Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Ramen Challenge

Today, I had to go to a meeting in Kakogawa and then go to the office in Himeji. The meeting went well and my boss's boss gave him and I a ride back to the office.

An observation on Japanese corporate culture.

When my family visited, my brother said how it was like there were too many people in Japan and so companies were forced to create pointless positions just to make sure everyone had a paycheck at the end of the month. I am now 100% certain he was totally correct in his statement.

I thought people in the States had some pointless jobs, McDonalds, Costco, Gas Station Attendant, Politician, etc. Jobs can get so much pointless and tedious here that if I worked at McDonalds, I would almost consider myself happy given some of the alternatives. For example, my train station has a guy that grabs a narrow mop and squeegy and rides the escalator once every few minutes in order to let the mop go up the median between the escalators to keep it clean and polished. This is his job. He may do other mindless tasks but this is all I have ever seen him do. I have seen people that are paid to polish the handrails along stairs and stores. There are guys that work for the train companies who have the job to drive the trains from the storage area to the station and then let a real conductor take over. Think of the most tedious, stupid, repetitive tasks and make each task one person's sole job. The same applies to corporate Japan.

In a Japanese office, you will see tons and tons of people. All of them are jabbering away on phones or to each other, all of them writing or typing. Everyone is doing something....on the surface. What everyone is actually doing is pretending like they are being productive because there are so many of them, there is nothing to do.

Today, my boss's boss wanted to give me a "schedule check". Basically, every week I have to call her and tell her where I am going to be and at what times with what classes. I can understand this and don't have a problem with it. It keeps both parties apprised of schedule changes and whatnot. But today was ridiculous. I am in the office and she tells me she wants to do a schedule check with me. I told her that I didn't have my schedule on me and she said that was okay. I figured I would just call her tomorrow and let her know. Oh no, she photocopied my schedule for me, brings over the master and the photocopy and has me read my next week's schedule to her as she checks it with the master that she had just made my copy from. WTF! My boss has watched one person look at a notepad and punch numbers into a calculator. This is a good and productive thing to be doing. It was after a few minutes of this had gone by and my boss looked over her shoulder to see what she was adding and he just saw the big E that pops up when you enter a huge string of numbers into an adding machine and multiply it by an equally huge string of numbers. What this girl was doing was spacing out looking at a piece of paper, while hitting a bunch of keys over and over. She was doing absolutely nothing but it looked and sounded like she was being productive. In Japan, its all about having a job and looking productive at your job. Regardless of how much you actually get done, if you look good doing it, you have mastered your job. People will do the same stupid tasks over and over again every few minutes just to look productive. Even if the chrome on the escalator has been polished three times in the past hour and temporarily blinds small children for brief periods from the glare coming off of it.

To have a job in Japan means that you are part of adult Japanese society. The stigma of working at McDonalds that people in the US have, does not exist so much here. What matters is that you have a job and are a productive worker. What you do for your job is an afterthought. That and there are many, many, many jobs here that are much worse than working at McDonalds. Many.

The other funny part about jobs in Japan is how many people it takes to do any given job. Usually, if it is a construction job, from what I have seen, you will have one guy that is actually cutting a piece of wood. You then have a guy that is helping him lift and keep that piece of wood secure, despite the fact that its a pretty small piece of wood. And finally, you have the supervisor that is doing exactly as his title implies. If the supervisor has a manager or upper-management visiting the site, there may actually be two or three people supervising the sawing of the board while twice as many regular employees hammer on the same nail for fifteen minutes so the bigwigs can think they are all doing something useful.

I like fast and efficient and watching how some stuff works here just makes me want to smack someone. If Japan really wanted to save money they could pay qualified people a little bit more money to take on a slightly bigger workload and then lay off a third of the workforce. But then you have unemployment and Japanese government and society deal with that worse than they handle the current job situation.

Now as the title of this post states, there was a Ramen Challenge issued to me today while I was on my lunch break from the office.

There is a small ramen shop near our building and my boss suggested that we eat there, saying that it had a really good spicy ramen and if I took and won the challenge that the shop had, I would get my picture taken on plastered on the wall of the establishment. My boss has beaten this challenge at both of the shop's locations and until today, was the only white guy to have succeeded in this task.

The rules of the game were simple: eat the entire large bowl of "Ultra" ramen in fifteen minutes or less. The name of this ramen was due to its extreme level of spiciness. It was indeed "ultra" spicy. To help you on your quest, you got bottomless tea and ice water. You also got a box of tissues to wipe away the tears of agony and determination from your eyes. And the snot from your nose due to your sinuses draining from the heat coming off of these noodles.

At first, I was confident. The bowl was a regular sized ramen bowl and I have eaten my fair share of ramen while on this island. I could take this. I could be the second whitey to accomplish this feat. I would be the "Buzz" Aldrin of the spicy ramen challenge.

I took the first couple of mouthfuls in stride. There was indeed some kick to this ramen but it wasn't too bad. A few minutes into my allotted fifteen, I was rocking right along. I tried a spoonful of the broth and it was good, spicier than the noodles but not too bad. And then my mouth started to burn.

I had finished half of the noodles and a quarter of the broth before I stopped having feeling in my lips. I was also unable to distinguish between spicy and thermal heat in my mouth after this point. I began to weep and sniffle, wiping my forehead, eyes, and nose almost non-stop. This was getting very very warm now. I had to go on.

The noodles were gone, I still had the broth but the noodles and the bean sprouts were gone. I was almost done, a little more than five minutes to go. It was around this time that my boss set his chopsticks down and wiped his mouth, he was finished. Punk.

I continued to slurp ladle after ladle of broth. Chunks of onion, pork, and tomato floated in the mix and it was all headed to one spot, my gut. It was about this time that I realized I had about three minutes to go. The broth was still in the bowl, the heat was increasing, and the source of this volcanic brew was emerging as well, slices of jalapenos, seeds and all. I was dying and my boss was rather amused.

I took a small break and a clump of the rice I had ordered. I was getting down to two minutes and this was getting to be down to the wire. Was I to be a member of Apollo 11 or Apollo 13, it was time to see if I had the right stuff.

I figured that being I had long since been able to feel anything in or around my mouth, I may as well cast aside the spoon, put the bowl to my lips, and chug. If I were going to defeat this challenge, I knew it needed to be done. The sludge was hot, I was crying, and the bowl was emptying. And then it was over, I finished. About thirteen minutes and thirty seconds had elapsed since my first slurps into the quest and now it was done. I was a champion as was my boss...again. We got our picture taken together and if you were to walk into this ramen shop right now, we would be the only Westerners amongst hundreds of Japanese. Our spicy ramen eating abilities have surpassed lowly racial boundaries and we have become something more, something better. And we both got stomach aches to pull us down from our cloud. But we did get our picture taken so it all evens out.

There you have it, the story of two men, one calm and collected, the other a weeping fool, both winners of The Ramen Challenge.


At 12:01 PM, Anonymous CypherXerp said...

Someone needs to keep you away from ramen and Jager. LOL :)

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Steph said...

So they take the pic when you finish? There's a great photo op! Tears welling, nose dripping, hoping you're smiling 'cause you can't feel your lips.

Glad you did it though since it's an experience you'll always remember (don't forget - you'll need to tell your doctor why your stomach lining's gone 30 years from now).

I'm off to type things in a computer, over and over and over to make it sound like I'm working...oh, wait. :)

At 7:38 PM, Anonymous y said...

lol! There's a ramen shop here that does that too (with the pictures) but I would never be able to do it :) So, congratulations hehe.

At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Pynie said...


Hey, how many guys does it take to change a light bulb in Fukuchiyama?

Never mind, probably the same as in Takaoka.


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