Achieving critical mass, and living with it

I visited Bali, Indonesia. A beautiful island with landscape views, sunrises and sunsets for your romance, beaches, rainforest, you name it. And from an urban first world view, it has a plethora of natural consumables such as coconuts, bamboo, mangosteen, corn, oranges, coffee, water spinach, tobacco, pineapple, jackfruit, banana, jasmine, and likely untold drugs, etc. Despite this, the locals dump trash in the rivers, forest and ocean. I don’t know the nuanced details and turmoil to understand why, but I can see it, the trash. I saw trash and rubble while touring around the island, snorkeling with manta rays at Nusa Penida, driving ATVs around villages in the rainforest, and snapping photos of a waterfall with robotic Instagrammers. Simply, the local trash is the reason for the jarring lack of potable tap water fueling the requirement of bottled water. This contrast of beauty and destruction caused me to enjoy the moment while visiting, but then become a borderline environmentalist on leaving. If I were a cartoonist, I would draw a romantic couple watching the sunset over the Bali coastline while dumping their trash in a nearby river. It is quintessentially paradoxical!

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Moving on from trash, to spam. This is reality spam, not email. You would have to visit Bali in a complete bubble of royalty to avoid being solicited for local services.

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“Do you need transport?” (anyone with a vehicle is a taxi service)

“Do you want a massage?”

“Do you need a seat on the beach?”

“Do you need money exchange?”

No matter where you are, there is a service that will be offered to you. To vent the frustration of incessant solicitation once off-resort, I started to proactively ask the locals whether they needed transport, for my own amusement. I quickly realized that their English base was limited to selling rather than buying.

And on return to the pleasant, smooth efficiency of Japan, the contrast to Bali came into light, once again. Bali seemed more real in a sense, as Japan frequently appears to be impossibly immaculate, like an artificial Lego town construct.

Each of the doorsteps of Japan are maintained. Everyone does their part to clean up and to not disturb others, generally. It’s that critical mass that counts, a Tipping Point, as it were.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

In another aspect, Bali merchants seem to copy each other by selling exactly the same merchandise as everyone else. If you want to buy a touristy Bali shirt or a wooden dildo you could find the same one in Kuta, Ubud, Sanur, Seminyak, or anywhere else on the island for that matter. The sellers have pretty much the same offerings but with a slightly different personality and price. Conversely, Japan has an intriguing tendency for specialization. There are multiple ¥100 franchise stores (“dollar” stores) with different offerings, and then there are multiple ¥300 franchise stores, again each with different offerings.

Convenience stores in Japan are not a misnomer like back in Canada. They are actually convenient with cell phone accessories, hygienic products, stationery, cleaning products, hundreds of drinks with and without alcohol, bottles of wine and liquor, magazines, ATMs and photocopiers, frozen dinners as well as fresh foods, healthy and unhealthy options, winter hats and mittens, underwear, shirts and ties. A “convenience” store in Canada, USA, Australia, etc, embody a deleterious blueprint with a hundred flavours of potato chips and chocolate bars.

And you may not see it on a brief visit to Japan, but there are local grocery stores that have to compete with those amazingly convenient convenience stores on every corner. Grocery stores have different products; fresher produce, sashimi, bread, more cooked and frozen dinner options, and on and on. Different types of soy sauce, wasabi, miso, and with bigger quantities and a better value than convenience stores.

I used to live in Taito Ward, near Ueno in Tokyo. In my neighborhood my daily commute included walking by a kimono repair shop, a horseracing shoe cobbler, a laundromat with a sauna (onsen), and who knows what other specialized businesses that I was walking by! In my newer neighborhood there a lot of bento lunch box stores with a maximum of 0-1 copycat for each: sushi, pork cutlet, octopus balls, kebab (foreign), and even a deli-style lunch box where you collect your own dishes and quantities and weigh it for price, in addition to the aforementioned convenience and grocery store offerings!

Japan has its flaws of course. For example, at least all of the bank tellers and exchanges at Narita airport terminal 1 are ripping everyone off in currency exchange for Indonesia Rupiah (IDR) with an atrocious rate wiping out more than 25% of your money. And the tellers in Japan also clearly iterate that they do not buy back IDR so you have to spend it all to boot!! When I went to exchange my money at the NRT airport and double-checked with the internet, I did a double-take, a couple of sanity check calculations and proceeded to reverse my transaction. This anomaly was so shocking to me that I had to verify across all of the counters that I could find before walking onto the plane. All counters had similar value-destroying rates.

For the very few of you reading this who need to convert JPY to IDR while traveling from Japan to Indonesia, do so in Indonesia, not Japan! This advice might be a little too specialized…

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This was the absolute best rate that I saw walking down a street in Kuta, Bali. 1 JPY = 135.99 IDR, a killer rate! These are missing a decimal.

I didn’t take a snap of the rates in the Japanese airport, unfortunately. But my friend lost roughly ¥10,000 (~90 USD) in her transaction of ¥30,000 to IDR…

We infer that the unspecialized are fighting and struggling within a bigger pool for the same general demand, while the specialized have limited competition for a typically loyal but smaller demand base. Which do you want to transact with, as a buyer, and to be, as a seller?

Have empathy for others and the environment, and specialize.

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