The Japanese are in perpetual search for harmony.
This constant pursuit of “wa/和” preoccupies them not only at the office with their fellow workers, at home with their family, but also, and probably most, when taking a pleasurable respite at the table or counter of their favorite restaurant or bar.
Whereas in many other countries patronizing the same establishment on a regular basis might be considered at best as an ostentatious show, and a disreputable habit at worst, eating and drinking out in Japan is a sine qua non prerequisite to a successful life, both professional and social.
“Jouren” can be loosely translated as “regular customer”, although the term does not give justice to its real meaning.
The jouren is an essential feature at any establishment worth its salt. He will usually sit quietly at the end of the counter if he is the only one present at the time, or next to another regular.
Now, if you observe him carefully (unobtrusively) you will notice that he is served food and drinks without orders or enquiries. There is a clear reason to that: the oyakata/chef or ofukuro/lady owner knows what the jouren likes to eat and drink within a tacitly agreed budget.
The jouren is not necessarily a well-off person, but he is a vital actor in the gastronomic theater because he will occasionally come out of his reserve to gently recommend a dish or concoction when he notices a new customer experiencing some difficulty in choosing from an unknown menu. Very often a Japanese client will (politely) ask the local jouren for advice and enquire on the very food he is eating or on the best drink available.
Another peculiarity you will not fail to mark is that the jouren usually takes his leave without paying. He simply has a bill in the books that he will pay at a more or less determined date away from the inquisitive eyes of other diners and drinkers. This last arrangement is more practical for the owner’s accounts and tax returns. You will know that you have become a jouren the day or night the owner tells you to pay later, which of course means that he/she expects you to grace the place again soon!
Be it a posh kaiseki restaurant, an expensive sushi bar, a simple but popular izakaya, or a late night cocktail lounge, the “rules” are the same.
The jouren possesses an unfailing instinct as to the timing of his visits. He will avoid the really busy period of the evening, and will retreat with a smile and wave when his favorite haunt is unseasonably busy. He will also take leave when other customers start flowing in. On the other hand, a jouren will get full satisfaction and no questions asked if he requests a few seats for a party or some friends. Simply put, he is priority.
Jouren usually has his/her “bottle keep”, or own bottle of favourite spirits in situ, although the notion can be double-edged. Some izakayas or Japanese restaurants and bars make it rule for all customers, regular or not to acquire their own bottle with the attached condition that it must be consumed within a certain time limit. But a real jouren at an establishment worthy of its salt will probably keep a hard to find whisky or an extravagant shochu for his/her sole usage. On the other hand, if the jouren kindly offers you a glass of his/her own nectar, you may assume you will be part of the selected clientele very soon!
At Ekimae matsuno Sushi,…
Japanese owners value their jouren very much for another reason.
In a tightly preordained world where the customer and the owner/chef are literally sitting on either side of a rigid fence, the jouren becomes an indispensable interlocutor you can talk shop with or even ask for advice. Japanese chefs have very little free time to spend outside work and take the pulse of their society to keep in touch with the prevalent trends of their fellow citizens. The jouren will bring in the news and information on any subject and the answers to questions that the chef will not hesitate to ask.
It works both ways: high-class geishas in Kyoto, who are not mere entertainers, do make a point to read at least two or three daily newspapers every morning, including one financial tabloid to ensure they can not only follow their clients’ conversations but give their own advice when solicited.
The nationality of a jouren is of little importance. Being a Japanese fluent foreigner is actually an advantage as some social restrictions inherent to the Japanese society can easily be done without.
As a case in point a great majority of celebrated resident foreign chefs spend most of their free time patronizing local sushi and kaiseki restaurants for the dual purpose of relaxation and study in great company!
As a final word do not think jouren are exclusively male clients. There are certainly many ladies among them, although they will generally patronize a different type of establishment. But the same “rules” and traditions apply!