The Joy of Fieldwork: Interview at Cocolo Rāmen X-Berg

by Cornelia Reiher

After our online interview experience with students from Seikei University and an interview in the classroom, our group visited a Japanese restaurant to interview the manager and an employee who is one of the course participant’s friends. As he happens to work at Cocolo Rāmen in Kreuzberg he was so kind to agree to be interviewed and asked the manager to join in as well. We traveled to Kreuzberg together and when we arrived at Cocolo in the early afternoon, most of the customers ate outside enjoying the warm and sunny weather. After putting together two tables for our rather large group inside the restaurant, students started to ask the questions they had prepared.

Cocolo Rāmen in Kreuzberg belongs to the Kuchi group run by the famours Vietnamese restaurateur The Duc Ngo who owns several Asian and Japanese restaurants in Berlin and Frankfurt. Cocolo Kreuzberg opened in 2013 and moved to another location within Kreuzberg in 2019. The restaurant’s interior is cozy and rustic. Everything from the wooden tables and benches where we were seated to the bar is hand-crafted. Students’ questions covered the personal biographies of our interview partners as well as the restaurant’s menu, staff, guests and the Corona-19 pandemic. We learned that the manager, Mr. Sumida, had already lived in Germany for more than twenty years, while Mr. Kuwahara came to Berlin only three years ago. While Sumida san manages the restaurant and has worked there from the beginning, Kuwahara san mainly works in the kitchen and makes rāmen and other dishes.

While the restaurant is now mainly frequented by locals who live in the neighborhood, before the pandemic, Cocolo was also a popular destination for tourists. Not only the guests have changed due to the pandemic, but also the restaurant’s sales strategy. While Cocolo was closed during the first lockdown, they started takeout services during the second lockdown in November 2020. As in many other Japanese restaurants in Berlin, the menu changed to adjust dishes for takeout. They added more rice dishes like donburi to the menu, for example. Another pandemic-related problem is that Cocolo, like so many other restaurants, had and still has difficulties finding staff.

After the interview, we ordered rāmen and enjoyed the variety of different tastes. Sumida san and his team take pride in the handmade ingredients, including miso used for miso rāmen. All ingredients are fresh and no frozen ingredients are used. This is reflected in the great taste of all the dishes we tried. Some of the students ordered the vegan and vegetarian rāmen variations. While vegetarian rāmen was on the menu since the restaurant opened, vegan rāmen was just added a few years ago. Sumida san was so nice to treat us to appetizers including delicious gyōza, edamame, karaage and horensō gomaae. Gochisōsama deshita!!!

Compared to the other interviews we have conducted so far, doing the interview in our research participants’ workplace had many advantages, but we also dealt with new challenges today. One advantage was that we could ask questions about what we observed, including interior and staff. If we would not have visited the restaurant, we would not have seen the noodle machine and watched how rāmen noodles were cut and we could not have tasted the food ourselves. Through being in the restaurant, we were able to feel the atmosphere firsthand, watch staff at work and listen to the background music that included Japanese enka and pop songs.  One disadvantage, however, was exactly this background music for recording the interview. However, it was a good experience of yet another and different interview situation and reminded us of the importance of taking notes. The most exciting thing of course was eating rāmen together after the interview. Thank you so much Sumida san and Kuwahara san for your time, for the hospitality and for treating us to the delicious appetizers!!!!

Participant observation at a Japanese restaurant

by Cornelia Reiher

While group visits to restaurants were difficult last summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year we were able to do our annual field trip to a Japanese restaurant again to practice participant observation. After an introduction to participant observation in the classroom, we traveled from campus to one of the many Japanese restaurants in Berlin to have lunch together. I asked students to observe interactions between staff and customers, work processes and division of labor in the restaurant and the interaction of the employees with each other, how Japaneseness is staged in the restaurant and what hygiene measures against Corona are still in place and how they are implemented by employees and guests.

When we entered the restaurant, we saw hand sanitizers and a perspex partition wall at the counter and waitresses wearing masks. However, since wearing masks is not mandatory in restaurants anymore, most of the guests did not wear masks when they entered the restaurant. In addition, self-services like hot water refills and soy sauce on restaurant tables were finally back. During the pandemic, the restaurant started a bustling take-out business and when we visited the restaurant, many people came in to pick up food. In addition, the restaurant recently began working with one of the many food delivery services in town, so delivery service employees would come in and out of the restaurant to pick up deliveries.

After a delicious lunch, students began to observe, wander around the restaurant and take notes and photographs. They also documented observations relevant to their individual research projects. The food labeling group took pictures of the menu and paid attention to the labeling of vegan and vegetarian dishes. The group working on Japanese sweets in Berlin ordered mochi and discovered a separate mochi menu. And the group working on Japanese alcohol and izakaya in Berlin checked the menu for alcoholic beverages offered at the restaurant.

The field trip was a great experience because students did not only practice observing and taking field notes but also had the chance to socialize with each other. Many courses at FUB had just moved back to onsite teaching this semester and some of the students did not have the chance to get to know their peers on campus and to meet outside of the university. I hope that this course will not only help students master qualitative research methods and put them into practice, but also create social and enjoyable experiences for them.

Interview with Seikei University Students

by Galina Khoikhina and Ivan Kaira

The special thing about the course „Methods and Research Techniques in Japanese Studies“ is that not only do we learn the theoretical basis of what types of research there are, but we also have the opportunity to try out the freshly gained knowledge in practice. One of the assignments we had recently was conducting an online interview with students from Seikei University. The theme was „Food Habits of Japanese People“.

During the week that we were preparing for the interview, we were constantly discussing the upcoming study with our groupmates. Even those who already had previous interview experience were a little bit nervous, but we were nevertheless excited about it. To prepare for the interview we have read a lot and learned what types of interviews exist. However, applying all of this knowledge immediately into practice was not so simple. Unexpected answers led to unexpected changes in the questions and of course, we had to improvise a bit. We would like to express our gratitude to the students from Seikei University: they were very patient, and friendly and explained all of their answers in great detail.

What’s interesting is that when we later exchanged impressions about our experiences within our study group we identified several similar experiences. First, even though we all prepared the questions separately, we asked pretty similar questions. For example, questions dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic, modern food trends among Japanese students or intergenerational tendencies. In addition, many students noted that some interesting topics were suggested by the interviewees themselves. And last but not least, we were all surprised that in terms of the Japanese language, everything seemed to go surprisingly smoothly (at least it seemed that way to us).

Among the other lessons, we have learned from our online interviews was the necessity to print out the prepared questions despite the temptation to have them solely on the screen. This may also help taking notes and to change questions on the spot. As for the note-taking itself, we have discovered that it did require some practice and, due to the absence of such for most of our group, it was quite challenging to simultaneously concentrate on both writing and actively listening to the interviewees. It was also tremendously helpful to learn that we always have to use several backup plans in case our communication or recording devices wouldn’t work or simply due to our internet connection being unstable. Fortunately – thanks to Professor Reiher – we talked about this prior to conducting our interviews, which prevents inconvenient situations.

On that note, we would like to thank first and foremost Professor Reiher from Freie Universität Berlin for bestowing us with such an opportunity and Professor Kawamura from Seikei University for connecting us with the students as well as the students themselves for helping us to gain experience in conducting the interviews in a very friendly atmosphere. We also cherished their reviews of our interviews: they motivated us to keep exploring interviews as a method full of opportunities. All in all, considering the growing popularity of online interviews, it was an extremely valuable experience that will surely be useful to us in the future.

This year’s course participants
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Transforming a travel agency into a Japanese food store: Interview about H.I.S. Japan Premium Food & Travel

by Cornelia Reiher

On June 3, we conducted our first onsite interview. We invited Rainer Stobbe from H.I.S. Japan Premium Food & Travel to talk with him about his job and how the H.I.S. Berlin office changed from a travel agency to a shop selling Japanese food during the Covid-19 pandemic. Students had prepared questions in class the week before Rainer came to visit us on FU campus. They took turns asking questions and learned a great deal about handling time constraints, recording and taking notes during an interview. Everybody was particularly delighted because Rainer brought some senbei from the shop.

Interview questions covered the shop and its history, customers and products, collaborations with other Japanese food retailers, restaurants and producers, the experience during the Covid-19 pandemic and future plans with regard to food. We learned that the Berlin office is one of three H.I.S. offices in Germany that sell food now. Rainer was hired to build the Berlin branch of H.I.S. It opened in 2019, but when the pandemic hit and travel to Japan was (and still is mainly) restricted, the stores began to sell Japanese food. In Berlin, H.I.S. sells sweets, tea, sake, soy sauce, rice and seasonings. At times H.I.S. also sold Bento boxes produced by a Japanese restaurant from the area and they regularly offer handmade mochi a former restaurateur creates exclusively for the store. Because the shop offers many products other Asian food stores and supermarkets do not sell, many Japanese customers frequent the shop regularly.

The interview provided unique insights into the workings of food retail and labeling and was a great experience in terms of interview practice. It also provided important information students will use for their own research projects about Japanese food in Berlin. This interview was conducted in German, but the interviews to come will be conducted in Japanese. After meeting Rainer, students were inspired to visit H.I.S. Japan Premium Food & Travel and buy some of their favorite sweets and seasonings from Japan we all have missed so much during the travel ban. As long as the future of individual travel to Japan is uncertain, the shop provides a great alternative to those who do not want to do without delicacies from Japan. Thank you, Rainer for coming the long way to Dahlem and for sharing your experiences with us!