With the ongoing problems that Kobe Steel was having repairing and modifying their faulty air separation plant that should by late 1981 be producing nitrogen gas for Production Operators to compress and inject into the Chevron oilfield in Evanston, WY, POI was being told by Chevron that they were planning to take over the plant changes and the operation of it when they were complete. We were in effect, being told that they were cancelling our nitrogen production contract and this meant that we would have to cancel our purchase contract for the air plant with Kobe Steel.
Paul Pigue, the president of POI decided that I and process engineer, Sid Sutherland should go to Japan and explain the situation to Kobe and to their marketing agent, the Mitsui Corporation. We arranged to have meetings in Tokyo and Kobe with the help of the Mitsui liaison engineer, Takuri Sakaraba who would accompany us for a five day visit starting on October 10th.
Al Domeshek and I had previously made a similar trip with Sakaraba in January, 1981 to explain to the Japanese engineers about the explosion that had occurred and what we diagnosed was the problem with their process cycle and their arrangement of heat exchangers. On this second meeting, Sid and I found that Mitsui wanted us to explain in detail what we wanted Kobe to do and all Mitsui would do was to make sure that Kobe would comply and “handle their problem honorably”. We wondered at the time, what that might mean.
After the Mitsui meeting, we were entertained to another elaborate dinner at a Chinese restaurant almost identical to the one we had on our January visit. Several of Mitsui’s managers that we had never met had been added to the dinner group clearly using us as an excuse to have a complementary meal.
The next morning, we went on the Shinkansen bullet train at an average speed of 158 mph for the 265 mile trip to the port city of Kobe for a series of meetings with Kobe Steel. We met with an entirely different group of engineers from the ones we met in January.
Later, Sakaraba told us that the entire group of the original engineers and their manager had all been demoted and moved to a different location. Then we were given long and tedious details of the changes they were making to the Evanston plant. We knew from Chevron that things at the plant were going very slowly but we detected absolutely no sign of urgency with anyone with whom we spoke.
They had purchased from the Trane Company a set of aluminum heat exchangers but Chevron had told us that the Japanese aluminum welders were not very competent and had been forced to undo much of their work and repeat it. Kobe had also purchased equipment to dry the feed air and to remove the carbon dioxide from it but these had not yet been delivered to the site.
I tried to explain to them that our customer was very unhappy with the progress and will probably suspend the work and cancel our contract. Such a thing was so alien to the engineers and the Japanese culture that they quite obviously never thought it could happen and ceased to talk about it.
After the last of the week’s Kobe meetings, Takaraba took Sid and I to his favorite restaurant in Kobe. We expected a big, fancy restaurant from the way he described it but found it to be very small, down a dark street and had no other customers. There were four stools at a bar and two other tables for two. A very old man was behind the counter. While we were there, no one else came in. The only drinks were water, Saki and Scotch whiskey. Tak ordered oysters and the old man brought out a tub of cold raw oysters and shucked them one at a time for each of us. He made frequent visits to the kitchen and we heard voices but never saw what help he had. Tak admitted that he had phoned in and had pre-ordered our meal.
We were each served with steaks about 10 ounces in size that were quite rare. The waiter who Tak said was also the proprietor, sliced each of our steaks with a long ultra-sharp knife and when I referred to it, he cleaned it and handed it to me ceremoniously with both hands for me to examine. He clearly was proud of it and seemed very excited that I had noticed it. Sid and I were equally excited that we were eating real Kobe beef in the city of Kobe.
(Kobe beef was first controlled and named in Japan in 1943 and was first exported to the US in 2012. Since 1983 it has been controlled with strict limitations by Kobe Beef Marketing Promotion Assn. “Kobe-Style” beef has been created in the US and contains far less oleic acid and un-saturated fats than the original in order to satisfy American tastes.”)
The meat was the most tender I had ever tasted and could be cut with a fork. We had fresh sliced fruits as a dessert and complimented Tak on his choice of restaurants, left the old man as happy as we were and went out to the cold wintry night. Tak then surprised us by inviting us to the city baths which we both agreed to without having any idea what that meant. We went to a large building near-by that I had thought was the fancy restaurant I assumed we were invited to. It looked a lot like a theater. Tak was given what seemed like a menu and ordered for us all. We had a gold band inserted on our wrists and were told that indicated to the staff what we had paid for. We were shown to a locker room, given a robe and slippers and told to undress. We were then directed to the steam room which was already filled with naked men of all ages and shapes. The temperature instantly reminded me of my first sauna in Finland in 1949 because the heat was intense. I remembered that moving upward to the higher seats was a bit more bearable.
Through the large window at the front I could see a row of bare bottoms sitting at a trough of water, being scrubbed by little ladies in white and I was determined to let Sid go out first so I could see what happened to him. He apparently was doing the same and we both rushed out together because we had reached our limit of endurance.
We were beckoned to the long trough, seated on low stools and were immediately attacked by the little ladies. I was drenched with a tub of hot water followed by another tub of cold water and then subjected to the most efficient scrubbing I have ever had. With not very soft brushes I was scoured all over. Each toe and finger was individually washed and my balding head was very roughly rubbed with a pumice-stone until I shouted a stop. My lady then soaped a face cloth , handed it to me and pointed to my crotch for me to wash for which I was relieved and content to do.
We were then sent to a warm pool and then a cold one, given our robes and told to go upstairs. In a large room fitted with individual massage tables we each received a very comprehensive massage, even again starting with individual fingers and toes. At one point the masseuse was shaking my whole leg while holding my big toe. When my back was being treated, I wondered how this little 90 lb girl could be strong enough to press so hard and when I looked over to Sid’s table I saw his masseuse standing on his back using her feet to pummel him. I then realized that I was getting the same treatment.
When all was over, we were given hot green tea and sent out into the cold night. We walked back to our hotel, passing an almost identical large bath-house that Takaraba told us was not run by the city and provided far more items on their menu than we had received. The cold air, after our bath and massage was exhilarating and every nerve was awake.
The next day we went back to Tokyo, did some shopping and went home on the following day wondering how we could explain to Chevron the Japanese attitude of oblivion we had found. It was clear to us that Chevron would no longer tolerate Kobe’s lack of urgency and would proceed to cancel our contract. Finding out if this was true is another memory for another day.