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Roaming with Ingrid Starnes in Tokyo

Simon Pound is Marketing Director for Brand and Communications at tech company Vend, Managing Director of New Zealand fashion label Ingrid Starnes and producer/host of The Spinoff’s Business is Boring podcast.


Last month Ingrid and I were over in Japan for a packed week of meetings, eating and research, soaking up the retail and fashion inspiration this megacity abounds in. It’s our second trip there in two years, and we’ve picked up a few tips on how to do the work while keeping a busy business going back home.


When commuting in the city, data is your friend

One of the great misconceptions about Tokyo is that it is confusing, frenetic and too packed. If you are used to travelling the metro systems in any big city you’ll find Tokyo amongst the  easiest, most civil and civilised. Take Shinjuku for example, the busiest station in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records, with some 3.64 million people passing through a day. However, even at rush hour you are less likely to be bumped into, smell B.O, feel uncomfortable or get lost than in a station in London or New York. There are a lot of people, but with all signs in English and Japanese, with attendants everywhere and with a general level of education that has English speakers at every turn it’s almost embarrassing how little Japanese you need to navigate the city. This holds true less outside of the major urban areas. But if you use a Spark roaming pack for these next couple of apps, a smile, and a good attitude, you will be amazed how easy it is.


Use Citymapper to navigate

Although Citymapper is not up to full strength yet in Tokyo it still beats Google Maps for ease and clarity. It’s a navigation app that will get you where you need to go, with simple instructions, an offline mode and many options presented. It gives you the best information, down to which carriage of the train you should get on - and makes the search for the right exit out of a station simple. It can’t be overstated how important it is in Japan that you leave the station by the right exit. Tokyo has an idiosyncratic numbering style and street signage is often not that easy to interpret, so popping out at the right exit and following GPS to the destination will save you a lot of stress. Fun fact: buildings in Tokyo are numbered for their order of construction within their vicinity. Really.


Use Google Translate for magical signage translation

This app rules. If you are without any help you simply wave the app over any writing and it translates it for you. It is some real science fiction stuff, except real, available now, and very useful. In practise I found that every time I looked lost looking at signage a kind multi-lingual local would wander over and assist. I may look more lost than the average person, but I’ve heard from others having similar experiences. Still, get the app in case you are not rescued.


Use Receipt bank the receipt killer

When I travel with work, which I do a bit between Vend and Ingrid Starnes, it’s very important to keep good records of expenses, yet this goes against what is perhaps my one true superpower: the ability to lose receipts. The advent of the camera phone and text recognition has been a lifesaver. You simply get your receipt, load the app, take your photo, pop in your notes and categories and you’re done - it’s all uploaded to the cloud. Not worrying about paper records makes work travel feel like fun.


Make some Instagram stories

There is often a misconception that work travel is all fun. Contribute to this by sharing only the best moments of your trip, in the most scenic locations and most carefully chosen flattering shots. Instagram stories are a great way to do this, and if you download the story at the end of a day of missioning you’ve made yourself a little travel video. It’s funny how people’s travel photos don’t include getting lost, surprise cockroaches or headaches. Be advised, boasting through photos will mean people will have no sympathy for you if you complain about work travel.


After the last trip I needed a neck brace. Long story, and one that didn’t make Instagram stories.


Use Facebook Messenger to share your location

While travelling and calling friends in-market, it can be great to use WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Viber and Facebook Messenger. Of course  with sweet Spark roaming packs calls back home are easy and affordable on your phone now. Using the data, one of the most useful things we found with Facebook Messenger was the ability to share our location. A friend would ask where we were and we would not really have any idea, but by sharing our location in Messenger we could be found. A lifesaver in a couple of lost moments in Tokyo’s kooky numbering system.


Use the Lonely Planet Guides to get to the good lunch spot

The Lonely Planet City Guides are very handy for the time-pressed traveller. They offer downloadable maps, area based recommendations and potted histories and tips.

They are also what I find to be the best wisdom-of-the-crowd type recommendation engine. I have been disappointed with Tripadvisor or Yelp as their top tips often skew to the most western familiar options, and not always the best local example. It’s good to cross check between all the recommendation sites.


Keep the home fires burning by using Slack

We use Slack extensively at Ingrid Starnes. It allows all our team to share everything. We have three stores, the workroom, an external accountant and graphic designer, 20 odd stockists, lots of local suppliers and so many moving parts. By all working in Slack we can know where things are, when styles are arriving, can pick up customer service from the website to any store, pass details from one location to another, and by having all conversations in open rooms we can check in to get a feeling and context for how things are going. It makes travelling with work and being a distributed workforce easy, and maintains links between the team. It can be isolating being in a store all day, but now we all share in the highs and hard parts. It’s great.


Quick Tokyo Tips


Don’t go at the height of summer if you can help it. Turning up to meetings in super-composed Japan while you are melting is not cool.


Business cards really matter. Even if it seems outdated it is a sign of respect to give a card and care about the one you receive. Get nice business cards.


Get a local to be your business guide. One of the reasons we were there twice in two years is that we had to get a local to help us go back and find out what ‘yes’ meant. It wasn’t exactly yes the first time.


Don’t be scared of how busy/foreign it is. In Tokyo it’s embarrassingly easy to get by with no Japanese. It really is amazingly civilised too- you will feel less crowded in 20 million Tokyo than a normal NZ supermarket, with cleaner amenities and safer streets.


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