Only in Japan…

Japan’s service culture has to be the most interesting in the world. For one, it’s the only place where they apologize to you for a free upgrade.

But during my recent trip to Japan there were a couple of other uniquely Japanese service experiences I have to share, both good and bad.

Let’s start with the bad. I was having lunch with friends at one of the restaurants at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto. We got there at around 2:30PM, were presented with lunch menus, and talked for about 30 minutes before ordering. The waiter comes over to take our order, and as we say what we want he says “oh, wrong menu, it’s not lunch time anymore.”

He proceeds to bring us the dinner menu, which has higher prices and a more limited selection. We asked if we could just order off the lunch menu since that’s what we were presented with, but he said no, because it wasn’t 2:30PM anymore. It’s the first time I’ve had the menus switched on me after sitting down.

Now, it’s not all bad news. As a Hyatt Diamond member I was given a 3,000 Yen (~$35USD) voucher at check-in for any restaurant purchase off the dinner menu. Now, while it wasn’t dinner time, the voucher specifically said that it was for orders off the dinner menu.

I figured that would compensate somewhat for the higher prices of the dinner menu.

He comes over and I present the voucher. He smiles and says “oh no, it’s lunch time, not dinner time.” Yeah, except you took the lunch menu right out of our hands as we were ready to order. He then claimed it was “snack time.” Fine, then present me with a “snack” menu and not the dinner menu please.

Look, I don’t want to be the “ugly” tourist. I understand Japan is about rules/procedures so I figured he could appreciate the fact that the voucher specifically said “dinner menu” and we were ordering off the dinner menu. While it took a bit of back and forth, we did eventually get the discount.

And here’s the other side of Japanese hospitality. We pulled up at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and my friend had received a bottle of champagne as a welcome gift at the previous hotel. Stupidly he dropped it as the taxi door opened, and while it didn’t completely shatter, the top cracked and champagne started flowing out the top.

My friend grabbed it, not wanting to make a mess, but the lady at the hotel greeting us grabbed the bottle of champagne out of his hands and it sprayed on her instead, which we felt awful about. Nonetheless she proceeded to apologize profusely, and then performed “surgery” on the bottle to the point that it was fixed once again. It was made even better by the fact that she brought us some champagne glasses while at check-in so we could drink it in the lobby before it was flat.

On a somewhat unrelated note, negotiating (guaranteed) late check-out at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto was an adventure as well.

“Sir, would you like late check-out?”
“Yes, 4PM please.”
“How about 2PM?”
“How about 4PM, please?”
“We can do 2PM.”
“But am I not guaranteed 4PM check-out as a Diamond member?”
“We’re very full tomorrow. How about 2:30PM?”
“Okay, fine”
“Please hold on, let me ask my manger if we can do 2:30PM check-out.”
“Okay, how about we move you to another room from 2PM to 2:30PM?”

For realz?

And of course no trip to Japan is complete without some Engrish:


  1. Lucky, who do you think has a more rule abiding and intensive culture, the Japanese or the Germans?

  2. @ Mike — I’m sorry, it wasn’t intended to be racial or offensive. I find Japanese people to be among the most hospitable/friendly in the world, and I admire anyone that speaks a second language (especially one as different as English). But the translations in Japan are often quite humorous, and are commonly known as “Engrish.” If it’s offensive I apologize.

    @ Seven — Hah, that’s a toughie. I’d say probably the Germans. You really can’t get a German to bend a single rule…

  3. Mike needs to lighten up! There is enough PC in this world already to take the humor out of any situation! I wish people wouldn’t be so hypersensitive. Gee whiz, man Lucky is the last guy on the planet that means to offend anyone.

  4. Ditto. It clearly wasn’t meant to be racial. There are many phrases that folks from different groups use to describe their own mix of their native language and English, such as Singlish, Chinglish, Spanglish, Franglais, etc.

  5. After living in Japan for six years, your experiences surprise me in dealing with the hotel (or any other retail/service industry over there). Polite to a fault, but the concept of the customer always being right has never been part of the culture. More of a “my house, my rules” way of thinking, which is why they didn’t feel obligated to honor your Diamond member privileges.

  6. I guess it’s a “common” word, but as an Asian guy I admit I don’t find it too funny. My parents (among many others) can’t pronounce “L”s because they didn’t grow up with English. And people make fun of them because of that.

    Sorry, hits too close to home.

  7. i’m asian. my mom was asian. been made fun of for Rs, Ls, and countless other asian and non-asian things. some offensive. but mostly funny. when you are vietnamese and given the first name of charlie, you pretty much are forced to see the funny over the offensive. so if you’re ever stuck in the middle seat and sitting next to me, thank your lucky stars.

  8. looks like some one is using Google translate.

    did you get your late check out or did you just give up?

  9. People always need to lighten up and be less PC when it’s some other group being made fun of…

    One thing about the Japanese is that they don’t like to say “no” for some reason. Love how he never once said that to Lucky, he just kept negotiating…of course, he should have checked with his manager before offering the 2:30pm checkout…

  10. The problem is not so much that in Japan customers don’t come first (in the vast majority of cases, they do) but that most large corporations have a manual-based service policy, and deviation from the manual is not an option unless you are talking to a decision maker (e.g. the general manager). There are other establishments (including a few smaller chains and independently-run ryokan and hotels) that refreshingly operate under the concept of “how far can we go to make this customer enjoy his stay and return”?

  11. Mike said, “I find you comment about ‘engrish’ very racial and offensive.”


    I never felt offended when someone chuckled at my attempt to communicate in broken and bastardized “Japanish.”

    However, I do find Japanese businesses that refuse to serve foreigners and/or dark skinned customers to be very racist and offensive, for rather obvious reasons.

  12. Surprised as you are staying at the top hotels. Service should be excellent. You should try the mid to lower tier hotels. Service is pretty bad.

  13. Well its good to know that the Hyatt late checkout time is a sham not honored. I have yet to find an actual program that has an honest to goodness real late check out guaranteed progam. I think that they should give out free night if they can’t honor the late checkout times.

  14. My wife and I arrived at the hotel a couple days after you at around 3pm (check-in is officially 2pm). We received many apologies for our room not being ready as “sir unfortuately someone has requested late check out” I knew you were in the area so my first thought was “it’s coins!”.

    Anyway no issue and great service as we were offered a standard rm on the 4th floor to wait while one of the 15’s was readied. Although I think if you saw the standard room you’d take back your cooment about this hotel qualifying for “Park Hyatt” status – still a great hotel but overall just not quite polished enough.

  15. As a German having lived in Japan I strongly disagree that Germans are stricter and less flexible about bending rules. Yes, Germany is highly pedantic and bureaucratic, but come on! Nothing in the world beats Japan’s insistence even on the craziest, makes-no-sense-whatsoever rules! You can be sure that in a good (!) German restaurant you would have no problem ordering from the lunch menu at 2:30pm.

  16. @ Mike I can understand that taken in the wrong context some may feel offended by the use of an off color remark, but knowing the source rest assured that Ben means no disrespect to anyone. Being Hapa (of half Japanese decent) myself, I’m not at all offended seeing it used in this context and find it very funny – it is what it is. In the end I think most of us who visit Japan (including Ben) are very appreciative of the attempt made to translate things into English.

  17. I was in Japan three days ago. I knew my hotel check-in time was 3pm. But I arrived at the hotel at 1pm and wanted to see if I got any luck. I explained to the front desk that I understood the check-in time was 3pm but I wanted to see if the room was ready, meaning “ready to check in”. The lady checked in her computer and told me :”Sir, your room is ready.” Great, I finished all the paper work, credit card etc and was waiting for the room key. The lady looked at me and said slow:”sir, your check-in time is 3pm.” —“but you just told me the room was ready”. —“Sir, the rooom is ready. but your check in time is 3pm. would you like to sit in the bar a little bit?”……

  18. That’s definitely a google translation.

    I’ve been in Japan for 17 years and speaking of rules/procedures, it took my local Mcdonalds over 6 months before they could make a cheeseburger with no pickle without having to get authorization from the manager.


  19. this is EXACTLY my knowledge of Japanese people. they are serious, they stick to the book, they listen to whatever their boss told them and they bow deeply after receiving tyhe order and most importantly, they are very good people.
    I was laughing at 2pm 2:30pm another room loudly. this is their culture, show some respect, check-in your ever shortest hotel stay in your whole life please. LOL.

  20. As someone who has lived in Japan for a while, I would be livid if a hotel didn’t honor published benefits. It’s not an issue of culture, it’s an issue of living up to promises and expectations. I’d say this is worthy of a letter to Hyatt corporate.

    The lunch/dinner thing is a bit more of a gray area since they probably have set hours — and in Japan many places shut down or switch to a different menu in the late afternoon…

    Anyway, Japanese people complain about bad service in their own country all the time, so there is no “cultural” problem with doing so.

  21. I find “Engrish” and similar butcherings of the English language to be as hilarious as the next guy. But I’m always very aware that I can’t even say “good morning” in any Asian language, so if I were tasked with making a sign in Japanese or Chinese or Vietnamese or whatever, it would most likely end up just as hilarious to them as some of their signs are to me.

    Being married to someone whose first language is not English is a real eye-opener. Her English is perfect; she speaks both languages fluently. When I try to say something in her language, the invariable response is laughter. So I’ve stopped trying. Unfortunately, people who make Engrish signs don’t have that option: the boss told them to make the sign, so they made the sign. I laugh because they’re funny — but I don’t laugh in front of the sign-maker. So, as long as one doesn’t belittle others, I don’t think it’s racist to find the humor in other people’s mistakes.

  22. The thing is, whatever the intentions of the person, whether they are racist or not, the comment is what it is, and some people may be offended by it. I have friends who make the occasional similar comment about Arabs occasionally, and I know they didn’t direct at me personally nor are they racist…but at the same time, it does occasionally sting. You might laugh it off, or say what’s the big deal, but it does sometimes affect people.

    Ok, rant ended.

  23. You can’t please everyone here! I didn’t find any offense to this post and I totally LoLed when you were trying to negotiate the check out time. You should have been stronger and asked for the later check out time. You’re negotiations skills are weak. =P

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