Have you ever sat down to use a computer at an internet café and been frustrated by the complete lack of amenities? Were you forced to sit in a plastic chair? Did you have to wear your own uncomfortable shoes? No massage? No PlayStation to keep you busy during long loading times?
Anyone who’s used a public computer in Southeast Asia or India or most places really has certainly experienced this frustration. Forget amenities, internet cafés in China offer features seemingly designed solely to make your stay LESS pleasant. Even in South Korea, where technology drives the economy, the internet cafés are generally loud and uncomfortable. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.
When it comes to technology and customer service, it is pretty much common knowledge that Japan leads the world. Since an internet café is basically a combination of those two, it stands to reason the Japanese might have found a way to take the concept to a new level. And they have, but as anyone who’s used a Japanese toilet knows, the combination of technology and customer service can sometimes be taken a little too far.
When you first enter the café, you are not greeted by an apathetic teenager as you would anywhere else; you are greeted by four teenagers who’ve undergone rigorous customer service training to the point where they’d sprint three blocks to get you a doughnut if you asked for one. On top of that, they have all four just entered a state of nervous shock at seeing you, a foreign face, smiling at them.
Immediately, one of them will launch into a rapid fire explanation of the establishment that includes numerous colorful diagrams, maps, seating charts and emergency evacuation procedures for various possible disaster scenarios. That said, I’ve been to a few cafés where they forgot to inform me of the standard procedure to be followed in the event of a Godzilla attack, but luckily nothing happened and they did not have to live to regret their oversight. And believe me, I would have sued the crap out of them.
Naturally, this whole explanation is in Japanese and at the end of it, all four of the kids will look at you expectantly with huge grins, so you know it’s time to make your choice: “Internet!”
All four faces drop and after looking at each other nervously, they repeat the explanation. After two or three times, they realize you have no clue and they just stick you in a seat. Allow me to explain what they are actually going on about.
First of all, you don’t just get a computer. Different needs, different computers: do you only need the internet or do you also need MS Office? Or another more specialized program? Or do you just want to play solitaire? There’s a computer for you.
Second, you have various sections and various sections within sections: smoking and non-smoking, usually on separate floors; open seat or enclosed booth; couple’s seating or single; computer or just a couch to read comic books; massage chair or regular. You get the idea….
Then they explain that you get free drinks that are dispensed, naturally, by unnecessarily complicated vending machines that also offer numerous options and numerous options again for each option. Also, you can get food delivered from a nearby restaurant and you have a few options to consider when it comes time to use a toilet.
Basically, you’ll want to just ignore all that and point to the lowest price on the ‘menu’. Usually that will get you a ridiculously comfortable leather office chair and a computer with a high speed (and I do mean HIGH speed) internet connection. Sometimes it will just get you a couch and shelves upon shelves of comic books full of Japanese writing. In that case, go back to the menu and point to the second lowest price. Generally, the Japanese will get a computer even if they’re only coming to read comics, so the couch option is only available at a few places.
But what if you want more than a regular seat? Well, you probably don’t. Actually, the booths are kind of nice, since they usually come with a TV (with walls and walls of DVDs to choose from), a PlayStation and a robe and slippers for your comfort. You can check your email with one hand, while playing a video game with the other (don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work), while watching contestants on a game show tie raw meat to their heads and stick those heads in a glass box with a live komodo dragon to see who flinches and pulls out of the box first (seriously, that’s a real show).
The couple’s booths are nice too. They usually have a comfortable couch you could easily sleep on and are actually a good place to spend the night if you miss the last train home. Many cafés even have a special overnight price of around US $10, which is equal to the absolute cheapest hotel rooms you can find in Japan and quite a good deal.
Other options I could do without. I went to a café once where the only available computers were ones with a massage chair. And every single one of those was available. In fact, several people were waiting for regular seats to open up, rather than take the massage seats, but when the friendly desk staff offered the massage option at the price of a regular seat, I went for it.
I know massage chairs sound like a brilliant idea and everyone’s favorite sitcom has an episode where one of the characters tries one out and melts into the chair in pure ecstasy, but have you actually used one before? How about while trying to simultaneously use a computer?
By the way, I’m not referencing a specific sitcom, I’m talking about all of them. All standard sitcoms have basically the same episodes just in a different order (a birth, a death, a wedding, a mid-life crisis, etc.) and they all have one where someone either gets a massage chair or tries one out in a store.
Anyway, back to the chair. I know you’re picturing a comfortable leather chair (and you’re right about that) with a power button and maybe one or two more buttons and switches, but remember, this is Japan. Chairs here have fifteen different buttons, a few switches and a slider or two and all of those are labeled with nearly identical symbols. I can actually read those symbols and still have no idea what they do since they all appear to be euphemisms for various forms of pain.
For example, a button labeled with the character for heaven might actually be code for ‘spinal injury’ as one roller squeezes you in place while another one pushes your spine out of alignment. As you might imagine, it’s pretty hard to get anything done online when you’re trying to figure out how to turn off the ‘kidney punch’ setting. Before you know it, your hour’s up and you can either pay for more torture or just leave having accomplished nothing.
Medieval torture devices masquerading as friendly chairs aside, the truth is, Japanese internet cafés are wonderful and you could easily spend a whole day there. You get comfort, free drinks, food delivery, a TV, video games, endless DVDs, comic books or magazines and even a computer with internet access. Of course there is one drawback: even the cheapest seats at the cheapest cafés cost $3 an hour and you’ll generally pay about $5 for a private booth.