On the road in Japan

Before traversing The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland I'd been warned it would be extremely difficult visiting companies because they were secretive and not very open. This generalization proved to be false. I had heard the same accusations leveled at Japanese companies but, unfortunately these proved to be all too true. Japanese companies ARE in fact secretive and not very open.

English being the spoken language of the international business community was one of the pluses going for me in undertaking this unusual odyssey around the world. However, I definitely had communication problems in Japan. Another major problem was finding my way around. Trying to decipher Japanese characters on the street signs proved futile. My old trick of riding around an area until seeing a company's name or familiar logo on headquarters buildings didn’t work because many had their names in Japanese characters. Arriving in Tokyo I initially thought visiting companies would be a cinch because many were listed on two main streets: Marunouchi and Ohtemachi. Well, it turns out they aren't names of streets but areas of Tokyo. For instance the address for Fujitsu was 1-6-1 Marunouchi, Choyoda-ku, Tokyo 100 Japan. Choyoda-ku is an area of Tokyo with Marunouchi and Ohtemachi each being about a 10 square block parcels of packed buildings within Choyoda-ku.

I land in New Tokyo International Airport (40 miles southeast of Tokyo). New Tokyo International Airport isn't exactly new (built in 1978) but, Tokyo's older OTHER international airport had first dibs on the Tokyo International Airport name though it's commonly referred to as Haneda Airport.

Many things take getting used to in Japan, some good, some bad. In the USA we use 110 voltage, most of Europe 220 v, but, it's 100 voltage in Japan (go figure). My electric shaver and laptop work but, at a little slower pace. Next to the bed in hotel rooms I find two books, the New Testament and The Teaching of Buddha.

Bathrooms here are quite interesting. Many a time when visiting a company I would wash my hands only to find nary a paper towel, electric hand dryer or towel machine in sight. Why? You're responsible for bringing your own drying utensil and most men opt for a handkerchief which would seem to get on the damp side as the day wears on. What's REALLY interesting though is going into the bathroom stalls in some of Japan's finest department stores. The doors on the outside of the stalls are marked either "Western- Style" or Japanese Style". Open up a "Japanese-Style" door and your eyes are instantly riveted to the hole in the floor where you're invited to squat over.

It took me a while but I finally got the answer to why the Japanese drive on the wrong side of the road. Several mentioned the silly habit was picked up from the English but that didn't make sense since Japan was never under British rule. Here's the reason: Samurai warriors. Long ago when these fierce warriors roamed the roads, you moved on the left side for security reasons. Approaching an enemy coming the other way, this allowed the warrior to quickly whip out his sword holstered on his left side.

Of all the countries visited, Japan wins hands down for having the most convenience stores. They're EVERYWHERE, especially US chains like 7/11, Circle K and AM/PM. Here's a piece of trivia: Whereas the U.S. has nearly 30,000 supermarkets, Japan, with only one-half the population, has nearly 88,000. Then again, the stores in America have an average floor space of 30,000 to 45,000 square feet, while in Japan, the majority of stores average 3,500 to 4,500 square feet.

Believe it or not, it's legal for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks in Japan. This is good news if you’re a biker but I guess it's not so good if you're a pedestrian. Personally, I seldom bicycled on the sidewalks for two reasons: one, in the big cities the sidewalks are usually packed with people and two, the curbs aren't level with the road as you cross over to another street which means you and the bike take an uncomfortable pounding.

Elsewhere in the world when visiting companies on rainy days I would watch as workers trudge into buildings carrying their dripping wet umbrellas. Not in Japan. Here employees fold up their wet umbrellas and insert said umbrella into a portable machine located near the entrance, which envelops the umbrella into a snug plastic wrapping.

 

On the road in and around Tokyo

Jusco Co. Ltd.

To the east of Tokyo lies a peninsula with 300 miles of coastline. This is Chiba Prefecture. Prefectures are equivalent to states in the USA. The New Tokyo International Airport and Tokyo Disneyland fall within Chiba Prefecture’s borders. With a population of 850,000, Chiba is the prefecture's largest city and capital. Downtown Chiba isn't much to talk about, but head five miles from city center to the Tokyo Bay waterfront and it's a real eye opener. Ten years ago a two-mile by two-mile area of land was reclaimed from the bay. Now, this piece of land is bursting with spiffy futuristic high-rise office and hotel buildings, a major league baseball stadium and a monster-size convention center. The enormous convention center, covering 1.7 million square feet, is touted as Japan's largest.

Jusco, Japan's third largest retailer with almost $22 billion in revenues, occupies a 25-story structure mixed-in among a slew of buildings connected to each other via elevated walkways crossing over streets. Many of these buildings sport familiar names and logos atop their sides such as IBM, Fujitsu and Sharp.

Built in 1994, Jusco's granite-clad headquarters features a two-story lobby done in gray and white marble. The three uniform-wearing (bluish-green outfits with white blouse and bow-like tie) receptionists are friendly but speak zero English. When one hears my name she pulls out a sheet of paper and I see it's attached to several of the news clippings I sent a month earlier announcing my pending arrival. A minute later I'm warmly greeted by Hideaki Yajima, Public Relations Specialist of the Executive Office and, Yumeno Yamauchi, an assistant. Yamauchi tells me she went to college in the USA (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). I go on to tell her how I visited the major college campuses while traversing the USA and UNC came out number one on my top ten listing of campuses with the best-looking women.

My first question has to do with why the name Aeon Group is atop this building instead of Jusco. Is Aeon Group the parent holding company? "No", says Yajima, he goes on to say the Aeon Group is a business conglomerate comprised of 153 companies, with Jusco standing at the core. Hmm, sounds like a holding company to me.

Jusco (Japan United Stores Company) arose out of the business tie-ups of three local chain stores in 1969. One of the three companies, Okadaya, traces its origins back to 1758.

Jusco has its hands in a variety of areas. Besides developing shopping malls, Jusco operates supermarkets, department stores and owns Talbot's, the US woman's fashion specialty chain store. Japan is a tough market for foreigners to crack and most go the route of finding a local partner and forming a joint venture. Jusco has hooked up with quite a few US companies this way. Red Lobster, Laura Ashley, The Body Shop, Sports Authority and Office Max are some of the more prominent names.

Touring the building we stop on the fourth floor to admire the large atrium. A real giant tree used to be the focal point but Yajima confesses it died. There's a Ministop; a convenience store plus a company-owned travel agency just off of the atrium for the 1,600 employees here to use. (Ministop is a large convenience stop chain owned by Jusco). While surveying the atrium I keep hearing chirping bird noises and mention to my hosts it's probably a bird which sneaked into the place to take residence in the expansive plant-filled atrium. Yajima makes another confession: the chirping noises aren't coming from a real live Tweety bird but horrors of horrors, a man-made machine.

It's on to the top floor (25th) where I meet with Eiji Akiyama, Executive vice Chairman, who hasn't followed the norm. Here in Japan, the typical worker (blue and white collar) spends his entire career with the same company. Several years ago, the late 50's/early 60's year-old Akiyama was headhunted from another company. After chatting over a cup of Chinese green tea, the personable Akiyama walks me into his office, the boardroom and CEO Takuya Okada's office. There's a meeting going on in the boardroom but, when you have the #2 guy in the company showing you around there're are no such things as closed doors as he opens the door and lets me take a gander. The elongated O-shaped table is massive and looks to easily seat 40 to 50.

CEO Okada isn't in but his corner office with two plants and no computer commands a great view of the harbor and convention center. There's a photograph of Okada with his wife on a table and I count five miniatures of ox scattered about plus an oil painting of an ox on a wall. What's with the various ox? It seems the 72-year old Okada was born under the astrological sign of the ox and receives quite a few as gifts. It reminds me of the insurance company visited in Lincoln, Nebraska where I counted over a dozen hippopotamuses of various sizes in the CEO's office. Why were these fat beasts in his office? The CEO's last name was Hippo.

Akiyama has two offices. One is down the corridor from Okada but he seldom uses it. Why? Smoking isn't allowed on the floor and since Akiyama is a smoker, he keeps an office on the 23rd floor near a designated smoking area.

Checking out the cafeteria on the 15th floor I note the piped-in music playing and great view of the surrounding area the employees enjoy as they eat. Employees are issued company identification cards entitling them to various discounts at company stores.

We also do a walk-through of the company's state-of-the-art multimedia satellite system studio, allowing communications between headquarters, regional office and stores.

Mitsubishi Corporation

With over $184 billion in sales, Mitsubishi Corporation, a Sogo shosha or general trading company, is big. Matter of fact, in terms of revenues, Mitsubishi is the world's largest company. That explains why Mitsubishi gets to be the first company I visit in Tokyo.

Between Tokyo's main railway station and the grounds of the Imperial Palace (which is surrounded by formidable-looking moats) there's an area roughly five blocks long and 10 blocks wide. This is prime office space and it's some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

A block away from the train station I come across Mitsubishi's unremarkable-looking 15-story glass headquarters. Obviously built in the late 1950's/early 1960's, it looks similar to those old blah-looking office buildings lining New York City's Park Avenue. The top six floors are set back from the rest of the building and several large satellite dishes are visible outside the ninth floor-which is where the building starts to get smaller.

There's no large flashing signs here letting you know you're at the world's biggest company, only a metal plaque on the outside the door. Entering, I pass two security guards and make my way to the two receptionists wearing matching bright yellow outfits manning the desk. In a few minutes Nobukazu Kozai, Manager-Press Relations Team steps out to the lobby and greets me. Unfortunately, he has no clue as to why I'm here and says they never received my advance material sent six weeks ago addressed to CEO Minoru Makihara.

Though disappointed, I'm impressed with Kozai's flexibility in answering my questions as we sit in the building's lobby. Headquarters is comprised of three buildings with over 6,000 employees. Next door there's a connecting 8-story older building and next to that is block long 14-story building built in the 1970's.

Employees eat in one of three cafeterias. Executives meanwhile are in their own little world, eating in executive dining rooms. Top executives here are given cars and drivers to take them to and from work. It's the norm in Japan for top executives to have a car and driver.

I can't see the CEO's office, boardroom or anything else for "security reasons". Of course I tell Kozai they must have sloppy in-house mail service (I'm sure my letter is here) and mention the disappointment in coming clear around the world to visit his company only to end up sitting in their lobby. According to Kozai, the CEO is ensconced on the top floor and the table in the boardroom is huge, seating almost 100.

Mitsubishi divides itself into seven business groups: Information Systems & Services, Fuels, Metals, Machinery, Foods, Chemicals and, Textiles & General Merchandise.

Industrial Bank of Japan

In terms of revenues, with over $38 billion in 1996, Industrial Bank of Japan ranks as Japan's second largest bank (behind Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi). Walking into the 15-story marble-clad headquarters I introduce myself to the three uniform wearing receptionists. Though they don't speak English they seem to know who I am because Masanori Komiya, Senior Manager-Public Relations Department, shortly shows up. He's not exactly Mr. Personality greeting me with "what is it you want?" Komiya did receive the advance material and makes it clear he isn't keen about talking to me.

We sit on two of the eight brown chairs near the lobby entrance surrounded by four of the foulest smelling cigarette ashtrays I've ever encountered. The brusque Komiya has me out of here in seven minutes. I don't get past the lobby because the rest of the building "is not open".

Over 2,000 employees work in this place unofficially named "The Submarine Building". Why? Though long (over a block long), it isn't very wide, with one end looking like a fishtail. SIDEBAR: Going outside afterwards and using my bike as a tape measure, I march off the width of the narrowest part of the building: nine bicycle lengths.

Built in 1974, the top floor houses the company cafeteria with executives having their own separate dining facilities. For "security reasons", Komiya won't divulge which floor CEO Masao Nishimura and the boardroom are located.

Fujitsu

I figured headquarters for Fujitsu, one of the world's largest electronics companies with almost $39 billion in revenues, would be a spiffy, modernistic showpiece. Boy, am I wrong. Though Fujitsu has prime location near the main Tokyo rail station, it leases floors 8-20 in an ugly brick 20-story structure. No signs anywhere on the exterior. Stepping off the elevator onto the 12th floor reception area, two things immediately become apparent: piped-in music is playing and, the lobby reeks of cigarettes. The three receptionists are surrounded by four real plants, one fake plant plus, there's not a single company product on display for visitors. It's obvious not much thought was put into what image the company was projecting to visitors.

I'm directed to public relations where Mike Beime, Public Relations, says the company didn't receive my advance material. Never the less, he agrees to sit down and answer questions.

Fujitsu, founded in 1920, has leased space in this building for 11 years, which we guesstimate to be the age of the ugly structure. Roughly 2,500 employees work here. Official hours of work are 8:40 AM to 5:30 PM with an hour (12-1) for lunch. I can't see CEO Tadashi Sekizawa's 19th floor office due to "security reasons". I am however whisked up to the 20th floor to have a look at the view, several of the meeting rooms and the boardroom, which contains an elongated boardroom table seating 50. Beime says the boardroom as well as meeting rooms are equipped with teleconferencing systems, which he points out, are manufactured by Fujitsu.

I check Beime's cubicle as well as several others in his department to see if Fujitsu products are being used. Yep, the fax machine as well as computers and copy machines are Fujitsu.

The Tokio Marine and Fire Insurance Co., Ltd.

Occupying a spot directly across the street from the Imperial Palace grounds, the 25-story reddish-orange brick and glass headquarters of insurer Tokio Marine & Fire gets my nod as one of Tokyo's best-looking and distinctive buildings. The brick columns cris-crossing the height and width of the tower exterior suggests a giant Lego toy building.

The red terra cotta-like brick lobby floor looks like pieces from a giant puzzle as I approach the reception desk who's counter top contains a large arrangement of flowers. After identifying myself, I watch the receptionist pick up a slip a paper (which I note from reading it upside down contains my name on it) and make a phone call. I'm directed to a waiting room reeking of tobacco and thankfully it's a short wait before Hirotoshi "Tony" Izawa, General Manager-Corporate Communications Department arrives and gives me an enthusiastic welcome. Having worked in the States, the very outgoing Izawa speaks great English and has a terrific sense of humor.

Built in 1974, between two and three thousand employees work here. Employees get a small perk: hours of work are from 9:15 to 5 PM. At most companies it's a 9AM start. What's the big deal you say? Well, if you've ever witnessed the massive exodus from the subways and trains during the morning commute, you'll appreciate what the extra 15 minutes means.

Founded in 1879, how come Tokio Fire and Marine spells its name "Tokio" instead of "Tokyo"? Over the centuries, different ruling, warring factions ran Japan. At one time "Tokio" was the officially spelling of Japan's largest city.

No big company name flashes atop this building or for that matter, other nearby buildings lining this street. Why? Probably out of respect. The Imperial Palace (encircled by an imposing moat) and the surrounding Imperial Palace grounds (several hundred acres) lie directly across the street.

Zipping up to the 24th floor (the 25th holds mechanical equipment) Izawa shows off the view of the Imperial Palace from one of the executive dining rooms. "He's busy", so I can't see CEO Koukei Higuchi's corner office with a view of he palace grounds. The oval-shaped boardroom table seats 30.

Marubeni Corporation

It's revenues (over $161 billion) put Marubeni Corporation near the top of the list of world's biggest companies. That explains how Marubeni can afford to have a 16-story head office building directly across the street from the Imperial Palace and grounds.

Built in 1972, lots of white marble and over 20 plants greet visitors entering the concrete slab and glass structure. The company name, in large white letters, graces the building's exterior near the 14th floor. It's lunchtime, raining outside and, over 3,000 people work here which explains the hustle and bustle of the large lobby.

Things are looking bleak as a receptionist makes calls to different departments only to be repeatedly told they never received my advance material. Just when I'm about to give up, Patrick (Packy) Ryan, Manager-International Personnel Section, arrives and says word was passed on to him about a fellow American in their lobby who was riding around the world on a bicycle. I explain what I'm doing and Ryan quickly agrees to answer my questions.

I have a great time talking to the outgoing Ryan, who went to the University of Hawaii and has business cards printed English on one side and Japanese on the other. Founded in Osaka in 1858, the company's name means "red circle" in Japanese ("Beni" meaning red and "maru" meaning circle). Normal hours of work are from 9:15 AM to 5:30 PM. After a tour of the boardroom (who's round table seats 50), lecture halls and conference rooms on the top floor (16th), Ryan takes me for a quick stroll around the 15th floor which houses executives and expensive pieces of the company's very impressive international art collection. Ryan points out "La Bella Simonetta" by Sandro Botticelli in 1485 and worth several million dollars.

Mitsui & Co., Ltd.

Mitsui & Co., like Marubeni its neighbor a few doors down, is one of world's largest companies (a trading concern with over $163 billion in revenues) and like Marubeni, owns its well-located and mucho bucks head office building directly across the street from the moat protecting the Imperial Palace. Built in 1975, the 24-story edifice isn't much architecture-wise but, fronting the street and directly opposite the Imperial Palace makes this one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world.

Though home to over 4,500 employees, no signs are to be found on the exterior of the building. Matter of fact, my contact person Ryuga Wada, Manager-Corporate Communications Division, says locals call this the "Duck Building". Why? There's a shallow reflective pond on the backside of this edifice and a few years ago several ducks, which inhabit the Imperial Palace moats across the road, flew over and moved in. The local media picked up on the story and followed their progress. Ducklings were born and after a while it came time for mom to march the kids over to the big pond (moat). The local media was on hand as traffic was stopped on the busy road for mom and kids as they waddled across the road. Wada says this became an annual event.

Mitsui recently changed one of its rules and now belongs to a very select group of companies in Japan: women do not have to wear uniforms. It isn't cheap supplying uniforms. Earlier when visiting Tokio Marine & Fire I was told it cost the company over $10 million a year to supply uniforms for its female employees.

Nice guy Wada has his office on the 22nd floor and I get a peak at a small sampling of the company's international art collection. The Renoir and Cezane (both originals) impress me. The elongated boardroom table, located on the 24th floor, seats 50 and is huge. As usual here in Japan, the executive offices are off-limits to me. Mitsui is one of only a handful of companies visited in Japan, which acknowledges receiving my advance material.

Dai-Ichi Mutual Life

With over $58 billion in revenues, Dai-Ichi Mutual Life ranks as Japan's second largest insurer (behind Nippon Life) and one of the world's 10 largest. Things are definitely low-key here as the only identification on the impressive-looking 21-story white granite-clad building being two small copper plaques on either side of the revolving doors. One plaque has Japanese characters and the words "Dai-Ichi Life" below it and the other plaque has Japanese characters and the words "The Norinchunkin Bank". A quick shuffle through my list of companies to visit turns up the name Norinchunkin Bank. Oh goodie, it seems the bank also has its head office here.

The building fronts the street running past the Imperial Palace. Entering, I take an escalator up to the second floor reception area which is manned by four attentive receptionists. The lobby is divided in half where if I round a corner I encounter Norinchunkin Bank's four receptionists.

I'm surprised when my contact person Yuzuru Furumura, Staff Manager-Public Information Division-Public Relations Department, says the new-looking building was built in 1938. It turns out the first eight floors (which occupies a city square block and has the boxy, fortress-like look of many insurance buildings in the USA) was built in 1938 and the narrow 13 floors atop were a recent addition in 1993.

Over 2,000 employees work in this company-owned building with Norinchunkin Bank (with almost $25 billion in revenues and a loss last year of over $560 million) occupying three floors. Founded in 1902, Dai-Ichi (means "first") is the oldest mutual in Japan.

As we sip green tea Furumura tells me the historic importance of this building: it was from here where General MacArthur ran things during his tenure as head of the Allied Forces. We then proceed to the sixth floor where MacArthur's corner office has been preserved intact. The wood paneled office with marble fireplace makes you wonder if someday he'll make good again on his famous "I shall return" quote.

Furumura seems to think showing me MacArthur's office will overshadow the fact I'm not allowed anywhere else in the building and that they supposedly never received my advance material.

NKK, East Japan Railway, Meiji Mutual Life

Steelmaker NKK (over $18 billion in revenues), insurer Meiji Mutual Life (over $38 billion in revenues) and East Japan Railway Company (over $25 billion in revenues) each reside in the Marunouchi area (financial district) and each deny having received my advance material sent a month earlier.

A 17-story blah-looking greenish-gray structure probably built in the early 1970's serves as headquarters for NKK. Though NKK has its name in large letters atop the building it hasn't much of a presence in the lobby. A red phone on a counter is the company's receptionist. Since everything is in Japanese I have no clue whom to dial. I finally corral a passerby to call up Public Relations. Shinji Okutsu, Manager-Public Relations Section-Corporate Secretariat Department arrives in the lobby a few minutes later. What's to become a standard line/excuse here in Japan comes out of his mouth: "we never received your letter". I leave him several news clippings and never do make it back.

The two receptionists and two security guards in the lobby of East Japan Railway Company's dumpy, ugly building don't know what to make of me since no one speaks English. Twenty minutes of my repeating the words "Does someone speak English" finally gets them to have Kazuhiko Aida, Assistant Manager-International Department, sent down to talk to me. I admire Aida for his honesty. He says they never received my letter and if they did it was "probably thrown away". With a look of bewilderment I ask, "Why would someone do that"? He answers it probably had something to do with the company only doing business in Japan. Aida also goes on to say this ugly building with prime location is soon to be demolished. What's so prime about it location" It's literally a hop, skip and jump across the street from Tokyo's central train station.

Traversing the globe, I've been generally well received at insurance companies. Not true in Japan and especially at mutual insurance companies. With $38 billion in revenues, Meiji Mutual Life is a biggie. The two security guards and two receptionists in the lobby of the 1930ish building are very friendly. On three separate days I enter the 8-story, block long by block wide, fortress-like building and three times I'm rebuffed with: either they hadn't received my advance material or no one's available.

 

Fuji Photo Film Company

Tokyo has a series of elevated freeways crossing the city. Fuji Photo Film's head office is so close to a passing freeway that I could literally toss a watermelon onto it from Fuji's front steps. I was expecting Fuji to have a modernistic facility but instead find an 18-story glass, company-owned edifice built in the early 1970's and definitely-looking past its prime.

It's 8:45 AM and I'm motioned by the non-English speaking security guard to wait until 9AM. Hours of work are from 9AM to 5:40 PM. It's now two minutes to nine and the lobby is jammed with employees waiting to enter green elevator doors.

Ken Sugiyama, Corporate Public Relations Division, greets me and says the company never received my advance material. In a response since become routine, I disagree with his contention that they never received my advanced material. If all my letters addressed to Tokyo companies were sent at the same time, then why would neighboring companies receive theirs and not Fuji? Why wasn't it returned to sender if it was mis-addressed and supposedly Japan has one of the world's best postal service? I tell Sugiyama my theories: the letter is actually here in the building having been misrouted or lost in bureaucracy or, the company DID receive the letter and plead ignorance to having received it so they can dismiss me as a visitor without an appointment.

In what's become a familiar Japanese routine, I'm taken into a nearby closed room where green tea is served, my questions answered and my request to tour any of the building is denied due to "security reasons".

Looking at Sugiyama's business card I note it includes a mug shot of him. Hmm, that's the same thing done at Kodak. I wonder who came up with the idea first?

I rehash for Sugiyama my visit to Eastman Kodak's headquarters in Rochester, New York about nine years ago:

I arrived at Kodak's offices on a Friday near quitting time and was told to come back. This meant having to stay in Rochester until Monday putting me several days behind my already tight schedule. But, since Kodak was a big name company I had no choice. Come Monday morning I'm met by the manager of Kodak's employee in-house publication who has a couldn't-care-less attitude about meeting me or answering questions. Though Kodak has this sprawling headquarters facility, my visit takes 10 minutes and consists of sitting on a lobby sofa. I mention using Kodak film in my camera and you'd think he'd at least ask me something about how I liked the film. Nope, nary a question was asked. I was so peeved by his cold treatment that I later went out and bought Fuji film, stood out front of Kodak's headquarters and had my girlfriend (who was traveling along on a bicycle for a week) take pictures of me holding up Fuji film. From then on out I only used Fiji film.

Actually there's a bit of a twist to the story I just told about Kodak. Since my visit to Kodak nine years ago I've been using only Fuji film, that is until going to a Costco (a warehouse-type chain) in San Diego to load up on film before my trip to Japan. The store normally carried Kodak and Fuji but replaced Fuji film with its own in-house brand. Reluctantly I opted for Kodak film.

Over 1,000 employees work here and in two smaller buildings located behind this high-profile building situated several miles from downtown (Imperial Palace).

Walking me to my bike, Sugiyama checks out the Fuji camera I've been using the last two years. It's the DL-270 (35-mm) with zoom lens and panorama capability. A quick-thinking PR guy would have rustled up some free Fuji film but as I'm finding out here in Japan, things move slowly.

Dai Nippon Printing Company

It's Sunday morning and I'm riding around Tokyo making dry runs to head offices. I find Dai Nippon Printing, the world's largest printing company with almost $13 billion in revenues, about four miles from downtown in a hilly, mixed-use area. A huge printing plant running several blocks long and several blocks wide surrounds the 10-story head office. The building seems taller because it overlooks the factory located at the bottom of a hill. Stopping at the plant I ask the four security guards at the security gate what time the office opens on Monday. Big mistake. Nobody speaks English and they're freaking out over what to do with me. I end up waiting 20 minutes as the guards keep motioning me not to leave. I'm finally walked up the hill to the security booth outside the head office. One of the guards points at a piece of paper then at me and asks in broken English "Paul Wolsfeld?" I happily nod because this means the company is on top of things and I'll be expected when showing up tomorrow.

My Monday morning arrival finds Norihiko Murata, General Manager-Press and Public Relations, extending a warm welcome as I'm led into the company-owned, brown and black box-like building built in 1968. Murata isn't able to break down the number of employees working in the head office but estimates over 3,000 work in the plant/office site. I can't see CEO Yoshitoshi Kitajima's top floor corner office because "he's busy" nor can I see the boardroom, also on the top floor.

Directors on up get reserved parking spots in the garage, smoking is allowed in the building and, green tea gets served while we sit in a meeting room off of the lobby.

I do get a tour of the company's history room, located next to the reception area and is a time-line type display though it's disappointedly done only in Japanese.

Kumagai Gumi Company and Snow Brand Milk Products Company

Visiting Snow Brand Milk Products, Japan's largest dairy company, and Kumagai Gumi, a construction & engineering company with over $11 billion in revenues, proves frustrating as both insist they never received my advance material. Snow Brand Milk, with almost $11 billion in revenues, occupies two buildings about four miles from downtown. The taller of the two, a nine-story, plain vanilla structure was built in 1966. It’s hard to miss the building since the company’s logo, a polestar inside a snowflake, towers five-stories atop the roof.

Nothing in the lobby gives you a clue as to the company’s line of business. The décor is definitely on the cheap with barren walls and three low budget chairs for visitors. Jeez, why don’t they cough up a few bucks and have posters of cows or their line of dairy products on display?

Ikurou Ishihara, Manager-Public Relations Department, answers my questions via an assistant who interprets. He’s retiring after 37 years with the company. I was hoping he’d loosen up since he’s about to sail into the sunset. Nope. I don’t get past the lobby. I don’t get to check out CEO Sumio Katayama’s seventh floor office or the company cafeteria to see if Snow Brand products are served. Between 700-800 employees work here.

Built in 1974 and situated seven miles from downtown in a primarily residential area, Kumagai Gumi’s 12-story head office looks disappointing. I guess it’s because I always seem to expect more from a construction company. Two security guards stationed outside direct me inside where I encounter a three-foot tall sculpture depicting a construction worker with a pick. I count 26 black chairs, two receptionists and a lily on the reception counter as I scan the lobby.

Mitsuhiko Makita, Manager-Production Group-Public Relations Department-Corporate Management Division, meets me in the lobby and is clueless as to why I’m here. He agrees to try and answer questions but it’s obvious he’s a low-level employee and turns out to be a wasted visit. About 1,000 employees work here and in several nearby buildings including a recent addition built in 1995. Though he’s never been up there, Makita says CEO Taichiro Kumagai occupies a corner office on the top floor.

Bridgestone Corporation

Tire maker Bridgestone occupies a nine-story building a block away from Tokyo’s central train station. The two car tires and bicycle on display in a street level picture window helps me confirm this is the right place. Built in 1951, the building’s exterior sports a new coating making it appear new. Several pieces of art stand outside the entrance door including what appears to be a four-foot tall egg and a bright red two-story piece of sculpture which looks like a dozen five-foot long chunks of metal welded atop each other.

Black marble floors, black reception counters and two receptionists dressed in black help set the tone for this modernistic-looking lobby. The walls and ceilings are covered in aluminum and 28 colorful red, yellow, brown and blue chairs are situated around glass circular tables. Feels more like I’m visiting an office furniture design company than the world’s largest rubber manufacturer (Bridgestone acquired Firestone back in 1988).

Kenichi Kitawaki, Manager-Public Relations Section-Corporate Communications Department and Tota Kinoshita, staff member, greet me warmly AND acknowledge having received my advance material.

Founded in 1930 by Shojiro Ishibashi, Bridgestone’s name is an English variation of his surname (Ishibashi translates as "stone bridge").

Kitawaki guesses over 1,300 people work here. Smoking is allowed (there’re designated smoking times), those with company cars get to park in the rooftop parking lot and, enough though the company manufactures bicycles—there’re no parking areas for cyclists.

Seeing CEO Yoichiro Kaizaki’s ninth floor corner office is off-limits and ditto for the boardroom which means I don’t get to see Kaizaki’s collection of Indy helmets. I do get a free ticket to walk next door and stroll through the Bridgestone Museum of Art. In addition to having Japan’s finest collection of Western-style oil paintings by Japanese artists, I gander at works by French Impressionists, such as Cezanne, Monet, and Renoir. The museum’s permanent collection also includes works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Henri Moore and Rodin.