I have wanted to visit Japan for a long time and several friends of mine were interested in going with me, but somehow it never worked out. Not enough holiday time, or we did not have time off at the same time. Finally I decided to go by myself, or maybe I’d never make it there. As I had managed to convert a lot of overtime work from te previous year to extra holiday time, this spring was the chance for me to go. I already knew a handful of people in Japan, whom I was going to meet, and I had also made contacts through Servas and was going to meet two families while I was in Japan. I had heard from a couple of people that it might be difficult to make Japanese friends along the way, as they were often quite reserved. This is something I’d definitely like to deny. That was not my impression at all. Everywhere I went I met extremely open, friendly and wonderful people, who were very interested in talking to me and showed a genuine interest in what I had to say. It may be true that if you stay at hotels and inns all the time, it can be difficult to talk to people, because most of the people I met there did not speak a lot of English. And as I don’t speak Japanese, communication would be rather sluggish.

However, it happened more than once that people crossed the street in order to come over and talk to me, ask me where I was from, and told me to let them know if I needed any assistance, etc. In those cases I guess I was more reserved than the Japanese, and slightly taken aback at their interest. If I ever hesitated for a moment at a street corner (sometimes I simply looked for the most adventurous looking way, not the direct route), I would be approached immediately by someone offering to give me directions. One time I asked a woman waiting at a bus stop a question. She did not understand English, but I got a clear signal from her: 'Don’t move from this spot!' and she rushed into a shop and came back with someone who spoke English.

Good-will guides

It seems that Japanese friendliness starts at an early age. One day at Wajima, a small town by the Japan Sea, I was in a shop and a little girl stood in an aisle, looking at the goods on the shelves while humming. (I talked to her mother afterwards and found out she was 2 years and 10 months). Suddenly she turned her head, had eye contact with me and her eyes and mouth were wide open, 'Ooohh! There were other people in our aisle but she only stared at me, for a long time. Then she just smiled and in her baby voice said a clear 'konnichi wa!' I returned her greeting, and she laughed and offered me a half eaten cookie. Although I took that as a great honour I turned down her offer, and by then her mother had caught up with her and I started talking to her. The little girl was waving for a long time as I left the shop. It made me wonder: what is it that either makes children interested in instead of afraid of anyone who looks 'different'?

On my way by train from Kyoto to Fukuoka I got to talk to a very nice man from Hiroshima. When he found out I was planning to visit Hiroshima on my way back, he gave me his card, told me he was a good-will guide and asked me to please call before I came to Hiroshima, as he would love to show me his city. My stay at Hiroshima was very short, and I never did call, unfortunately. My only regret in connection with visiting Japan is that the six weeks I spent still did not allow enough time.

The only people I encountered who weren't polite - I'd go as far as saying they seemed pretty ruthless - were fast moving businessmen at large. My first experience with them was when I travelled from Kanazawa to Tokyo and had to change to the Shinkansen at Maibara station. There was a veritable stampede of men in suits rushing from one platform via the footbridge to another platform. They steamrolled everything and everyone in their way. Survival of the fittest in practice. I do not expect any favours. I can take care of myself, although I did have the disadvantage of having to carry my suitcase as I was trying to keep up with the moving mob instead of being run over by it. Somehow I managed to jump on the train just before the doors closed. Phew! Another day I went through Tokyo during rush hour. Big mistake! I thought I knew what a crowded subway carriage looked like, but I didn't. Those that I had been in before had only been half full compared to this one. No reservations against body contact here. Not even sardines in a tin are as close together as we were. No matter how full the carriage was, people made a run-up on the platform and jumped into the mass of people inside the carriage. Sometimes it took more than one attempt until they got stuck between two other people and managed to stay inside when the doors closed. At a point a man held his briefcase in front of him and bulldozed me up against a metal railing so I got jammed in between him and a railing. I could hardly move my chest to breathe. A scary feeling, to tell you the truth, but we were only two stations from the end of the line and I somehow managed to keep calm. Out on the platform afterwards a man collapsed. I felt as if I had just gone through a combine harvester. Luckily I managed to escape the reaper-binder.

If I had only 'seen the sights' my stay in Japan would not have been the same. The people I meet while travelling are much more important to me. I have been a member of Servas for 40 years and am still amazed whenever people invite a 'stranger' to stay as a member of their family for a few days. It has been a unique way for me to experience what the everyday is like for a Japanese family. I highly recommend this organization (see my links page).

I am especially grateful for the time I spent with my Japanese friends, and friends of friends. Thanks for inviting me into your homes, for introducing me to your family and friends, for taking time off from work in order to spend time with me, for those long drives to show me your favourite places, for the delicious home cooked meals, for taking me to your favourite restaurant, for praising my chopstick technique (and for managing to almost pretend you did not notice when I catapulted a slice of carrot across the table one day), for teaching me a little Japanese, for our long talks and for bearing with this crazy Scandinavian who is not always familiar with Japanese etiquette. Thanks, simply for being the wonderful people you are! Domo arigato!

Japanese lunch

© emenel 2020