Over Christmas break Rachael and I took a short train ride to Yokohama, Japan (about 45 minutes) in search of one of her Christmas presents.
When we arrived, we realized we’d forgotten our guidebook, which despite living here for a year and a half is still quite valuable for things like this. So, using only our eyes and noses to guide us, we meandered through the brightly lit and distinctly not-Japanese streets of Chinatown. Here are some photos from the harbor area, a few blocks from Chinatown.
We agreed to move to Japan without an inkling of knowledge about Japanese culture or history. Since that time, we’ve both delved into Japan in our own ways: me through studying the language as much as I can, Rachael through learning to cook with some serious Japanese flair. Walking around Chinatown was a bit of a revelation for me. I probably couldn’t have told you many differences between Chinese and Japanese cultures before moving to Japan. Sure, I knew about sushi and had heard of geishas, but I was basically an ignorant fool when we began this journey. Chinatown showed me how well I’m actually getting to know Japan through living in Tokyo, even as insulated as our lives are from “true” Japanese culture working at an international school and attending an international church.
Chinatown is fascinating. Just look at some of these photos of the streets. We enjoyed a little treat (steamed bun with minced pork inside) along the way.
The architecture in Chinatown doesn’t feel like Japan. The food doesn’t taste like Japan. And the restaurant service…now that difference deserves more than a passing mention.
Customer service in Japan tends towards the ludicrous, at least on the surface level. People call to you in the street, respectfully bidding you to come in their shops and take a look. Walking into a restaurant, you are often greeted by each employee emphatically yelling “welcome” (irashaimase!). Department stores, grocers, ramen shops, and fishmongers all greet you with the same phrase. To be honest, I love it. Many people seem put off by it, but it’s just plain fun to me. The first thing I noticed when we walked into a restaurant for dinner in Chinatown was that nobody welcomed us with an exuberant “irashaimase!” It was bizarre.
We were quietly led to our seats and made our first order only after waiting 15-20 minutes and doing all we could to get the server’s attention. This has never happened to me in a Japanese restaurant. Simply say “excuse me” (sumimasen) and you’ll usually have someone at your table in a few brief moments. There was no such service at this restaurant.
The food was decent, but nothing like the simple, beautiful food I have come to love in Japan. Ornate sushi platters and hand-turned Japanese-style kabobs are now a common craving for me. Last, upon leaving the restaurant, we took the receipt that was on our table and walked to the front door. We waited for a few minutes until someone noticed and came to help us pay our bill. In about fifteen seconds, she took my bills, put change on a plate and walked away- no “thank you,” no escorting us out the door, and certainly no bow of gratitude for our patronage. Now, I realize that sentence may sound arrogant and is a ridiculous expectation just about anywhere else in the world, but this is what we have come to expect here in Tokyo because it’s what happens at 99% of the restaurants. The lack of basic customer service at this one restaurant was an amazing difference to me between two great cultures. I don’t know enough about China or Chinese culture to really know if there is a difference, but that’s what we saw that night.
Could it have been that the employees of this particular restaurant just had an off night? Could they just be terrible at customer service, and all the other Chinese restaurants would be different? That’s definitely possible. But it was at least interesting to think about our experience in Japan and how bizarrely different and unsatisfying it felt to dine at a restaurant in Japan that didn’t feel like a restaurant in Japan.
Before leaving Chinatown, we found our holy grail: a locally produced Chinese wok for Rachael’s kitchen. She has now used this to make all sorts of new dishes that our other pans just couldn’t do. With the close proximity of Chinatown from Tokyo, we’ll definitely be back, and I’ll let you know if things are different the second time around.