Friday, 10 February 2012

The Four Seasons Hotel at Chinzan-so, Tokyo

Most Japanese universities run orientation weekends for their new students. Such weekends are supposed to help students to bond with each other and to foster group loyalties: to the school, the faculty, the seminar teacher. I've been on a fair few of these, mostly to Nazi-run mountain retreats where I have enjoyed hiking the trails while my seminar students dawdle behind me moaning about how it's too far and too hilly and too 'outside'. And the panic that sets in when they can't get a phone signal ...

Last year, however, the first-year retreat was cancelled because our university's orientation venue is a Hawaiian resort in ... Fukushima. At that time, you had to get official permission to enter any of the disaster zones and you needed special government-issued chitties to be able to buy petrol there. So that trip was obviously out of the question. Instead, on Monday, all first-year students were treated to a table manners lesson and lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, Chinzan-so.

Each teacher was seated at a table with a group of students, presumably to encourage conversation although I found it had the opposite effect, especially as I don't teach first-years and didn't know any of them. The students were extremely intimidated by the opulence of the ballroom and the rows of silver cutlery and tended to speak to their friends in hushed whispers, or else they sat in cowed silence. The table manners teacher, a manager from the Four Seasons I think, taught us that we should make light conversation and I did my best in both languages but by the soup course I was exhausted from having to hold a conversation largely with myself. So I suggested that we photograph our food (see above). Japanese young people are not the best conversationalists, especially since many Japanese are told that it is rude to speak at meal times or in the presence of someone of higher rank. Hence, I had to make all the conversation.

We started with seafood 'audible', it said in katakana which I assumed was French until on the train home I was reading the table manners booklet we had been given and discovered that it was Japanese for 'Hors d'Oeuvres.' Then there was soup, a fish course and a meat course with a grapefruit sherbet in between to cleanse the palate, then coconut and pineapple parfait with cocktail fruits, and a macaroon with the university's name and logo on it.

Watching the students pick up each item of cutlery was like the moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the ape wields the bone. And they had no idea what to do with the fish knives. I demonstrated although I have to say that I can't use a fish knife because I am left-handed and I have never come across a left-handed fish knife. At this point I think we would all have liked to have been given chopsticks. It is actually easier to eat fish with chopsticks.

The student next to me jumped when the waiter leaned in to offer bread rolls. There was a whispered discussion then one student asked me when they were supposed to eat the rolls. And their faces when, having got one roll out of the way, the waiter leaned in and put another one on their plates! The same thing happened when they finished their fruit juices. I told them they could just leave what they didn't want. "You mean it is OK to waste food?" They asked. I explained the idea of leaving a little on your plate to show that you had eaten enough but they weren't keen on the idea, even though several of the women at my table did not particularly like the food. One hated seafood. "But you are Japanese", I said. "How can you survive?" But looking at her I thought it was touch and go. Japan is the only first-world country where the birth weight of babies and of women is actually decreasing. But when I watched the women at the table just playing with their food, tasting a bit and making a face, I could believe it. And it was nouvelle cuisine. Each course was tiny. The only course they all finished was dessert.

The waiters reappeared and took orders for tea or coffee. The woman next to me said, "Anything is OK" which is the standard Japanese answer. In polite society your host is supposed to be attentive to your needs and provide what you want without you having to make any difficult choices. I have been to family dinners where friends have had to stop their mothers from piling food onto my plate by shouting, "She's a foreigner! She can choose for herself! Let her decide what she wants!" Anyway I said to the student that was OK to choose something but in the end she chose nothing. The woman on my other side chose tea but sat and stared at it like it was hemlock.

"Do you often go out for meals like this?" I asked the students, but they all said, no, that this was the first time in their lives they'd had such a meal, which surprised me. In Europe, we pick up good table manners as children and I hadn't thought there was much to learn about western-style dining. I was wrong. To the uninitiated it is an etiquette nightmare.

At the end of the meal, I asked them if they had enjoyed themselves and they said they would much rather have gone to Fukushima. But me, I loved it. And afterwards, I took a walk in Chinzan-so, the garden attached to the hotel. I hear that the Shangri-La is supposed to be the best hotel in Tokyo. I think the Four Seasons would come a close second. It's just a pity it is rather far from any of the main shopping or tourist centres.

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