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Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010

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Breakfast problem with foreigners


When I started booking foreigners into the Japanese inns on our island, the minshuku owners all had the same fear: "We don't know how to make a Western breakfast!"

"No problem," I said, "just make the Japanese breakfast as you normally do. Foreigners don't expect you to change just for them. When in Rome . . . right?"

Wrong. As our little island heads down the rocky path to internationalization, breakfast has been a common bump along the way.

One morning, two Spanish tourists staying at one of the ryokan went down to breakfast and found a beautiful Japanese breakfast laid out. Delighted, one of the girls tucked in. But her friend picked at her plate and only ate the non-fish items. Many foreigners love fish once or maybe twice a day, but three times?! And at breakfast?

The girls didn't say anything, but that evening they told the ryokan that the next morning there would be just one of them eating breakfast because the other wanted to sleep in. But the next morning, the ryokan owner insisted they both come down to breakfast. At the table, they found two Western breakfasts waiting for them. The Japanese don't miss a thing.

Another minshuku owner was shocked when, during the Japanese breakfast one of the foreigners spied the owner's 11-year-old daughter eating corn flakes and said, "Can I have some of that please?" Perplexed someone would ask for something that obviously wasn't on the menu, the owner at first laughed, then, realizing the guy was serious, rustled up a bowl of corn flakes for him. Needless to say, they make the daughter eat her breakfast in a separate room now. Those foreigners don't miss a thing.

So it didn't surprise me when the other night one of the minshuku owners said to me, "There's a problem with the foreigners." Oh, no. What this time?!

"We have Japanese breakfast at 7 a.m. every morning. But the foreigners like to sleep late! They come downstairs at 9 or 10 o'clock and want breakfast. I tell them, 'No breakfast. Breakfast finish!' But they look so sad, so I make breakfast anyway. Not Japanese. We wake up early and by 10 a.m. already drink beer! Soon time for lunch!"

I didn't realize that sleeping in was unique to foreigners, but it's definitely a pattern I've heard over and over on the island. This custom also has a snowball effect that leads to last-minute showers and late check-outs, more things that rile the Japanese because it plays havoc with their efficiency model.

I guess the Japanese, who can all sleep on trains and even get a bit of shut-eye while waiting at the curb for the "Don't Walk" sign to change to green, just naturally know how to pick up extra sleep during the day. I've always suspected the Japanese have equine blood because they can sleep standing up.

I don't know how late the Japanese sleep, but if they're up for breakfast at 7 a.m., they probably also check out an hour early just for good measure.

For years my neighbor, who runs the International Villa on the island, has been flummoxed by blatantly late check-outs. I've seen her vacuum around people's feet in a vain attempt to get her job done in time for the next guests to check in.

"Why don't foreigners honor the 10 a.m. check out time?" She asks me. My only answer is, "Because most people don't think check-out times apply to them."

So when it came to trying to get foreigners to rise for a 7 a.m. breakfast, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Grudgingly, I suggested to the minshuku owner that perhaps she could offer a continental breakfast instead for the foreigners. "It's easy," I said, "just put out some bread, a toaster, butter, jam and some juice and hot coffee. Then whatever time they get up, they can fix their own breakfast."

"But," she chided me, "that not healthy breakfast!" Since when do the words breakfast and healthy go together, I wondered. But for the first time in my 17 years in Japan I finally understood why the Japanese always include a salad with a "Western breakfast."

"Besides, no space to put extra table," she continued. She was right. Their "breakfast room" has only four tables and the same room is used as the restaurant and bar during the day. They couldn't possibly have breakfast going on all morning long. The 7 a.m. breakfast was very efficient. Even if the continental breakfast was available until 10 a.m., the Japanese, who would have been up for three hours already, would be spilling their beers on the foreigners' toast.

Finally, it was decided they could put the Western breakfast table outside. On the beach. "Good idea!" she said, "Because Western peoples like eat outside and Japanese peoples like eat inside."

Whew! We even took care of that other major difference between the Japanese and foreigners. That subject is big enough, I could write a whole column on it.



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