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Q&A: Remote Year participant Emily Mitnick on her month in Kyoto

Stylus’ New York-based strategic account director talks us through month four of her year-long working adventure around the world, which continued in Japan’s former Imperial capital.

What’s it like to change your office and your country – sometimes even your continent – every month? Well, our very own Emily Mitnick knows. In November she completed month four of Remote Year in Kyoto, a city of entrenched traditions, pod hotels and quite possibly Japan’s tastiest ramen. 

We caught up with Emily, just before Christmas, from Kuala Lumpur during month five of her working journey around the world. Here’s how she’s been getting on…

So Emily, that’s Japan done and dusted. Have you recovered?

“I don’t even know where to start. I am still reflecting on my incredible November in Kyoto – I absolutely loved it.

“Japan is so bizarrely beautiful and completely different from anywhere I’ve ever travelled – it’s another planet. From hedgehog cafes, Mario Cart games, breathtaking historic temples next to 7-Eleven shops, fall foliage, fish markets, bike rides through bamboo forests, signs I could never read, the attention to detail, the peacefulness, the wild karaoke nights followed by late-night ramen, the sumo wrestling, the centuries of history, the politeness of the culture and the mayo tuna o-nigiri – wow, just incredible.”

You went to Tokyo first to meet your Stylus colleagues, then Kyoto. Was it a real culture shock?

“Landing in Japan after 20 hours of travel from Europe was extremely shocking – both physically and culturally. I had a business meeting in Tokyo less than 10 hours after dropping my bags down in my hotel. New time zones combined with jet lag, new currency, new language, new culture – it was definitely an adjustment.”

Did the other Remote Year participants feel the same way?

“A few of us felt very overwhelmed but luckily we are on this wild adventure together. We’re on the other side of the world and we still have our jobs to deliver. This month was a reality check for us all. There’s a group of us working odd hours and we call ourselves the ‘night crew’ – the ones who work on east coast hours through the night. There are lots of late-night coffee breaks, midnight snack runs and jumping jacks and stretching to keep us all productive and awake.

“Unfortunately, a few participants have left the programme for various reasons. There are family emergencies, work opportunities, health scares, devastating floods in Miami and fires in California. It’s easy to forget that life is still happening around us, outside of our Remote Year bubble.”

Did it help having Stylus colleagues based in Tokyo?

“Definitely, and for so many reasons. First, spending time with the Stylus team felt like a taste of home, which was extremely comforting after five months away. They were also so welcoming; they planned local dinners for me, organised my transportation to work and invited me to participate and shadow their business meetings.

“It was also extremely eye-opening to experience Japanese business culture first-hand. While Stylus is a global company, our offices in other countries are obviously different. I had the opportunity to meet with our Japanese clients, present our latest trend research (translated into Japanese), and have a business lunch with a Japanese CEO. The whole experience was extremely special and I’m excited to share my learnings with our US team.”

How did you find the Japanese approach to work?

“It’s closely linked with the overall culture, which is very traditional and formal. In Japan, working professionals wear suits and heels to the office, schedule time to sit down for lunch away from their desks, carefully exchange business cards with two hands, greet their superiors with a bow, and everyone is always on time. This is very different to my experience in the US, where we wear sneakers and athleisure to work, snack at our desks, share offices with SVPs and often start meetings 10 minutes late.

“Stylus has been tracking what the future workplace will look like, and experiencing corporate Japan really forced me to think about our research. While remote working, 24-hour café hubs and portable desks are on the rise, many cultures just aren’t there yet. I’m curious to see how places like Japan – where formality and order is so deeply rooted – will adapt to and integrate these modern lifestyle shifts.”

Did your month end up being productive?

“I think so, yes! I closed a new partnership, which I’ve managed to do every month so far on Remote Year.

“In each city I’ve visited, I’ve tried to get involved in the local business network. Fortunately, Remote Year selected me for a panel discussion on the future of work. I had the opportunity to share insights from Stylus and network with professionals in Kyoto.

“I didn’t have many on-site meetings because local Japanese business networks are extremely difficult to break in to. Japan has a hierarchal society, and I quickly learned this while living there. I found that it takes much longer than one month to gain professional trust and build genuine relationships.”

Did you catch the bullet train over to Kyoto?

“Yes, which I have always wanted to do! They run at up to 200 mph – It’s completely nuts. Funny story actually – while we there, one of the trains left the platform 20 seconds early, and Japan Railways publicly apologised for causing a “tremendous nuisance”. Their respect for time is mind blowing.”

Was it nice being reunited with familiar Remote Year faces in Kyoto? And what was the office like?

“Our group has become family in a very short period of time. We live together, work together, travel together, laugh and cry together. It was really humbling to return to the group after a week away and be greeted with open arms and tons of hugs.

“Remote Year once again arranged a fantastic co-working space, this time on the top floor of a hip hostel overlooking the city. Its slogan was “work, nap and drink beer”. It had workspace, nap pods and daily happy hours, so it was definitely in line with our research on ‘hospitality hubs’. 

Was the language barrier a problem?

“Yes. Using the washing machine for the first time was particularly challenging – I almost flooded my entire apartment. I relied on my Google Translate app for anything and everything. Mundane tasks like buying a bottle of shampoo or buying a pack of gum never came easy.”

What did you do to relax?

“I bought a yellow bicycle and rode it all over the city. For me, this was the best way to experience Kyoto and discover its hidden beauty. Some days I turned off Google Maps and got lost. I rode through winding alleyways and stumbled into the best hole-in-the-wall ramen spots, ancient temples and funky coffee shops. I really felt like I was living in Kyoto.

“I also took weekend side trips, like one to Fukuoka to watch live professional sumo wrestling. We took five trains to get there, crammed into one hotel room and woke up at 5:30am to join a gigantic ticket line.

“Unexpected adventures and new experiences like this make me happy – I learned a lot about sumo wrestling and how it reflects Japanese culture overall. Sumo wrestlers are practicing centuries-old traditions by throwing salt in the ring, slapping their bellies and pounding their legs to ward off evil spirits. They live extremely regimented lives where they live together, eat together and train together. They’re considered heroes in Japan, and I got to be a part of it all first-hand.”

It’s Christmas! What are your plans?

“Bali has been on my bucket list for many years – now I’m making it happen! There’s a group of 20 of us on Remote Year who’ve rented a villa in a beach town called Canggu. I heard there will be Christmas music, secret Santa gift exchanges and Christmas stockings to set the tone for the holidays.

“I’ll also be backpacking for a few weeks by myself around Indonesia. I have no plan, no set itinerary and there’s an active volcano that just erupted there. Strangely, I’m not worried at all and I know I’ll be just fine – isn’t that exciting?”

We’ll soon be finding out how Emily got on in Kuala Lumpur and Bali. By then she’ll be in Chiang Mai – her last stop in Asia before heading for South America and the second half of her Remote Year.