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In Kyoto, a jarring one-off encounter or the tip of the iceberg?

by

Special To The Japan Times

Kyoto heaves with tourists every day. JR Kyoto Station disgorges hundreds of passengers every minute into the city.

While residents complain about the exponential increase in visitors each year, the tourist herds have prompted some admirable changes in the way things are done. The subway has gone from a system of awkward Japanese station names to one that includes letters and numbers so tourists don’t have to distinguish between Karasuma and Karasuma Oike or Shijo, Gojo, Kujo and Jujo.

In an attempt to be more tourist-friendly the city hall even went to the great trouble of offering translation services to restaurants so they could produce English menus. Now thousands of restaurants are within reach of the average tourist, and business is booming.

It was my third trip to Kyoto already this year, and as I checked into my hotel, I just wanted to grab a bite to eat and relax a bit before going to bed. A local izakaya (tavern) would be fine, I told the young woman at the check-in desk, but as I was alone, could she recommend the most appropriate place?

With a perfectly manicured index finger, she slid the point of her acrylic fingernail to a couple of izakaya on the free Kyoto map. Then she took a breath, clacked her nails together and as if suddenly remembering something and veered her laminated indicator to a completely different place.

“Here! A new craft beer restaurant. Very nice!”

Those magic words, kurafuto biiru, stirred a thirst so deep inside me that I bowed gratefully and was out the door in a flash. I soon spied the craft beer place, a noren curtain obscuring the window-paned sliding doors. I snuck a peek through a side window. Full.

I ducked under the noren, slid open the door and sidled into the long, narrow room, which offered only ringside seating at the bar. The bar was long like the room and receded into the back, leaving just enough corridor space for patrons to walk to the rear where the toilets must be. (Real beer drinkers think of these things.)

The blond bar top, cut from a solid piece of tree trunk, was sanded and buffed to blend in rather than to stand out like the ones in older establishments, which left the natural shape of the wood to delineate it. The beer taps were polished, the clientele well-heeled. “Irasshaimase!” called out the bar master, welcoming me.

I hesitated before starting down the corridor to look for a ringside seat, knowing that the Japanese will always make room for a single foreign lady. The patrons acknowledged me with a head bow, the gesture used when people are sitting but still want to show respect. I head-bowed back.

An empty stool miraculously appeared and the bartender brought over a blackboard with a stylishly scrawled beer menu on it. The beers, all draft brews from the U.S., were ¥1,300 each except one, which was ¥1,400. Admittedly, I’ve never paid that much for a beer before, but undeterred, I ordered one with a long, complicated English name such as “Ducks’ nuts done right” or something equally grammatically correct but connotationally challenged.

I ordered a couple food items from the master. He apologized for not being able to speak English and we continued in Japanese. He proceeded to introduce me to the two people stooled on either side of me, one who worked for the Kyoto Shimbun, and we exchanged business cards and hit it off, all quite naturally.

Except that this is not so natural in Japan. Seldom does the master, especially when he is clearly busy with a full bar, take the time to get to know a customer just after she has stepped into his establishment. Normally, I’d have had to become a jōrenkyaku (regular customer) before we’d be on personal terms. For a Japanese pub, this place was different.

The master and bartender sallied back and forth, making sure everyone was attended to. Patrons were introduced, business cards were exchanged. It was as if the craft beer bar had replaced the golf course. This attention to detail was reflected in the prices of the beer, and everyone there, including myself, was happy to pay for the privilege.

I went back to the same bar the next two nights, each time having made new friends and conversation. So it was a great surprise to find that on my fourth and final night in Kyoto, the bar left me feeling dismayed.

The master welcomed me by name as usual. I told them it was my last night in Kyoto and offered to buy the master and bartender a beer. They thanked me, we gave a toast, they continued waiting on customers. My place at the bar was farther down the corridor this time, and in my peripheral vision I noticed an oversize glass jar sitting on the bar. Upon closer inspection, it was a few centimeters deep with coins, mostly ¥100 and ¥500 pieces. Two or three ¥1,000 bills lay recumbent on top. Japan is not a tipping culture, so it certainly wasn’t a tip jar. So what was it? Were they collecting money for underprivileged children? Refugees? The homeless?

My interest piqued, I asked the bartender, “What’s the jar for?”

“Tip jar,” he said, smiling.

I looked at him, puzzled. “Do people really tip here?”

“Yes, most people do.”

I glanced disapprovingly at the jar and went back to drinking my ¥1,300 beer.

It’s not that tipping doesn’t ever happen in Japan, but it’s usually done in a different way (when done at all). You might buy the master a beer or bring a gift the next time you come. Or you might do him a favor. If you’re a big-shot president of a company, you might pad your payment of the bill, especially if you’ve brought a group. But most people do not tip for drinks at a bar. A combination of good training and decent hourly pay makes for restaurant and bar staff who give great customer service, and in Japan this service is unfailingly flawless.

At the end of the night, I paid my tab: four beers at ¥1,300 each. The bill was brought to me in the particular way of these types of establishments: with no receipt or itemization of your order. Instead, the bartender proffered a tiny piece of paper bearing the hand-written total of ¥5,200.

I gave him ¥6,000, which he took away to the register. But before he gave me my ¥800 change, he asked, “Do you want your change?” Only after I said “yes” did he willingly hand it to me.

Stunned that anyone would be so crass, I left the bar extremely disappointed.

Kyoto is changing in many good ways for tourists, but importing the habits of other cultures for your own benefit is not a change most tourists will appreciate. And pressuring people to tip is going too far, any time.

I was left wondering, what is happening to Kyoto?

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday of the month.