49 and has lived in France, Pakistan, Sudan and is currently dividing her time between Boston and Tokyo. A few years ago she bought a house in the same neighborhood where she lived after university. It’s a quiet and calm west Tokyo location called Nishiogikubo with many small crafts shops and tiny charming restaurants lining the narrow dense streets.

This is Chizy’s own street. In contrast to most of Tokyo, Nishiogikubo is markedly low rise and homey.

IMG_1390 This is her house, below, which she renovated after purchase. It’s probably about 1,500 square feet in size.

IMG_1389While relaxing alone in the living room–with the big grated window opened–I heard a grandfather singing to a baby, the whoosh of cycles passing, neighbors calling to each other, and children playing. As I quietly tapped on my computer a–dare I say–sense of Zen fell over me, being in the company of those soothing but untranslatable foreign sounds. I heard no cars, sirens or air traffic. The immediate neighbor behind Chizy’s house has a large yard so there were also lots of bird and cricket sounds and gentle breezes cooled the rooms.

Here is Chizy, serving cake after a small dinner gathering. It was interesting to me that she served a variety of store-bought small dishes as the dinner. It was kind of like an assemblage of appetizers, with one substantial dish in the form of roasted pork. I was happy for this efficiency as she had spent the Saturday in a training course and the last thing I wanted her to do was cook. It struck me that an American friend would probably have knocked herself out to prepare something homemade–and there would have been a great loss of conviviality sacrificed for that purpose. Chizy calmly served the array of tasty treats and was able to focus on the conversation rather than inventing a culinary extravaganza.

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Her home is full of strange wonders, many electronic. It reinforced my perception that much of Japan is just slightly over-engineered, or over-featured, or over-personalized.

Here’s an example (I think). I had some time in Chizy’s home by myself and had half a mind to do a load of laundry, being out of clean clothes. One look at this “jet engine” dashboard on the washing machine and I decided my dirty duds would have to do.

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As a business sidebar, this control panel reminds me of every Japanese PowerPoint I’ve ever seen. Japanese presentations are always ten times more complex than an American version. My Japanese colleagues seem totally comfortable with the density of information and I can only speculate that either 1) they fake that they understand their colleague’s work, or 2) they can take in complex visual information more easily than an English-language-reader, because at a young age they all learned to read a very complex pictographic alphabet, Kanji.

Speaking of complexity, any visitor to Japan knows the Ph.D it takes to use a toilet. Here is the wall-mounted control panel example from Chizy’s home. Just what button would you push to flush, anyway? (It’s not the orange one.)

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This was a really cool feature of her sanitary fixtures: there is a tiny hand-washing sink right on top of the tank that starts flowing the perfect amount of water after a flush. The blue thing is a sanitizer doo-hickey. One odd thing is that in both private and public restrooms I rarely see hand soap. That is not consonant with the whole germaphobe Japanese society.

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What is consonant is the ever-present pair of slippers in every Japanese bathroom. I am not quite sure their purpose and I forgot to ask. When I was raising young boys with bad aim though, I would have liked to follow that custom.

IMG_1385 While Chizy was preparing dinner I did ask her about the giant 7” diameter sink drain. She showed me a gauze “basket” under this drain that she periodically disposes and replaces. Chizy said she is constantly clogging the drain of her American apartment because it does not have this two-step sort of system to catch the big stuff before it flushes down. I neglected to ask her about the oh-so-tiny sponge scrubber next to the drain, but I saw them for sale in packs of eight or so. I can’t imagine why they are a good idea.

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Here is Chizy’s living area and kitchen. We had dinner gathered around the coffee table. Her “office” is the little desk behind the plant. I was pleased to see that Japanese women really do have giant stuffed animals in their homes (note the green one) because we launched this same Japanese company as a Grommet. I always pray that our Discovery team is not duped when a foreign manufacturer tells us “This is very popular in our country.” I fear someone selling us the Japanese or Spanish or Australian equivalent of say, a Cabbage Patch Doll or Spam.

IMG_1381Chizy’s windows were covered with a type of shade that filters the light, lets in air, but prevents people looking in. The windows and screens were engineered to within an inch of their lives, for easy operation.

IMG_1380Chizy lives very, very sparely. Even with such a small footprint house, most of the storage spaces were empty or uncrowded. Walls were largely bare and the furniture minimalist. I have no idea if this is typical but I know that when I stay in traditional Japanese inns there is a similar aesthetic. The simple but pleasing details of this staircase feel all the more luxurious for not competing with a great deal of ornamentation or décor.

IMG_1379Ascending the stairs I had two silent disappointments. One, the hard tiny pillows worried me, as a person who needs a good fluffy pillow, that I’d be up half the night with my head on a rock. This is not unusual—Japanese hotels usually have a small buckwheat pillow on the beds (alongside a soft Western one). I speculate that this practice keeps the Japanese tough, as there is zero comfort in laying your head down on those hard, unforgiving sacks. At Chizy’s I ended up wrapping the colorful little lozenges in the generous comforter and getting by just fine.

IMG_1387The other worry was the humidity and heat in the second floor room—it was positively oppressive on entry. We opened the windows and relief seemed possible but the coup de grace was this “air cleaner” appliance. It is some kind of combo dehumidifier and purifier and it works a charm. The room was soon very comfortable and I slept like the dead.

IMG_1388The next morning Chizy showed me the shower and I had to ignorantly ask “Where do I stand to use it?” The answer was that you sit on that little stool and basically the whole room turns into your shower.  OK then! It’s a lot like the shower set-up at a traditional public onsen bath. I should have known–I’ve been to at least ten.

IMG_1382I was curious about the cover on the bath and was surprised to roll it back and find the bath full of water, whose warmth was retained by the double walled insulated protection. Baths are religion in Japan so the various rituals and industries built around them clearly extend to the home.

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Chizy shared with me her precious supply of a fairly unusual breakfast treat: a paste made of sesame and honey, on toast. It was delicious. I wanted to bring some home as it is also meant to have health benefits. I also adore looking at the cartoony graphics. This new addition would complement my fanatical devotion to a weekend toast ritual. Below is what I usually have in the summer. (I love it so much I took a picture to remind me in the winter when I am stuck indoors with my Maine blueberry jam.)

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This is the neighborhood restaurant where I subsequently had a delightful solo lunch.  Re:gendo is in a very traditional building transported to this location and restored to a lustre. It’s operated by a cadre of sweet, pretty former housewives. In this singular place, I finally found my dream “local” Tokyo restaurant, nicely complemented by a small craft shop.

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Chizy says there is another restaurant in the neighborhood manned by older women– “grandmothers” who are very slow and often screw up your order. But their warm charm and steady conversation are the draws to the establishment, not speed or accuracy. In contrast there is a small local bar owned a silent bartender where Chizy says she goes if she is tired of talking and just wants to slam down two drinks in peace.

I’ve been to Japan five times since last year. I’ll be back many times and I am hopeful that I was a good guest to Chizy so I can return to her lovely abode. One of the secrets to surviving this kind of travel, according to my globe-trotting Japanese colleagues, is to establish firm routines around the flights you take, the food you eat, where you stay and the public transport routes, and preserving your personal exercise routines.

I’ve not managed to find that balance on prior trips but I can now see a way to create a little bit of home in Chizy’s neighborhood. And maybe next time I will brave operating the washing machine.

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About the Author

This article was written by Jules Pieri. Jules is the Co-Founder and CEO of the product launch platform The Grommet. The company’s Citizen Commerce™ movement is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. see more.

Callum Connects

Agnes Yee, Legal & Compliance Recruiter of Space Executive

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Agnes Yee started Space Executive in Singapore, which is a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

What’s your story?
After graduation, I joined a design media company as a Business Development Executive, during the era when ‘reading a magazine online’ was unheard of. I believe that laid the foundation for being unfazed by rejections.

I fell into recruitment pre-GFC and rode the highs and lows in the early years. A decade later, I decided to set up my own recruitment company, partly because I could. I’m acutely aware of the face that being an Asian female in Singapore is sometimes a privilege, and that many women in the world are living a very different existence.
Thereafter, we joined Space Executive as part of a merger. I am currently the Partner of Space Executive, a recruitment company focused specialist disciplines, including Legal, Finance, Digital, Sales and Marketing and Change. We also run Space Ventures, a venture capital business, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
On a daily basis, we’re influencing how one spends a third of their day. It is interesting how the Internet has transformed the industry, and I’m excited to see how we can harness technology to bring us to the next phase of this business.

The VC is an extension of applying our skills and experience in reading people. We very much invest in the people as much as the idea. Being a native Singaporean, it’s been exhilarating watching Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of ideas; and young entrepreneurs simply daring to dream.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I love that I speak both English and Mandarin, grew up playing with Indian friends and eating Malay food.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the low barriers of entry to set up a business, but has to be China (and Hong Kong) for their hunger and constant innovation.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
青春不要留白 which translates to ‘Don’t waste your youth.’

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has gone against the grain.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It wasn’t recent but reading the article on https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html never fails to blow my mind how little time we have left. Charting our lives in weeks, and realising I only have enough time left to enjoy 60 Christmas turkeys, read 300 books (all if I’m lucky); and mostly, I’m left with the last 5% of the time that I spend in-person with my parents.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’m cognisant that every decision I made in life has brought me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change one thing. But I’d really like to have had more time to travel.

How do you unwind?
Exercise and wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Trekking any mountain in Asia. It brings us back to the most basic. To overcome elements of nature and our own mind.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Start with Why, Simon Sinek

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive started in Singapore, a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. We assist organisations in accessing a targeted and specialised, and often times transient talent pool.

Out of Singapore, we have recruited across 14 countries; and have embarked on our global expansion plans with offices in Hong Kong and London this year, and US, Japan and Europe in the following years.

Space Ventures provides funding, management and financial guidance to young businesses with original ideas. We have invested in peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring, social media education, and other start-ups spanning diverse industries. We are always interested in hearing more about new ideas.

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/agnesyee/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Chrystie Dao-Szabo, Founder of iPayMy

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo founded iPaymy for Business – a secure and easy to use
platform enabling SMEs to pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today.

What’s your story?
I’m Chrystie Dao-Szabo, and I’ve worked as an international banker for over 22 years. During that time, I travelled through Asia, Australia and Europe, and everywhere I saw how my clients struggled with managing their finances and keeping cash around.

I wanted to use my experience to help them, but I also knew the solution they needed didn’t exist yet. This pushed me to give up on my secure career, and instead look into the innovative world of FinTech for an answer.

This is how I founded iPaymy – at its launch, a platform to help consumers pay their monthly expenses using their credit cards. We’ve grown a lot since, and today, iPaymy for Business is a platform that allows business owners to use their credit cards to pay for rent, salaries, invoices and taxes, freeing up their cash for business-critical operations.

What excites you most about your industry?
What excites me most about FinTech is it’s culture of constant disruption, thanks to cool and innovative products and services coming out every day.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Australia and worked in Asia, Europe and Australia. Being raised by traditional Vietnamese parents meant that deep down I was still an Asian at heart, so I have a strong connection with the region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore of course. It’s easy to do business, English is the main language, and the infrastructures like public transportation are great. Also, the government supports local innovation in multiple ways, like giving grants for SMEs and FinTechs.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Keep giving, and one day you will receive.

Who inspires you?
My parents. My father had a successful business in Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. After the war, my father was sent to a re-education camp for three years, which meant my mum had to bring up two young kids – a 3-year-old, me and my 4-year old brother on her own.

In 1980, we all fled Vietnam on a boat and arrived in Sydney, Australia via refugee camps in Indonesia and Singapore. There, my parents had to start over with nothing to their names and only AUD 50 given to them by the Australian government.
They went on to build several businesses in Australia!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The number of young and smart people who have carved out successful careers by founding their own startups (or joining really cool ones). When I was starting out my career, doing any of these was not a viable option; it was either working for an accounting firm, an insurance company or a bank.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
If I were starting out my career now, I would choose the path of joining a startup as you get to learn so much about running a business and how to assemble a winning team.

How do you unwind?
I like travelling to a beach or a resort destination and just relaxing by the pool or beach. I also like to unwind after work with a glass of champagne or wine, and a bowl of truffle fries.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. I love the people and the spicy Thai food.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The E-Myth. It’s a book series that dismantles common myths about entrepreneurship in different industries.

Shameless plug for your business:
With iPaymy for Business, SMEs can pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today. SMEs love iPaymy because it works like a credit card, but pays like cash.

iPaymy’s secure and easy to use platform reliably delivers payments to vendors while freeing up cash and providing access to interest free credit. Forget the delays and aggravations that come with traditional SME financing options. Schedule recurring payments, manage invoices, set payment reminders, and monitor payment status all from one dashboard.

It’s never been easier for SMEs to meet monthly payment obligations while keeping cash available to fuel growth, bridge receivable gaps, and make immediate investment in the supplies, services, and expertise needed to drive a growing business forward.

How can people connect with you?
You can find me on LinkedIn or contact me by email.
My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrystiedaoszabo/
My email: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
https://twitter.com/ceedeees

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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