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Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009

JAPAN LITE

Gasoline stations? Pumping gas is really a physical job


Whenever I go to the mainland, I am reminded of how different life is from our small island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Sometimes, it's hard to make the adjustment to land life. Trucks replace cargo ships, and the shipping lanes are full of people driving on the port side instead of the starboard side of the channel. Channel markers are replaced by flashing lights warning of road construction.

And every time I see a traffic light turn green, I think it has turned "starboard."

And other things just seem downright odd. The other day I noticed McDonald's was hiring "crew." What for? To serve the Filet-O-Fish?

Last week, after driving the boat to the mainland, I hopped into a car to do some errands. I turned into the Eneos gasoline station, and navigated the car to the starboard side of the gas pump.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey!" Shouted a woman in pig tails and yellow sneakers. She then gave a bow to the car. And I mean a full bow!

The only time I've seen a full bow to a moving vehicle was at a funeral when people bowed to the remote controlled casket before it disappeared into the crematorium. I hoped this wasn't an omen.

Once parked, a whole flurry of activity started, as if there were only a few seconds to perform the task in a petrol station filling contest.

More girls in pigtails descended upon the car. They were hooked up to earphones and mics yelling pleasantries at the top of their lungs as if this was some new form of greeting via karaoke.

I couldn't help thinking: Give those girls some electric guitars!

They cleaned the hubcaps, windshield and wipers and jumped from here to there, buffing this and wiping that. I had no idea that pumping gas was such a physical job.

It's no wonder self-serve gas hasn't caught on here as fast as in the West. The Japanese probably think, "Hey, if I have to go through all that just to put petrol in my tank, I'd rather pay someone else to do it."

Japanese people think this is so normal, that they'll look at you and say, "You don't do this in your country?" because they honestly don't know that enthusiasm is not necessary to coax gasoline out of a pump. Imagine the song and dance involved to fill up something such as a lawn mower or a jet ski?

A girl with orange hair and more pigtails came out and offered me a laminated "menu" in Japanese. I pointed to the regular gasoline option, and declined the offer of an order of fries on the side.

The girl went straight to work pumping the petrol while another girl got out a step ladder to wash the windshield of the tall van in the next bay. It was all more like having a bit part in a gasoline station play, really.

How you could get an entire pigtailed staff to work so hard for minimum wage I don't know, but one thing did occur to me. You know those kids who bring a portable CD player and practice their dance moves in the city's vacant concreted areas at night? Maybe this gasoline station is their day job.

Or, it may even serve as a finishing school for Japanese girls who want to get married. You know how Japanese wives can be seen early in the morning sending their husbands off to work? She opens the garage door while he backs out and she waves as he drives away.

Can you imagine the send-off these girls could give? A morning buffing of the hubcaps would be followed by a leap onto the hood, landing in the splits to wipe off the windshield, and finally dismounting via a back flip.

When my bit part in the gasoline stand drama was over, I pulled out of the petrol station while my pigtailed attendant gave the moving vehicle a full bow.

I wondered if while bowing she could fold her hands and send me off with a small prayer for my well-being at the same time. Or by giving me one of those traffic safety amulets you usually have to go to a temple to get?

You'd think they'd at least sell those at gasoline stations next to the coffee and No-Doze pills.

Back on my boat headed home, I was looking forward to getting back to island life. At the port entrance, however, I had to wait a long time to get in because that red port light just wouldn't change to green.



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