10 Japanese Certainties

  1. TV presenters will proclaim all food, no matter how disgusting, to be “delicious”.
  2. There will be ten new Prime Ministers by the time this decade is out.
  3. Payment of inducements to public servants serves the greater good by building business relationships.
  4. The miniskirt will never go out of fashion.
  5. Overtime spent in an office = Automatic productivity.
  6. Nature is evil. It must be cleansed by concrete.
  7. Owning an old car is bad for the economy dangerous.
  8. In order to (dis)respect someone, you must first be certain of their age.
  9. English exists solely for the design of unintelligible T-shirts.
  10. The older one gets, the freer one becomes. Once you’re over 90 you can say whatever the heck you want.
cleansed by concrete
#6: Nature cleansed by concrete in Shinjuku, Tokyo

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?

Two Convenient

Despite poor economic times the number of convenience stores in Japan continues to grow. The sale of snacks, cigaretts and alcohol truly is a recession-proof industry.

There are 10 convenience stores within a 10 minute bicycle radius of my house. The most prominent chain around here is 7-Eleven, which has over 40,000 stores around the country. But what really takes the biscuit is this quiet nearby street featuring not one, but two 7-Elevens within 60 metres of each other.

If you stand somewhere in the middle you’ll have 7-Elevens at 7 o’clock and 11 o’clock respectively. Ladies and gentlemen, we have crossed from the realm of convenience to that of absurdity.

seeing double
Seeing Double.

P.S. If you want to find out why Japanese convenience stores are just so damn great check out this post over at This Japanese Life.

Cheaper Coffee

I’ve posted in the past about my dislike of paying $5 for a cup of mud-like filter coffee, and I’ve been actively seeking better alternatives. Today I bought a small filter coffee at Maccas for just 100 yen. After I paid they said they could also do me an Iced Coffee for free. So that’s two coffees, one iced and one hot, for around $1.30 in total.

Coffee still takes like mud, but at least it’s reasonably-priced mud.

mac-coffee
Two coffees for $1.30. I’m lovin’ it.

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.

The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

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.)