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By ran Ngoc Lam Vy

At first look, Komaba campus, where every student of the University of Tokyo spends at least two years, appears as tranquil as it can be. The campus is so quiet that one can hear the rustling of the trees and birds chirping in the morning. Who would think that just a few hours later, complete chaos would occur as students stream to the cafeteria, also lovingly known as “shokudou.”

Food counters in the Komaba cafeteria. Photo by author.

Food counters in the Komaba cafeteria. Photo by author.

As second period ends at 12:10 p.m, the rush hour begins. Students from every building and classroom hurry to the cafeteria, walking so fast that one might think they are starving, which could be true in some cases, but mostly, it is a race for seats. The normal self-serve cafeteria lunch in most countries would go something like this: get a tray at the door, get food, pay for the food and sit down to enjoy the meal.

At Komaba, if you follow that process, you will find yourself with a heavy tray frantically searching for a place to sit down. With four counters for ordering set lunches, noodles, curry and rice bowls, four check-out counters, a self-serve salad bar on both floors and efficient staff, it takes a maximum of 15 minutes to be able to hold a tray of a hearty meal in your hands. But with the limited number of tables and chairs, the common novice mistake is getting food before getting seats, especially when you want to enjoy lunch with a group of friends. Even if you look for a table beforehand, it will still be a difficult task to find a table. There will be empty seats, but they will have been “reserved.” Students put their bags, umbrellas, even their scarves down to mark their temporary ownership of the table.

Even at 4 pm, the "shokudou" is still packed with students. Photo by author.

Even at 4 pm, the “shokudou” is still packed with students. Photo by author.

So, what to do if your class runs longer than expected, but you still want to have lunch at the cafeteria? The answer is: stay alert. Look for seats before queuing for food and learn to covertly see if students at a table are finished with their food. Once your target is locked, wait around a bit until they leave, put your bags down and hurry back after you get your food. Because even if you’ve marked a table, your chair might not be where it should when you return.

Is all this worth it? The answer is yes. The curry at the cafeteria is so addictive that some students can have it at least four times a week! What is more, as winter draws near, the cafeteria is the ideal location for a lunch or dinner gathering. With hot food and a warm, bustling atmosphere, the competition for seats is not a chore, but part of the fun!


Tran Ngoc Lam Vy is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.

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