The Customer is God

not mcdonalds

In a previous life I worked in retail in the Highlands of Scotland. We were told by our foul-mouthed, hypocritical manager that we should provide good customer service because, “the Customer is King”. Of course in practice it was pretty rare to see this policy turn to action, particularly if the customer happened to be an unwelcome English “white settler” with a posh accent.

Japanese businesses espouse a similar policy to that of my former employer, but the implementation is worlds apart. In Japan, they say “O-kyakusama wa kamisama” – the customer is god.

I am sitting at a clean, comfortable and modern Japanese restaurant. I watch as a petite, professional Japanese waitress in her mid-30s runs to a seated customer to deliver their meal to their table. It’s not a full-on sprint, more like a dainty trot, probably no faster than walking. But it communicates something: The customer is god. She apologises profusely for making them wait. (They had been waiting less than 2 minutes.)  Another member of the restaurant staff wipes down tables, literally running from one to the next and apologising for the “interruption” to each nearby customer. Since she does this every 10 minutes the table she is currently wiping is already impossibly clean. A family of five enter the restaurant and her attention shifts. She runs to welcome them and to take their order.

“So what?”, I hear you say. That’s no different to a nice restaurant in Australia. But there’s something I’m witholding from you. I’m not sitting at what you would consider fine dining establishment. I’m at McDonalds, having just dropped $2.40 on a chicken burger and milkshake. I finish my meal and approach the rubbish station to sort the rubbish on my tray into 10 different recycling categories. An eager staff member approaches to takes the tray off my hands, laboriously sorting my rubbish on my behalf. “Thank you very much. Please come again!”, she effuses.

It got me thinking about where this motivation to provide excellent service comes from. It’s clearly not the $12 an hour she’s receiving for her considerable trouble. Nor is it flexible working hours or world-class workplace gender equality. Why did she run, instead of walk, to deliver a tray of fatty burgers to a bunch of fatty teenagers?

Most Australian employees are constantly, and unknowingly, calculating the risks and rewards of taking an action that costs effort. We do this hundreds of times a day without realising it. An Australian Maccas employee subconsciously determines that they personally risk nothing if the fatty teenagers have to wait a few minutes longer for their fatty burgers. Stuff table service – these pimple-faced angst-filled pre-adults can just wait here at the counter, right next to the perpetually overflowing rubbish bins.

Back at McDonalds Japan I watch one of the over-helpful staff members more closely. When she talks her mouth smiles but her eyes are glazed. Her voice is upbeat and chirpy, but there is no detectable melodic cheer in her words. She provides polite but impersonal service. She is an ultra-efficient Japanese robot, the product of 12 years of education designed to a produce loyal, unquestioning, hard-working employee. The individual is sacrificed to the group, and as a result my burger arrives quickly and my table is clean.

Who would’ve thought one could attain divine status just by spending $2.40 on a burger and shake?

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Dying for some Lamb

Last week we ate lamb at home for dinner. This is the first time I have eaten lamb in Japan because it is generally expensive and not widely available. We were able to enjoy chowing down on some succulent sheep as a direct result of one of Nicewife’s (distant) relatives passing away.

Let me explain. When one attends a funeral in Japan it is customary to give a sum of money to the deceased’s family. The amount depends how close one’s relationship is to the deceased, but can be as much as $400 AUD for close relatives. Some of this money is used to pay the exorbitant funeral bill, some is kept by the family, and a proportion is returned to the giver as an obligatory thank you gift.

A common way to deal with this “thank you” gift is to purchase a catalogue for a fixed amount (price unmarked) and send this to the giver. This catalogue is a high-quality glossy publication full of merchandise and luxury items of food, and the giver can use the enclosed order form to pick something which is then delivered for free. Nicewife’s parents’ house contains an assortment of goods (a casserole dish, an umbrella stand) that have been obtained in this manner. This time they chose some lamb.

I find this whole concept interesting because generally the Japanese go to great lengths to superstitiously avoid any incidental associations with death, but will quite readily eat food and keep items obtained through these funeral catalogues.

Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)

 

 

 

Nutritious, Nice or Neither?

I just watched a news report about the latest apparent craze of eating vegetables dipped in chocolate. I’m not talking about strawberries or cherries. I’m talking about carrot, celery and broccoli. All the goodness of natural veggies with all the badness of full fat chocolate.

Does anyone else think this is nuts? What’s the point? Surely one should either eat something healthy or eat something nice, instead of mixing the two to create something that is neither!

Choco Veggies
Image courtesy of this Japanese blog.

Christmas is Kentucky

In Australia if you had your family gathered for Christmas dinner and you brought out a bucket of takeaway greasy fried chicken you would be pitied by most. Do the same thing on Christmas Eve in Japan (preferably just with your significant other) and you are considered to be a well-rounded and cultured human being.

I am unreliably informed that KFC’s biggest sales day in most Western countries is Mother’s Day. Of course it is unlikely that the reason for this is that mothers generally like fried chicken. Rather husbands and children have trouble locating a source of food that is not mother-dependent.

In Japan KFC’s busiest day is Christmas Eve. By far. To the extent that reservations are taken a month in advance and back office staff and executives clumsily undertake frontline service to help cope with the volume of demand. This year KFC’s Japanese television advertisements boldly proclaim that “Christmas is Kentucky”. Such a brazen attempt to own the birth of the Christ has not been seen since Coca-cola co-opted old Saint Nick in order to sell fizzy sugar water in 1931.

This bizarre connection between Christmas and greasy chicken began as the result of a marketing campaign in the 1970s, allegedly introduced after a foreign resident missionary, in an act of what must have been nothing other than sheer desperation, resorted to buying a box of KFC because he couldn’t find any roast turkey in Japan. Although this guy was clearly nuts, I, for one, can sympathise with him. In 2003 I attended a Thanksgiving Dinner here with some American friends. We also had trouble finding turkey. What we did manage to find was made of reconstituted meat, had no bones or stuffing, and was shaped (and tasted) like a car battery. However, in Japan, this was the best we could do – and even then only courtesy of the Foreign Buyers Club.

I’ll leave you with some videos that demonstrate the extent of this “Christmas is Kentucky” madness. (Have your vomit receptacle at the ready.)

2010 Christmas Advertisement:

People queueing for their KFC on Christmas Eve:

(The staff member he talks to says there’s a 2 hour wait at that store.)

The saddest eatery in Japan

Yoshinoya

Yoshinoya – It’s often described by worshipful Japanese pundits as “The Japanese McDonalds”. Well, its not really the Japanese McDonalds. That would instead be the actual McDonalds, which is the same as McDonalds Australia except with radioactive caesium.

Yoshinoya is in the business of selling Gyudon – a bowl of rice topped with fried beef. At any time of the day or night you can pop in here and within 60 seconds be sitting in front of a pile of steaming……….. Gyudon.  In part of an ongoing price war with a couple of its rivals, Yoshinoya has cut the price of a basic bowl of Gyudon to 280 yen (just over $3). I was about half way through my bowl before I started to consider whether or not it is actually possible to produce a bowl of Gyudon for $3. I concluded that there must be some parts of a cow (probably somewhere deep in the middle) that are available in some countries (probably China) at a low enough wholesale price for Yoshinoya to make a profit on a $3 rice bowl.

The most striking thing about my local Yoshinoya, however, is how indeterminably sad it is. All of the staff are ladies in their 60s, still working for $10 an hour at this classic fast food joint. The customers are almost all middle-aged men who come alone, stuck working long hours in jobs they hate. They gruffly place their orders without any common courtesy whatsoever. The 60-year-old female workers subserviently run to the kitchen to fulfil them. The decor is dated and tired; the food uninspiring.

Sad Customers
Sad Customers... and
Sad Staff
Sad Staff

Is this the saddest eatery in Japan?

“Morning” Review – Ransu

I’ve kinda stuffed up this second “morning” review because I visited this coffee house in the afternoon. Of course that means I didn’t get a “morning” with my coffee, but I did get a very amusing packet of nuts, which I thought justified a post on this blog.

Access: 10 mins walk.

Price: 380 yen

“Morning” in the afternoon: Small packet of nuts and rice crackers.

Viability: New – apparently booming.

Atmosphere: Hillarious.

"In a beautiful morning of good waking how about NUTS just in a moment? It fits to a happy Tea Time because of its taste of softly drafting aroma and flavour." Indeed.

Breakfast for the Price of an (expensive) Coffee

The traditional coffee houses on the outskirts of Nagoya engage in a business promotion that, as far as I am aware, is pretty unique to this area. The deal is basically thus: Order a regular cup of coffee before 11am and you will receive a free mini-breakfast. Not to be confused with the actual morning, this deal is called “morning”.

Given that a regular cup of filter coffee  (Italian-style coffee hasn’t really caught on here in a major way) at a coffee house in Japan costs around 350 to 400 yen ($4.70 to $5.30), this deal is not as cheap as it may first seem. But given the alternative of paying 350 to 400 yen at 11.05am for just a cup of filter coffee, it represents comparatively good value for money.

During our gap year I am working as a web developer on a freelance basis. Given that I can work from anywhere that there is a chair and a table (and even some places where there isn’t) I’ve been spending a few hours each day working from a coffee house. This gives me the ideal opportunity to do a “morning” review on this blog. Nicewife’s dad is pretty connected, so I will get financial viability info from him. Today I will look at a little coffee shop called “Hanamizuki”.

Hanamizuki

This coffee house is owned by Nicewife’s school friend and her mum.

Access: 10 mins walk.

Price: 350 yen (We bought a book of 11 tickets, which reduces the price to a very reasonable 290 yen per cup.)

Morning: Hard-boiled egg, a third of a piece of thick toast, small packet of rice crackers.

Viability: Barely breaking even. Undertaken as a hobby.

Atmosphere: Smokey, friendly (except if you’re not local).

Hanamizuki Morning
"Morning" at Hanamizuki
At 10.00am the very old local people arrived one by one on these wheeled walking frames. Here they are parked outside the front of the shop. (The frames that is, not the suddently-invisible old people.)