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Archive for February, 2012

In Japan, it’s good business manners to accompany a visitor to the elevator when a meeting is over.  Everyone from the meeting walks together to the elevator.  One of the hosts punches the call button.  When the elevator arrives, the guests enter the elevator, and the hosts line up opposite the door.  When the door begins to close, everyone bows.  No waving hands bye-bye.  No walking away early.  No “Thanks and bye!” Just a deep bow that lasts until the door is almost completely closed.  Very civilized.  And very alien to a Westerner.

When my visit to the Tokyo office was complete, two of the women from our office walked my colleague and me to the elevator.  My colleague offered, “You don’t have to do this,” but the women completely ignored him.  They wouldn’t think of not walking us to the elevator.

When we got on and the door began to close, I bowed goodbye to the very great amusement of these Japanese women.  Not just smile, but as close to laugh out loud as it gets in Japan. I’m pretty sure they knew that I wasn’t making a joke. Humor is often based on the completely unexpected, and, I guess, good local manners from a foreigner must be completely unexpected.

Well, looking at it from their point of view, maybe it did look kind of funny.

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Dinner in Tokyo

“Good evening.”

I walked up to the reception desk at the Imperial Tokyo and used my best, profoundly limited, Japanese, “Konichi wa.” The young woman at the desk, uniform crisp, hair very precise, looked up, smiled shyly, and giggled.  Apparently a foreigner with a bit of Japanese is quite amusing.  Or, I didn’t say “hello” as intended but made a slightly suggestive offer.

The night was cold, and an occasional gust of chilling wind said, “Get inside quickly.”  Life in tropical Singapore needs no winter clothing, and I had not brought any from the U.S.

Around the corner from the hotel, a long row of small, local restaurants sits under the train tracks.  After some searching, I found one that I’d visited on an earlier trip.  Small and friendly, serving  yakitori – small chunks of meat on a bamboo skewer, grilled over an indoor charcoal fire, minutely tended by the chef.  It’s a little like satay, without the peanut sauce.  I asked about dinner for one.  After a quick consultation amongst the various servers,  one said, “reservation.”  Unfortunately, the place was too full to squeeze me in, which put me back on the street to continue my search.

Many of the restaurants had signboards with pictures of the dishes available, but the names and descriptions were in Japanese.  Helpful, not informative, but at least I could get a hint of what was available.  I picked a place, based on a picture that looked appealing:  some kind of meat stew with an egg on top. The door had a sign that said “Enter” in English, and it slid open so noisily that I was sure my entrance was loudly announced to . . . a completely empty room. A long, U-shaped counter backed into a kitchen. Mushroom stools , seating maybe a dozen or 15 people, were spaced regularly along the counter.  All empty.  No customers.  No one to greet me.  I wondered if I had walked into the suspense scene of a science-fiction movie. But it was a clean, well-lighted place, and I decided to stay to see what would happen.

After an uncomfortable, 20-second wait, I was greeted in Japanese.  Since I obviously didn’t understand the system, I was pointed to the vending machine behind my back.   My greeter explained how things worked, but his explanation went well beyond my command of “hello,” “thank you,” and “yes,” so I had to work out a Sherlock Holmesian deduction:  put money in the machine, select the desired dish, and it would be delivered automat-style. No, Watson, it couldn’t work that way.

In fact, it didn’t matter very much, because the machine had no pictures, and I read even less Japanese than I speak.  (I might be able to recognize the sign for “man” in just one of the three scripts, which might be useful when searching for a rest room.)

The greeter spoke no English.

“Help, please?”

I pointed to a couple of pictures on the wall chart opposite the vending machine. He gestured to the slot in the machine that takes money. I did a quick mental calculation and hoped that 1000 yen would be enough. Money inserted and accepted, he punched several buttons on the machine.  The machine printed two tickets and dropped them into the tray along with several coins.  Elementary. The greeter took the tickets, scooped up the change and gave it to me (for which I held out two hands), and took the tickets into the kitchen.  I sat down to wait and wonder what I ordered.

Soon he re-appeared with a bowl of soup, full of noodles, very thinly sliced meat, and an egg – a raw egg, in the shell, sitting in its own small bowl. After a quick moment of consternation, I mimed breaking the egg into the soup.  “Hai,” he said.  Yes.  And returned to the kitchen.  The soup was a very dark, rich beef soup, full of spaghetti-like noodles, covered with a finely chopped green herb ( I’d guess parsley, but it’s Japan and everything is different), and, now, a raw egg swimming in it. To eat, I had chopsticks and a ladle-like spoon with a long handle and a very flat bowl.  I could handle the noodles with the chopsticks just fine, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the ladle.

A couple of men walked in from the street, bought their tickets, sat down, and handed them over. They knew the system. It was their dinner time, and they were hungry.  And now I really didn’t want to embarrass myself with the mysterious spoon. By chance and good fortune, one of them ordered something that came with the same spoon.  I continued to work my noodles but watched surreptitiously.  Chopsticks in one hand, ladle in the other, the man dug in, slurping soup out of the spoon with gusto.  I joined in.  Just a couple of men in Tokyo, slurping their soup from the vending machine.

By now, my gyoza had also been delivered.  I don’t know whether they had a meat or vegetable filling, but they were warm and good. My soup was hearty, warming, and filling.  When I finished, I walked back to the kitchen, rubbed my stomach in what I hoped is the universal gesture of “mmm … mmm … good,” smiled, and used my other word.

“Arigato.”  Thank you.  Big smiles from the waiter and the cook.  The foreigner might be ok after all.

Outside, the wind was blowing cold, and an icy snow started to fall.

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