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'Churm in Asia'  



Sunday, November 15, 2009
Fly Away
First impressions
It is before dawn on a Monday in Tsukuba, Japan, a city remarkably similar in size and attitude to my home of Irvine. My hotel window is cracked slightly, and it is quiet on the streets below, surprisingly quiet here in the heart of the historic district of a city known as one of Japan’s R&D capitals. Yesterday when we arrived a wave of unseasonably warm fall weather greeted us as we stepped out of the massive Narita International Airport, which serves both Tsukuba to the north and Tokyo to the south. In fact, as our group of Irvine officials and business leaders walked to our bus we passed an American who was straight out of a Quiksilver catalog – shorts, pastel polo and sandals. But this morning, our first full day in Asia on this eight-day friendship and trade mission, the cool air filtering through the window suggests winter is not far away. We’ve been promised falling temperatures and perhaps rain as we explore Tsukuba, Irvine’s oldest sister city partner and its business and cultural offerings over the next 48 hours.

As we made the 90-minute drive late Sunday afternoon from Narita Airport to our hotel, two things struck me:  First, the road we traveled. It was narrow as it wound through tiny towns and past rice fields. Within minutes of leaving the terminal the roadway was two lanes and the landscape turned rural. My perception is skewed by the scale that is Irvine and Orange County. In almost any direction from John Wayne Airport there are multiple lanes of traffic and high rises dotting the skyline. There are some modern hotels near Narita Airport, but very quickly the roadside scene becomes traditional and agrarian. We passed familiar retail brands –  7-Eleven convenience stores, a Bob’s Big Boy and even a Coco’s at one intersection. But fields of rice and vegetables and a sense of a simpler life in Sunday’s fading light dominated the view from the bus as I absorbed my first impressions of this island nation of 127 million people.

It was also hard not to notice the size of everything – smaller and more compact. From the roads to the cars and even the homes, big does not appear to be better or even an option. This is an industrialized nation, the second-largest free market in the world. But Japan, with its four major islands and 4,000 smaller islands, is slightly smaller than California. Connected by one of the best – and fastest – train systems in the world, Japan has developed its economic prowess in the last half century by being efficient and leveraging its space. This nation has few natural resources. It imports almost all of the raw materials it needs to drive its economic engine. The premium is on production, not consumption. There are no rumbling SUVs on the roadways. Homes are smaller, and this room in one of Tsukuba’s finest hotels is half the size of most rooms at a Holiday Inn. Even the food portions at our first meal with Tsukuba Mayor Ken-ichi Ichihara last night reflect the measured approach the Japanese have about life in general. Some of it is out of necessity, a strategy to compete on the world stage. But it is also a way of life that has sustained its people and culture in a modern world.