Japan, one of the most eastern countries in the world – from the western view!. In early January, twenty-one MBA students hailing from a dozen countries across, began 2019 with a career trek to Japan. For many it was a trip of a lifetime, combining friendship, food and Japanese spirits with a deep cultural experience and edifying exposure to Japan’s private, religious and cultural sectors. We learned about Japan’s unique strengths as a major economic force in the post-war period and the complexity of its commitment to continued growth and competitive advantage in a technologically developed and globalised future.

We began our journey in the old capital of Kyoto, the seat of the shogunate – military rule in the Edo period – which ran Japan for nearly three centuries, into the late 1800s. The imperial palace in Kyoto was the centre of government until the shogun era ended and then HQ moved to Tokyo – literally “the capital of the east”.

We also particularly enjoyed participating in a Japanese tea ceremony out our guest house. The tea was withheld until we were able to say a few phrases in Japanese and memorise the steps to the tea ritual – very motivating!

Among our many temple and shrine visits, we saw the stunning Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto. In Japan the shrines are Shinto (Japanese animism) and the temples Buddhist. Overnight stays to these religious sites are a major new focus of tourism as a top-heavy ageing population puts more pressure on the economy. We had the opportunity to hear from Ken Yokoyama, who provided us with insights about the Japanese government’s plans to develop tourism in a sustainable way, encouraging visits to areas outside of the big cities and emphasizing cultural tourism. One of the key challenges is that despite Japan’s development it has been slow to globalize in some of its infrastructure and so outside visitors must surmount logistical hurdles when visiting. This, however, did not stop the 30 million visitors who came to Japan in 2017. We found moving around and getting basic needs met easy and comfortable.

A highlight of the trek was our exquisite stay at an on-sen in Hakone, a hot spring outside Tokyo. We bathed in Sulphur baths, slept on tatami mats and were served fascinating and delicious feasts in beautifully but simply appointed banquet rooms.

We later travelled to Tokyo’s high energy Shibuya district, part of Tokyo’s bustling centre, the most populous urban area in the world.

Twenty-one Cambridge Judge students navigating trains was really fun!

We then visited six companies. As venture capital companies, Plug & Play Japan and Beyond Next Ventures explained the dynamics of Japanese entrepreneurship. At Plug & Play Japan, Yuki Kishi, a CJBS alumnus, discussed their partnerships with big Japanese companies, which are often highly structured along traditional lines, and their relationships with accelerator programmes for tech startups in Japan. Plug & Play is the link between them and both negotiates this often fruitful relationship and helps start-ups pitch to foreign investors in effective ways that bridge the cultural divide. At Beyond Next Ventures we learned about the importance of Japanese universities as major sources of technology and engineering innovation and watched with great interest as they demonstrated the development of a robot that assists the elderly in their health maintenance, daily tasks and mobility with a self-driving car. Both companies were dashing toward the future and looking to leverage traditional and governmental Japanese resources to remain competitive in the global market.

We also met with Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk and a World Economic Forum (Davos) Young Global Leader, who has been applying innovative approaches to engage a younger generation in the principles of Buddhism. He talked us through the idea of enlightenment and the structure of Buddhism, weaving stories from his beautiful temple Sensoji among the tall urban buildings in the centre of Tokyo.

Rakuten and Softbank are two of the largest Japanese tech companies. Rakuten, Japan’s largest e-commerce platform, has fostered an open, international culture and, unusual in Japan, uses English as its official language. As it expands its platform to a variety of businesses, including the leading credit card in Japan, we learned about the application of blockchain to its royalty system. Softbank began as a telecoms company but is often regarded as an investment company as it acquisition arm operates with a $31 billion budget and a major focus on IOT. Its policy of acquisition is to cap out at 20-30% of shares and not hold controlling shares in companies. This has been its strategy to develop a strong IOT platform. Softbank is also focused on the future with a commitment to AI, IOT and big data applications. We particularly enjoyed meeting its robot Pepper in the lobby, who helped us order matcha.

Our final speaker was Kohich Hoshino, the chairman of Studio Ghibli, celebrated for the making of beautiful animated films like Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. Mr Hoshino told us about his many years at Disney, and the transition to the management of Studio Ghibli, which has been run like a family company and resisted the pull of commercialisation as a primary driver of its extraordinary work. Additionally, he talked about his own MBA, which has served him well over the years.

Every night during the trek, we had the pleasure of enjoying Japanese food and culture and the rich aesthetics of Japan. Those new to Japan learned so much about the specifics of this economic success story and the many ways that Japan can exhibit leadership in a changing world. We each took away something of deep value professionally and personally which we will leverage over our careers.

Our hosts were extraordinary in their generosity and knowledge of Japan and this culture counted as one of the great highlights of our MBA year.