Saturday, December 9, 2006

KFC=Kentucky Fried Christmas

I got some first-hand experience of what it's like to be Japanese at Christmastime. There was a package waiting for me at the post office, so I dressed warmly against the cool, rainy day and started off walking.

Before I got it into my head to take this little stroll, I'd been watching a halfway decent tv movie biopic about Elvis. I will watch any halfway decent tv movie biopic about Elvis. If there's one thing that I find more interesting than Elvis himself, it's any actor trying to recreate the King of Rock & Roll and what it must've been like to be him. And this one has Randy Quaid as Col. Parker, and as I walked I thought about Elvis and the Colonel and how much farther I still had to walk.

And also, eating lunch at KFC near the post office.

The first thing I noticed, for the first time despite having been to this KFC at least twice before, was there's a drive-through. With several cars waiting. Japan has one of the world's best public transportation systems... from the shinkansen to the JR train lines, to the city buses. It's perhaps the most efficient in the world, unless Singapore's has it beat. Things leave on time.

Yet, Japan is also an auto-obsessed country. Traffic is heavy, and when I'm out walking around looking at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's, with cars swooping by, I can almost imagine I'm standing by the Atlanta Highway, looking at it in the mirror.

Drive-through service. Always a mistake. It's faster and easier just to go into the restaurant whether you're John Smith in Athens, Georgia, or Suzuki Taro in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka.

At Kentucky Fried Chicken here and there, all over Japan, Colonel Sanders is dressed in a festive Santa outfit. In some locations, he's also offering poinsettias. But don't eat them. For one thing, poinsettias are poisonous (or so I've heard) and for another, these are probably fake.

Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan has invented the consumer-friendly concept known as "slow food." Have you ever been in a fast food restaurant that is virtually customerless, yet still the employees are still so busy you don't get to order for 15 minutes? By the big clock behind the counter, in the kitchen, but still visible out front, I have.

There was a chubby Western dude leaning against the trash bins, a tired-looking mom and son pair sitting on chairs, three youngish cool dudes in up-to-date leather, denim and khaki at the counter, and a small family already eating at one of the tables in the dining area.

And that's all.

Yet the two girls behind the counter were so packing boxes of chicken into plastic and paper bags, while the two cooks in the kitchen kept manically restocking the food, I stood there watching it all for about 15 minutes. And it was actually entertaining and instructive. I've always heard KFC was massively popular here for Christmas.

To prove it, there were at least 6 orders taped to the plexiglass behind which I could see baggies of fries and rows of golden fried breasts, thighs and wings.

They even had chicken. Woo hoo, my Christmas gift... to you.

If you don't fill with Christmas spirit or at least experience some sort of positive mood enhancement while watching that your grinch heart is 3 sizes too small. And there's no hope for you, you cynical, Scrooge-like jerk.

And while I was waiting, a woman came in and claimed more chicken than she could easily carry. She'd obviously phoned in her order in advance, which you have to do during the holiday season if you want your food warm and in time. The KFC girl kept handing this woman these bulky bags of food... one after another. The woman went from nonchalant to mildly afraid.

Fifteen minutes. On the counter was the special Kentucky Christmas menu. Christmas boxes you could order featuring mass quantities of fried chicken, french fries and hot wings. KFC in Japan also allows you to choose half chickens- a roasted variety and one called "smoke chicken" that looks in the photos exactly like the ones my dad used to grill on Sundays.

A smoked half chicken will set you back about 12 bucks.

The three cool dudes were by this time sitting in the dining area, talking and laughing. The chubby guy was finished eating and long gone, and so were the tired people. Only I was still hanging in there, holding a heavy box from, the undefeated fast food warrior.

As you probably noticed if you watched the commercials, KFC in Japan is offering a lot of The Snowman merchandise. A plush Snowman toy, Christmas tree ornaments. While I ordered my Tokumori setto (a leg, thigh and breast, french fries and a drink) with Fanta Melon Soda (deliciously sweet and addictive), I thought about buying something to add some festive holiday spirit to my apartment. But I opted not to.

Once I actually ordered, things went smoothly. I sat down, watched the traffic passing by outside between us and the Mister Doughnut on the opposite corner. A mom and daughter were ordering lunch.

A young guy in a khaki KFC uniform offered me the wrong lunch set. I had the Tokumori set, my good man, not this... this... pathetic sandwich thing. Do I look like a sandwich eater? I'm offended by the very implication. I demand a discount! Only a discount will soothe my injured feelings.

Abruptly, I was eating the correct lunch and out the door. With some regret; I really wish I were fluent enough in Japanese to reserve a half grilled chicken dinner with sides for Christmas. I'd love to be there during the rush. I know the employees are secretly dreading it. If any of them happened to be English students, I'm sure they've told their teachers of this fear.

Meanwhile, over at Mister Doughnut, it might as well have been September.

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