Heating the outdoors

Customer service is extremely important in Japan. Sometimes this leads to situations that seem a bit excessive in my eyes, like the amount of packaging they use or that time we saw a heater placed outside in the open air, to accommodate waiting customers.

open air heater in Japan

A kerosene burner placed outside in the open air to help customers waiting to have lunch stay warm

In Japan, it is very popular to eat out for lunch. Since many restaurants have only very limited seating space, it is common to have to wait for a table at a good restaurant. If the restaurant is really small, it doesn’t have an indoor waiting area and customers have to wait outside. One cold January day around noon, we were waiting to have lunch at a restaurant in Hakone. There was a waiting area next to the restaurant, i.e. outdoors. To my great surprise, the staff had placed a kerosene burner in the waiting area. Although I was very thankful for this extra heat (it was so cold!), at the same time I felt a bit guilty about taking advantage of something that somehow felt a bit wasteful. The heater was pretty much attempting to heat the entire outdoors, which is of course futile. There was no tent, no enclosure, nothing that could even barely attempt to keep a bit of the heat localised.

outside heater in Japan

Such a cold day!

After having discussed the situation with some Belgian friends, they pointed out that in Belgium sometimes we also make a bonfire outdoors or restaurants place heaters on their terrace in winter to enable people to sit outdoors. While this is true, I still felt an initial shock at seeing this heater in Japan. It is not the first time that I have felt torn between my love of Japanese customer service and my desire to not be wasteful. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences and opinions on the matter! Have you ever felt the same? How do you deal with these things? Or is it a non-issue?

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9 thoughts on “Heating the outdoors

  1. Providing a higher level of customer service usually takes priority in Japan.

    That heater may seem wasteful in terms of power, but the gratitude of the customers probably makes it worthwhile.

    • I agree that for the shopkeeper it is probably worth the investment. So of course it all depends from which perspective you define the term wasteful. I was looking at it more from an environmental point of view. But I do have to admit that I love Japanese customer service, despite my environmental concerns. What a grueling dilemma! 🙂

  2. I immediately thought of the terrace heaters in the Netherlands and Belgium too, even before I read your Belgian friends’ reactions. Actually I have seen outside heaters frequently in the States as well. I think the heater outside makes sense, otherwise the restaurant may lose customers.

    • Yes, especially if all the other restaurants are doing it, I think it is very difficult not to go along with it. But I do have the impression that those terrace heaters in Belgium are something fairly recent. Like ten years ago, you hardly saw them. Or is that just my impression?

      • Hmm let’s think… I think they’re pretty old. The terrace heaters in the Netherlands have been there forever, I definitely remember them from my teens (which means the ninetees), I lived in Belgium from 1996-2006 and they were nothing special back then already… Maybe we lived in different regions in Belgium?

        • Possibly. I remember first seeing them when I studied in Leuven around 2003. But maybe we just didn’t have them at the small city where I lived before my studies? Meanwhile the terrace heaters have made it even to my small home city 😉

  3. I’m with you on feeling conflicted! Packaging is an obvious example that many people bring up–I understand they’re trying to anticipate your needs without you needing to verbalize them, but sometimes I can’t speak fast enough to tell them I don’t need all the extra plastic!

    • Yes been there. Often they looked completely dumbfounded when I said I didn’t need a bag. Like: why on earth wouldn’t she want a bag. Sometimes I could also see a slight panic in their eyes, especially with young konbini employees. My guess is that they were unsure about how to handle this unusual situation and worried that they weren’t doing their duty as an employee. And where to put the sticker that they normally put on the bag? Ah, the many complexities that make life in Japan so fascinating! 🙂

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