Japan: Train Spotting and the Perfect Brew

On the two-hour ferry ride from Yakushima Island back to Kagoshima City, my new friend Haruka asleep in the seat next to me, I paused to begin to consider this, my first trip to Japan.   

Japan has been called the “Galápagos of Countries.”   Indeed the Galápagos syndrome (ガラパゴス化 Garapagosu-ka) is a term of Japanese origin, which refers to an isolated development of a globally available product.   The cell phone is a prime example.  The Japanese cell phone is so complex that it cannot function abroad.

But even more, it is the Japanese culture that seems to have evolved independent of the rest of the world.  Despite my extensive travels in Asia, there were moments when I felt a bit of a “Culture Shock” during my visit.   Here are just a few of my superficial observations:

-The streets, shopping malls, railroad stations and trains are immaculate.  Everywhere, it’s immaculate.  Smoking is not permitted on the street.

- Everyone, young and old, is neatly and stylishly dressed.  No torn jeans or dirty shoes.

- At first, folks seem cold, uninterested and in a rush.  But if I start a conversation, faces brighten with a broad smile.  A lively dialogue ensues.   How do you think I met Haruka, Maiko, Minori and Rikako?

-Everyone is extremely polite and considerate, not only to foreigners but amongst themselves as well.

-Japan seems to be over-staffed with personnel highly trained with a customer service mentality.  In an airport I am approached voluntarily by a smiling young woman who seems genuine and sincere as she provides accurate information.  At a bus station, a dispatcher searches on his smartphone to confirm the route to my hotel.  At a taxi stand, a driver directs me to the location of a bus that I need, and then follows me down the street to be sure I find my way.

-Public transportation of every mode is comfortable, convenient, and precise with the schedule.  My ticket from Osaka to Kagoshima read 07:04 departure and 11:14 arrival.  We left exactly on time and even after a four hour journey, with multiple stops, the train arrived at the final station at, you guessed it, 11:14.

- At the terminal station, the neatly-attired cleaning crew waits patiently for the train to arrive.  As the train enters the station, the crew stands at attention, forms a queue along the edge of the platform, and faces toward the arriving train.  When the train stops, the crew turns and faces the doors.  

As the passengers disembark, the crew bows respectfully to each one.  Only then do they enter the cars, clean, and reconfigure the seats.  New passengers may board only when the cars are cleaned.

In all trains, the seats are comfortable and upholstered in an attractive yet practical fabric.  Next to each seat is a power outlet and an Internet connection.

On every subway and long distance train, a recorded announcement is made in both Japanese and English, “Please do not talk on your mobile phone; set the phone to vibrate.”  The Japanese are obedient and disciplined so this announcement is followed 100%.   Of course, everyone with a device or gadget is texting at all times!

The long distance trains have four “private” areas in each car.  One small space is just for men who can stand and do their business.  The second area is a standard “rest room” for both sexes.  The third area is a baby changing room.   And the fourth section has a large mirror and a chair– a “powder room.”

All inter-city trains have a uniformed serving staff who wheel a cart down the aisle and serve hot and cold beverages, tasty sandwiches and snacks – all at quite reasonable prices.  I paid only $2.50 for a very satisfactory cup of hot coffee.

The train to Narita Airport has an electronic reader board in the front of each car.  The board displays the names and logos of all the airlines and the appropriate departure terminal.   The reader board (on the train!) also regularly updates flights, departure gates and departure times.

-Japan is highly developed and industrialized, a true first world nation.  How did they manage to achieve such success after being mostly obliterated not so long ago? 

There are many reasons for their success, to be sure.  One factor that I have read about, and have heard spoken here, is that the Japanese study a product or service and then find a way to improve it.  (Ford versus Toyota comes to mind.) 

Many years ago, (I mean many! years ago!) when I was Director of Training at The Plaza Hotel in New York City, my colleagues and I entertained visitors from a Japanese hotel company.  Our visitors asked us many questions about our customer relations training programs.  We answered them all.   Our visitors thanked us, bowed and departed.

Unfortunately, my youthful arrogance and pride prevented me from asking my Japanese visitors a question or two.  Now, that would have been a productive meeting. 

-To illustrate that attitude of questioning and improvement, my final moment in Japan provided a trivial, yet wonderful example of Japanese efficiency, ingenuity, and regard for excellent customer service:

At Narita Airport, Delta Airlines ungraded me to Business Class for my return to Bangkok.  With time to spare before my flight, I indulged in a few snacks at the lounge.  Hey, how about a beer?

No bottles or cans.  Beer is dispensed from a machine that looks like a soda machine. 

I place my tall glass under the spout.  I press the red button.

BUT, just before the beer begins to flow, the base of the machine tilts the glass back at a slight angle!

After the beer fills the glass to the brim, the machine tilts the glass back to its original upright position.

Voila!  A collins glass of accurately apportioned, chilled brew … with the gleaming foam of a precisely measured head!



PS The food ... Take a plane, take a train, see for yourself.

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