Once upon a time, there was a foreigner in Kanita (who wasn’t me or the other English teacher in town). It was an event. In less than 24 hours, nearly everyone in town knew about it. For anonymity’s sake, his name was John.
John-san had just begun a week of solo travel, after which he planned to meet up with friends for another three. He had meandered into Kanita hoping to spend the night in town and then catch the Hakucho Limited Express train to Hakodate, Hokkaido in the morning. But on March 26, 2016, the new Hokkaido Shinkansen opened and effectively ended the Hakucho line from Kanita. 残念。John was unaware and thus continued to set up camp for the night. I’m guessing he’s very happy he did.
Somehow, he had gotten ahold of an ancient map of the local bayside park and chose that as his camping spot. Kanita gets cold. And windy. Especially at night from about mid Fall to early Spring. Struggling to set up his tent 一人で in the middle of a dark mildly stormy evening, he was met by a sweet elderly couple from town. They stopped to let him know it was far too cold and windy, and to invite him to stay at their house for the night. John didn’t speak Japanese. They didn’t speak English. I’m guessing many a gesture was used. Eventually, he ditched the tent for a warm indoor evening, a hot home meal and the gracious company of complete strangers. Good choice.
In the morning, the couple brought John-san into the office to talk to me. I hadn’t met either of them before but, being one of only two foreigners in this town, I am no longer surprised that everyone knows who I am, where I work and what I do. 笑。I got to meet the mystery foreigner!
John was from Michigan; a substitute teacher, teaching math and science in between hiking and camping trips. This was only his third day in Japan. He had absolutely no idea what was going on, but there was no doubt he was grateful beyond words (due to both the language barrier and sheer bewilderment). When complete strangers go so far out of their way just to help you, it’s a little hard to process, at least from an American standpoint.
The couple could see his confusion and wanted me to translate and express Japanese “omotenashi” for them. Omotenashi is the Japanese word meaning “hospitality.” But, as with so many foreign words, it doesn’t translate quite well in English. Omotenashi goes beyond mere hospitality. In a sense, it is hospitality in its purest, most selfless and genuine form. Together, “omote” meaning surface and “nashi” meaning without, roughly translate to mean sincere and authentic service with no expectations.
This is something that is at the core of Japanese culture, and is especially evident and humbling in the inaka (the countryside). Thus, it was difficult to translate for 外人様John but I think he understood. The couple’s actions probably spoke much louder than my broken Japanese/English words. With a trying effort to express his thanks, John’s adopted inaka host parents drove him to the proper shinkansen station and he was off to Hakodate.
People in town talked about 珍しいJohn-san many days after his departure, but I like to think that he will continue to talk about his experience in Kanita for much longer.