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Saturday, June 23, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A doughnut by any other name


Basically, I try to live my life according to that time-tested maxim from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said wisdom is knowing the proper limit of things.

But Seneca never had to deal with doughnuts.

I do. And when it comes to doughnuts, I find I have no limit. As a result, my personal maxim has always been this: I never met a doughnut I didn't like.

Yet until this summer I had never met a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Perhaps that's like claiming King Kong had never met a banana. Or — better — that the Marlboro Man had never met an unfiltered cigarette.

In my case, however, I had a good excuse. Between me and Krispy Kreme lay an entire ocean. I came to Japan long before the franchise boomed and longer still before America discovered the sinisterhood of trans fats and the franchise abruptly de-boomed. Meanwhile, I spent assorted short trips back to the States exploring various other uplifting maxims, such as "I never met a plate of nachos I didn't like." So Krispy Kreme and I never crossed paths.

But a funny thing happened late this past winter as I trudged across Shinjuku. I had to worm my way through an enormous line that snaked over the JR rail bridge and into the Times Square shopping complex. Two months' time put me in Shinjuku again and I had to push my way through another very similar line, or maybe it was the exact same one, still moseying forward.

This second time, however, I looked up to see to where the line was leading.

Now, as a preamble, let me say Japanese like lining up. After all, this is a group society and what is a line but a long group? Japanese will regularly wait to slurp down their favorite noodles or to secure their lucky stool at their local pachinko parlor.

Yet this Shinjuku line does not compare. The others are measured in minutes; this one needs hours.

Japanese don't queue like this even for raw fish. So what could it be?

Of course, by now you have figured it out. There is a new Krispy Kreme shop in Shinjuku.

So there I stood — my soul torn between the aroma of doughnuts in the wind and an amusement park-type sign reading, "Estimated waiting time 2 hours, 15 minutes." This for a line four people abreast.

My soul hesitated for an estimated waiting time of two eye blinks, and then . . . I got in line.

And I asked one of the guards — for guards were needed to ensure the crowd remain calm and not morph into an angry, doughnut-starved mob — just how long these lineups had been going on. His answer: For six months, ever since the store opened last December.

"All day, every day, from morning till night!" And then he laughed the laugh of the hysterically rich.

More than six months of two-hour lines! You do the math. A kabillion people making a zillion orders a day at 150 yen per single purchase. That's a lot of dough . . . nuts.

A lot of trans fats, too. Yet one feature of this mega-line was its composition. I was one of the few customers over 30. The young don't worry about trans fats, you see. To them, death is much more distant than even the head of the line. When given the choice between bad cholesterol and fashion, you know which they'll choose.

And Krispy Kreme is in fashion.

Another feature of the mega-line is that it was all Japanese. The only foreigners were those who stopped by to laugh or take photos. Their subtle cross-culture message seemed to be this: Waiting two hours for a doughnut is insane.

What does one do in a two-hour doughnut line? Well, think about doughnuts, what else?

As for me — a doughnut lover — I have always felt most doughnuts taste the same, especially the center part. Yet . . . a Krispy Kreme doughnut? The line inched forward and I licked my chops in anticipation.

The two hours flew by. I swear it seemed like but an hour and a half. Then there I was with my face pressed against the glass, watching the mighty Krispy Kreme conveyors push doughnuts through pools of hot oil and on into a thick curtain of glazed sugar.

What is the only thing better than blood-plugging doughnuts for which you have to wait for two hours? Why, they're all machine-made, of course!

The lady ahead of me bought five dozen. Me? I bought . . . enough.

Or almost enough. I tore open the pack and officially introduced my taste buds to Krispy Kreme. Their evaluation?

Oh, be still, my beating cholesterol! It was the best doughnut of my life.

The rest I rushed home to my family, who had almost called the cops, wondering where I was. But even my health-sensitive wife liked Krispy Kreme.

Yet her primary reaction was: "There's a two-hour line? Where? Can anyone join?"

Sure. For as Seneca might say, "When in Rome . . ."

And in Tokyo, it seems Japanese will wait forever for Krispy Kreme.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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