Friday, January 04, 2008

Uniquely unique Japanese good service

How nice to have had over a week off without focusing or even concerning myself much with news or anything else except hobbies and relaxing. Few crowded trains, not being coughed and sneezed on, not listening to constant sniffling, not much of being pushed and shoved....

Which for some reason brings me to the exaggerated reputation of politeness and good service in Japan.

It can be enlightening to leave big cities as often as possible and go to smaller towns and rural areas. And when visiting there, the "Japanese good service" can take on a different meaning.

We went to the mountains near Nikko and Chuzenjiko for a few days. In Chuzenjiko---a major tourist spot---we decided to have lunch on Saturday. We were a bit early and it was during the New Year holidays, so only a few places were open. Since 99% of the open restaurants were serving only soba, ramen, and yuba, we decided to go into one specializing in mushroom tempura.

We walked in and the old man sitting at a table seemed a bit surprised to see us, but he got up and told us to take a seat anywhere. I noticed that the cushions on the bench seats were sorta slightly filthy. Let me rephrase that: They were plain, flat filthy. I wondered how we could leave without causing offense, but ended up quietly sitting down at one of the tables. Been here way too long.

Ol' grampa then brought us a dirty menu and explained it. As we were deciding what to order, he told us what to order. To avoid trouble and confusion, we followed most of his advice.

He shouted the order into his kitchen staff which appeared to be his wife and maybe his daughter-in-law. Then he brought us two tea cups and a large thermos from another table and said, "Help yourself." Now "Help yourself" might be OK in some places or when visiting someone's home, but it just ain't heard often in Tokyo in a restaurant. My wife also noted that the thermos was a design from at least 20 years ago. As we waited for our order, we began to notice other small details, such as a thick layer of grease and grime all over everything. The case with the chopsticks was especially impressive in that way. I fished some out from the bottom assuming that they would be less decorated with said grease and grime.

Our lunch came about 10 minutes later and he told us how to eat it. Dip the tempura into salt he said, pointing out a grimy salt shaker. No choice of dipping sauce as is common in more citified areas.

A few minutes later, the old boy suddenly jumped up from his table and shouted to someone outside, "Welcome, please come in and take a break,. " Then he rushed outside to get them.

He returned with two women with children. As they entered, they paused and looked over the room. I knew what they were thinking, but before they could act on it, grampa guided them to a table and sat them down. They did not seem enthusiastic. Neither did grampa once he had his victims inside and was sure that they would not escape.

A few moments later, the same thing happened. This time, there was a shout from one of the women in the kitchen: "Welcome, please come in." Grampa chimed in, "Take a rest here," and rushed out to prevent their escape.

He returned with a young family with 3 kids. They displayed the same hesitation and desire to flee upon looking over the place, but like everyone else, they meekly followed grampa's commands and sat down. This family was shoved into a separate room with tatami and seated on the floor. Except for the kids, nobody in the family seemed happy.

Grampa had ignored us since he dumped our dishes in front of us. We had finished and were trying to pay and get out, but this was a bit troublesome to grandpa, because he had done his part. He just said "Pay over there," pointing to his daughter-in-law chef cum cashier.

The meal itself was not bad and we did not get sick. However my wife thought it was quite entertaining. "What was that? Did you see how he kidnapped people? What kind of dirty place? Can you believe he just told us 'Here you are, pour it yourself'?'"

Actually, what is hard to believe is that a restaurant with service like that could survive, or that it could pass any health inspection. But it obviously works well enough, because few people here will just walk out after being conned into the place. I didn't either. I, like Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai, am becoming Japanese. More Japanese than the Japanese--like Tom.

Unfortunately, I am turning Japanese at the same time that Japan is becoming a foreign country.

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