Posted on Tue May, 2, 2017 at 2:04 PM
One of my favourite parts of living in Japan is the friendliness of the people. While it is very true that you should not over generalize about any group of people or any population from any given country, it is also true that there are certain situations that do occur more frequently in each country that you visit on our planet. I would say that one of these truths is that Japanese people are very proud of their country, culture, and values. So proud that they will, more often than not, go out of their way to make visitors feel comfortable or even revered. Most of you have probably seen or heard about Christel Takegawa’s speech during the bid for the 2020 Olympics. In her speech she stressed the “Omotenashi” concept in Japan. “Omotenashi” is a cornerstone of Japanese culture that represents the height of selfless hospitality and the ability to anticipate every need of a guest in order to provide ultra high levels of service.
While I have experienced “Omotenashi” over and over in my experiences in Japan, I have one special story that always springs to mind whenever I hear anyone talking about this concept. What follows is a story that should make this concept a little easier to understand. In addition, this story happens to have taken place during the Golden Week holiday in Japan, which is currently upon us.
Golden Week holiday in Japan is a cluster of four national holidays that all fall within one week in late April and early May. The dates are April 29th, May 3rd, 4th, and 5th to be exact. Because of the close proximity of these holidays, many people in Japan take two or three days of extra holidays at that time and create a seven to ten day break that roughly corresponds to a type of spring break. About fifteen or sixteen years ago, while I was living in Shizuoka, I decided to take the Golden Week holiday and use it to visit a relatively little known area of Japan: Southern Kyushu and Kikai Jima (Kikai Island). My girlfriend at the time had relatives on her father’s side of the family who were from the southern Kyushu area of Japan. One of her female cousins had married a man from Kikaijima and so we decided to go and visit her family's ancestral home in a town called Kanoya, near Kagoshima city and Sakurajima volcano in southern Kyushu. After that we would visit Kikai Jima, which is one of the Southern Islands situated roughly halfway between mainland Japan and Okinawa. None of her relatives would be on Kikaijima when we were there, but we were told that people on the island were very friendly.
After a long and very crowded shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Shizuoka to Kagoshima city, we were greeted at the station by my girlfriend’s aunt. Despite being in fairly poor health, she came to greet us at the station and accompanied us the two or three kilometers to the ferry terminal that would take us across the bay to Sakurajima where we would catch a bus that would then take us to Kanoya where my girlfriend’s cousins lived and where the house that her father had grown up in was located. We chatted briefly with her in her car while she drove us from the station to the port. She stood with us in line for the ferry and waved to us as we sailed away across the bay towards the massive volcano that dominated the opposite shore. I thought this might be some type of “omotenashi” spirit as there really was no reason to escort us to the port. However, family is very important in Japan so I guess that accounted for the effort she made. After taking a few pictures and enjoying a bus ride, we arrived in Kanoya and were picked up by my girlfriend’s cousin. She drove us to the old family house that no one was living in at the moment. The cousin kept it clean and visited every month to maintain it. We visited the family graves that were adjacent to the house (common in rural Japan) and I found out that her grandfather (or maybe it was great grandfather) had died in the war. He had been a Kamikaze pilot.
That evening we went to an izakaya (Japanese pub) that was run by another of my girlfriend’s cousins and her family. Needless to say we ate and drank for free and every sip I took of the local imojochu (a potato based alcohol) was replaced as soon as I put my glass down. The most shocking thing to me was that the cousins drank at a much more furious pace that I could ever hope to match. It seems that in southern Kyushu, people, and the women in particular, take great pride in their ability to consume the local drink. We definitely felt welcome and great efforts were made to ensure that we had a good time.
The next morning, the cousin (who had absolutely no signs of any hangover whatsoever) drove us to the airport since we were planning to fly to Kikaijima at mid-morning. In the small domestic airline terminal, we sampled some sweet potato ice cream, sweet potato beer, and many other dishes that utilized the staple vegetable of southern Kyushu. The flight was about one hour and when I looked out of the airplane window at Kikaijima, I was amazed at how small it actually was. We landed and walked off the airplane, across the tarmac, and into the tiny air terminal. We then walked out of the terminal and across the street to the Ryokan (Japanese inn) where we were going to stay. We checked in and were told by the owner that dinner was at 6pm in the tiny cafeteria next to the front entrance. The entire inn had six rooms and despite being the busiest time of the year, four of the rooms were vacant. Our room, which was just a four tatami mat square with a telephone and a TV, was clean and sparse. After changing into our summer clothing, we ventured out for a walk. We soon learned that the island had one main road that circled the island, so we decided to reserve a car for the following morning so we could drive around and explore the beaches.
The first example of “Omotenashi” hospitality on the island came when we tried to book a car for the whole of the next day. The lady in the car rental shop, politely told us that we could rent the car for the whole day, but really we could see all there was to see on the island in less than four hours. It would be a waste of money, in her opinion, to rent the car for any long than four hours. We thanked her and did just that. We would find out the next day that even with stops for soaking our feet in the Pacific Ocean water at the beaches, lunch, and short hikes, we only needed the car for just over two hours.
After making the rental reservation we decided to walk to the nearest beach. It was only a ten-minute walk and we were immediately awed at how blue the water was and how white the sand was. The island’s sand was all of the coral variety so it was so white that it almost blinded your eyes to look at it. As we walked along the shore, it became immediately obvious that few foreign visitors made their way to Kikaijima. Some of the high school kids on holiday came running up to me to try out their English and after a few strained sentences, the conversation swung to Full-Japanese mode as I explained that I was from Canada and “No, I’m not US military”. In a show of “Omotenashi” they welcomed us to their island and said that they wished that I could be their English teacher.
After the high school girls ran off, with their curiosity satisfied, I noticed a picnic table with four old, and very tanned, men eating “kakipea” (peanuts and spicy rice cracker pieces) and drinking “kokuto shochu” (liquor made from brown sugar and mineral rich water). Before I could even give them a second glance they were calling us over to join them. They immediately asked if I was US military and when I responded in Japanese to the negative, they were so shocked that they asked my girlfriend if I was lying. She told them I wasn’t and they immediately gave me a plastic cup and filled it with the clear, sweet alcohol. They poured a pile of “kakipea” on a napkin in front of me and started in on the feverish, albeit friendly, interrogation. I tried to take it all in stride and I soon learned that on this island most of the adults were involved in two industries. The brewing of Kokuto shochu or fishing. The rest of the people were involved in tourism, however the neighboring island of Amami Oshima was a much bigger and more popular destination. Tourists on Kikaijima, and especially foreign tourists, were still a fairly rare breed. We chatted for about an hour and the whole time I sat at that picnic table, my plastic cup never fell below 90% full. I learned that the people of Kikaijima take great pride in their shochu and equal pride in the local seafood that we had yet to sample.
We made it back to the inn just before 6pm and after taking a cold shower in the communal shower and bath area we slide open the door to the cafeteria/dining room to reveal no one in the room. We were told to be there at 6pm so we sat down and marvelled at the collection of shochu bottles lining the walls. There must have been over two hundred bottles made up of probably over fifty types of shochu. Soon, the same man who had greeted and checked us in earlier (the owner) walked in with a large smile and our dinners (there were no choices) and asked us what we wanted to drink. Not knowing much about shochu (except what the guys on the beach had told me earlier) I decided to ask for a draft beer to go along with my vegetables and fish. The owner seemed a little disappointed but poured me the beer anyways. After bringing our beers over he sat down and started grilling me about who we were and what we were doing here. I answered as best as I could and he reiterated the point that most of the foreign visitors to the island were of the US military sort. During our conversation I mentioned that I had enjoyed the local shochu on the beach earlier that afternoon and I immediately knew that that had been the right thing to say. A huge smile spread across the owner’s face and he quickly grabbed a bottle of “Kikaijima” shochu off the wall. He filled two glasses and told us to enjoy the local drink “free of charge”. In the true “omotenashi” spirit, the owner wanted us to enjoy the local fare without the obligation of any monetary complications. It was delicious and as he scurried off to the kitchen to prepare a meal for the other two guests who had entered the cafeteria, I mentioned to my girlfriend that I could definitely get used to this almost rum-like island liquor. After we finished our meals we thanked the owner and asked him if he had any recommendations for bars we could visit on the island. He told us that the building next door was a bar and that the “Mama-san” (female bar owner) was a good friend of his. All we had to do was mention his name and we would be treated as honored guests.
So, we walked the 24 seconds to the next building and walked into a very Japanese style “izakaya” pub with a row of tatami mats with tables, a long bar counter, a wall of Kikaijima shochu bottles with various names written on them, two ladies behind the bar, and one older gentlemen sitting at the bar singing karaoke. As soon as we sat down at the bar, it was obvious to all involved that tonight was going to be different than the average night at the bar. We were asked what we wanted and again, mostly out of force of habit, we ordered a draft beer. Again we were met with a slightly disappointed look but after we went through the customary conversation about who we were, where we had come from, and why we were in this izakaya on that night, the beers were gone and the gentleman sitting next to us had invited us to share his bottle of kikaijima shochu. Again, he refused to let me reciprocate in any way for his sharing of his bottle and instead just asked me to sing some Japanese “enka” (traditional music) with him. For the rest of the night, I drank and sang for free and at the end of the night he told me that he was a high school principal from the neighboring island of Amami. He then told me that if I ever wanted to relocate and work for him, the job was always open. As we left I realized that I hadn’t mentioned the name of the owner from the inn next door. It didn’t matter.
The next day we picked up our rental car and headed out around the island on the one main road. We stopped at every place that looked half interesting and we noted that the island was pretty empty. Perhaps that was because of the Golden Week holiday, or perhaps it was because Kikaijima is just not able to compete with its bigger sister island next door. At any rate, we had a nice morning exploring all the beaches, rocks, and parks on the island. In the afternoon we decided to walk around the area adjacent to our inn. We noticed that next to the airport there was a small par-3 golf course that had some stunning views of the ocean. We decided to walk into the clubhouse and ask about how much a round of golf would cost. We found out that a round cost about 2500 yen (about 25$) and that we needn’t reserve a tee time if we wanted to play. It was getting too late to play that afternoon, but I thought that maybe we could try a round on our final day on the island. As we were leaving the clubhouse we noticed the owner of our inn sitting at a table having drinks with some of his friends. One of whom had been present at the picnic table on that first day. They waved to us and I declined an invitation to join them since we need to shower before dinner to wash off all the suntan lotion and sand. That evening we went back to the cafeteria in the inn and this time when we sat down the owner had put a bottle of the local kokuto shochu on the table for us. He repeated that there would be no charge for the shochu but that if we wanted to drink beer, we had to pay. He also brought over a sleeve of golf balls and said that “If you play golf tomorrow, please use these balls”. I thanked him profusely and got started on my dinner.
About halfway through the dinner he came out and apologized because he had to go to his mother’s house for some reason. He said that we could help ourselves to any of the shochu on the wall or we could pour ourselves more beer if we wanted it. We could just refill our mugs from the beer tap in the kitchen. He would be back in an hour. Essentially, he was leaving the whole inn empty with the two of us free to drink whatever we wanted and leave whenever we were done. The “omotenashi” level was starting to go from impressive to through the roof. After dinner we went back to the pub next door and sang the night away with the two women who ran it as no other customers showed up.
The next morning was the start of our last day on the island. We decided to take our free sleeve of golf balls and try our hand at a round of golf. While the views were impressive, the location of the course meant that wind was a huge factor in how you played each hole. There was a decided hook to every shot on the outward nine and a decided slice on the inward nine and I think I got an idea of what playing links golf is like in Scotland (on a mini scale). After that we packed our bags and tried to think of a plan for the evening.
Our travel plan was to take the overnight ferry back to Kagoshima that evening and then hop on the shinkansen in the morning and return to Shizuoka. However, from the time that we checked out of the inn, in the early afternoon, until the ferry left at 9pm, we had no plan. We had decided to buy the cheapest ferry tickets possible since we had splurged on the flight to the island three days earlier. So, we decided to walk to the port and buy the general ferry ticket, which meant that we would have to sleep in a big tatami room on the ship with all the other passengers without anything but your clothes and backpack to sleep on. After we bought the tickets we would find a restaurant or a pub and drink and eat enough to make sleeping on the tatami floor a little easier during the twelve-hour ferry ride. So at around two in the afternoon we started walking to the port.
After we bought our tickets, we searched for about a half an hour and could only find one pub that was relatively close to the port. It was about a ten-minute walk and when we arrived at the pub we slid open the door to see the counter filled with four very tanned old men, another silver-haired tanned old man behind the counter and an attractive older woman in a kimono standing next to him. We found a seat at the counter and I made the silly decision to order a draft beer. The silver-haired master of the establishment just grunted and shook his head.
“You don’t want beer. You want shochu.” Was all he said.
“OK, I’ll have a kokuto shochu.” I said. “Oh, and I’ll take a plate of karaage (fried chicken).
“You don’t want karaage” he said, “You want this fish. It was just caught this morning by that guy.” He pointed to a very tanned older gentlemen sitting two stools away from us. “It is very delicious”.
“Ok, I’ll have the fish” I said.
He was right of course. And his gruff tone slowly melted away as we chatted and ate. The fish was delicious and it paired perfectly with the rum-like shochu. After I finished the first glass I noticed that two of the four men sitting at the bar were from the picnic table on the first day. I said hello to them and they said something to the master about why I was here and why I could speak Japanese. From that point on, for the next three hours, the guy sitting to my left replaced every sip that I took from my shochu glass from his own bottle. Over the course of the evening we all became great friends and when the master and his wife started up the karaoke machine I was encouraged to sing along with the local songs about Kikaijima and life on an island. Luckily I was able to read most of the words as they were displayed on the tiny TV screen and everyone clapped and cheered as I muddled my way through the songs. Sometimes I sang with the master, sometimes I sang with the mama-san. They were very good singers – I was horrible – but it didn’t matter.
At about 8pm I told the master that we would need to get the bill so we could walk to the port and get in line for the ferry since it was leaving at 9pm. He told us that we could stay until 8:30 – “giri giri made!” (until the last minute!) So we sang a few more songs, ate some more fish, and drank some more shochu. At 8:30 we really had to go so I asked for the bill and was not really shocked to see a total that was suspiciously low. Less than 50$ for two people to eat and drink for four hours meant that none of the drinks and songs were on the bill – just the food. But the “omotenashi” didn’t stop there. The man sitting to my left told me that he worked at the shochu distillery so he grabbed a full bottle off the shelf and gave it to me. “This is for the ferry ride” he said. Then the mama-san pulled out a wrapped bento box (lunch box) and said, “There are onigiri (rice balls) in here for the ferry ride”. We thanked her profusely. Then the master called out to the man sitting at the far end of the bar. “You work for the ferry company, can you take them and make sure that they don’t have to wait in line?”
“No problem” said the man at the end of the bar. Then the mama-san disappeared and then reappeared at the front door. “Come on!” she said, I’ll drive you to the port”. As we hopped in her car, she drove us the five minutes to the port and said that if we were ever in Kikaijima again, we shouldn’t book a room at the inn. We should instead stay on the tatami mat floors of her pub. I said we would, but I have never been back. She hugged us and drove off.
Then the man at the end of the bar who worked for the ferry company ushered us into the ferry terminal office. “Give me your tickets” he said. So I handed him my tickets and to my utter shock, he ripped them up and threw them in the garbage. Then he got two new tickets from the woman behind the desk and said, “Here, show these to the guys at the gates. Have a good trip!” We thanked him but still had no idea why he had to give us new tickets. We figured that they must have been some kind of “skip the line” tickets. When we got to the ferry gates, with our backpacks filled with shochu and rice balls from our new friends, the ferry staff smiled and ushered us past all the people waiting in line to get on the ferry. When we got on the ferry we were shown to an air-conditioned private room with comfortable bunkbeds. There would be no sleeping on the floor for us! We found out later that the room was only for employees of the ferry line. The man at the bar had given us his own private tickets so that we could ride the twelve hours back to Kagoshima in comfort.
As the ferry pulled out of the port, I had to shake my head at the heights of the “omotenashi” spirit that we had experienced over the last three days. From the moment we stepped on the island, until the moment we left, we were treated with a level of friendliness, trust, and respect that was almost impossible to believe. To this day, it is still one of the best Golden Week holidays I have ever had and definitely the best example of Japanese “omotenashi” spirit.