Coffee-time Strategy

Japan’s proud boast to being a relatively safe country has on the whole been a good thing to experience; I have never really felt truly afraid for my wellbeing or personal belongings. However, it has some annoying side-effects.

As people’s first reaction to seeing unattended baggage is not “got to steal!” but “leave it well alone” a lot of Japanese, upon entering a café or coffee-shop first scout for empty tables, dump an item on the chair, a bag, coat, packet of cigarettes or strand of hair, and then take their sweet time ordering their drinks at the counter. This is what I call “toweling”, staking claim to territory by laving behind a personal item. In the west, of course, it’s an invitation to get robbed, but not in Japan, which is why it happens so much.

Now this is all fine in theory but what about those people that don’t have items to discard or, like me, are too British and adhere to the Law of Queuing? Well, we’re stuffed. Nothing is quite so annoying as to be in a long queue in a busy coffee-shop only to see some salaryman barge in, drop his bag at the only available table and then join the end of the queue. It fair boils my blood, it does.

The situation isn’t helped by loafers; as coffee-shops are favourite places for students to study or tired workers to have a nap a lot of tables are occupied for a time for in excess of that needed to have a drink. Uppity chains like Starbucks already forbid this kind of behaviour on weekends, but none of them have tackled the toweling issue yet.

Just the other day I was in a stand-off with a salaryman who came in a few minutes after me, but as I had to wait for my Mocha to be made and he only had an instantly served ice coffee he was able to enter the smoking room well in advance of me, which pissed me off no end, as it was particularly busy. When I finally had my coffee though I noticed he was milling around because all the tables were occupied. Except, that is, for one which looked occupied as a lady had put her handbag on a chair. We both approached as the woman removed her bag to make space but as I was slightly more aggressive than he I shoved my tray ahead and stole the table right from under his nose. Sweet victory was made all the sweeter by the fact he had to mill around for a few more minutes before another table came free. Though he didn’t show it, I really hope it pissed him off. Not that I’m vengeful or anything, you see.

The battle for free tables in cafes can be as bloody as that for breathing space in rush-hour trains. Always be prepared and, if you must, play as dirty as your opponent; bring at least one disposable item with you to towel your table with as soon as you come in. And don’t feel hurried if people start queuing for tables, it’s time for some payback. Drink your coffee at leisure, read a book, have a nap, take your time. It’s the way things go in these parts.


  1. I'm really impressed by how you can make such mundane everyday occurences into cliffhanger moments.

  2. You seem like you have alot of pent up rage in you. Wouldn't want to be on the receiving end when you go off.

  3. Good show him.
    Its a quiet victory, but I celebrate with you quietly.

  4. But anon #2, you ARE. What do you think this blog is for?

  5. I know it's no consolation, but I know exactly how you feel.

    I once went to the hellhole that is Sweets Harbour in Kobe and there were 100s of people inside at any one time but unfortunately only a few tables. Of course, hardly any of these tables were occupied... by human beings - just bags, coats, hats, scarves... anything. The would be occupants were all off buying sweets from the many crowded counters - all miles from the tables. I was so pissed off before I went in due to the crowds of people I'd been wading through that day that I wanted to turn into the Hulk and throw all those fucking bags through the window and sit at the table waiting for the couple to return before flinging them through too. Grr. They wouldn't like me when I'm angry.


  6. It's funny how there's multiple sides to everything. I very much liked the fact that I could put my stuff down and then go get my order vs how it is here in the states where I order my stuff and then end up standing around with a tray in my hands for 10 minutes hoping to score a table.

    In fact in Japan is not just what people do, it's expected. Go into a busy fast food place and they'll often tell you right up front, go find a space and put your stuff down first to make sure there is actually room for you in the store. Seems like a good thing to me.

  7. I know. The wife basically told me the same thing. "It's annoying as Hell, but hey, that's the way things are done around here." A bit useless of me complaining about it but I never let that stop me.

  8. Everything has cascading effects. You can't have one without the other.

    I think this phenomena is a tiny price to pay for what you already mentioned, the safety, if you ask me.