Japan Trip Report: Omotenashi with a Smile

“Omotenashi” refers to the bend-over-backwards nature of Japanese hospitality, and we certainly experienced that during a two week trip that ended July 27.  Trying to focus on my experience and surroundings makes the difference between being a tourist and a traveler, so I journaled almost daily. This is the first in a series of posts about a trip with my husband and 21-year-old son, who is a Japanese major at University of Puget Sound and just completed a semester living with a host family while taking courses at Kanda University for International Studies in Tokyo. As an overview, we started in Tokyo, ventured up the west coast to Northern Honshu, crossed into southern Hokkaido (through the longest railroad tunnel in the world), played for three days in Sapporo, and returned to Tokyo for our final two days.

Outside Imperial Palace

July 13, 2013: Service with a Bow

After landing at Narita airport , we waited at the bus stop for the precise arrival – and departure – of the 4:20 p.m. airport shuttle. As the bus pulled in, the ticket taker and baggage handler both bowed at an exact 45 degree angle – human upside down L’s – a pose they held until the door opened.

photo[2]It’s easy to admire the orderly and ingenious Japanese, who turn pesky or trivial daily experiences into opportunities for innovation or cuteness (“kawaii,” かわいい). After stepping out of the shower in the hotel bathroom, for example, I noticed a distinct, clear square in the otherwise fogged mirror. Warm to the touch, I figured out that the bathroom mirror was heated to prevent fogging up.

Most of the time, I admire these clever novelties, but I find a few of them annoying. Heated toilet seats, while pleasant in the winter, are less pleasant in the hot and humid summer of Tokyo. I also found the automated babbling brook sound, which is triggered as soon as you sit down on the john, a bit silly.

That said, there’s a market for everything. My mother used to have a Southern friend named Vi who was anxious that anyone might hear her “tinkling,” so she would go down the hall and call out, “Can you hear me?” Vi would have found the latest model of Japanese toilets a relief.

July 14, 2013

Maybe we don’t notice our own cultural uniformity, but it’s hard to miss in Japan. Entering the hotel restaurant for breakfast, the hostess shouted out a timely greeting (“Good morning”, or “Ohayōgozaimasu”) to other staff as we were escorted to our table. It became a rolling chorus as other staff picked up the same refrain. When we left, the first staff member to see us exit called out “arigatō gozaimashita,” which was echoed by other staff. They greet and thank with great flourish.

Tokyo, where we stayed for three nights before heading north, is orderly, sophisticated, and – in July – hot. After enjoying the ANA Intercontinental’s breakfast buffet our first morning, we walked 20 minutes down Roppongi-dori (street) to the Imperial Palace grounds.

young tourist at the Imperial Palace

Tourists with their parade of colorful sun-blocking umbrellas lined up for photos in front of the graceful bridge that spans the protective moat. (Okay, so did we.) Behind sloped walls stone walls, a few buildings could be spotted through the trees. Without a reservation made through the Imperial Palace Household Guard, which can be as difficult to secure as a White House tour, that’s as far as we got. Palace guards sweltered in small guard stations in front of the gate, protecting the privacy and security of the Imperial Family, who continues to reside permanently in a shady compound atop the hill. Chosen by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1590, the site is at the heart of a concentrated government district that is an oasis of green among Tokyo’s concrete and glass highrises.

Walking around the palace, it’s easy to feel transported back in time. The original castle had 99 gates, some guarded by 100 warriors each. The man-tall blocks that comprise the stone walls look impenetrable.

We walked through the Outer Garden, past a few remaining guard houses and strolled through a building that houses a small collection of artifacts donated by the Imperial household in the early 20th century: several beautiful poetry books, artfully rendered in calligraphy, as well as painting books that were the portfolios of princes and princesses.

It’s a serene scene these days, but as recently as the 1800s, samurai assassinated a government official just outside one of the palace gates.

Besides being home of the Imperial family, the palace grounds are a popular running route. Starting at Sakurada-mon gate (gate of the field of cherry trees), the runners circuit the approximately 3 mile perimeter in a counter-clockwise direction (always counter clockwise, we’re told). Despite the high humidity and heat, most were in leggings or sweat pants, as well as long sleeves or gloves to avoid sun exposure. Even at 9 a.m., we were slick with sweat as we walked in our t-shirts and shorts.

Returning to the hotel, we lounged in our air-conditioned hotel room awaiting our son Thom’s arrival.

By the time he arrived at 4:45 p.m., the hotel was packed with Japanese tourists enjoying the three-day weekend due to the upcoming “Ocean Day” on Monday. Formerly known as “Marine Memorial Day” in honor of the Meiji Emperor’s trip to the northern part of Japan on an iron steamship he commissioned from Scotland, the holiday is now the first of the summer holidays and commemorates the “blessings of the oceans and economic prosperity of maritime Japan.”

This year, TV news highlighted the holiday by showing young girls frolicking in the waves off Fukushima, where the beach was re-opened following the March 2011 nuclear disaster. (A week later, Japanese officials publicly acknowledged that the reactor is leaking into the ocean there.)

With all of the hotel’s restaurants full to capacity, the very helpful Russell arrange for us to relax in the Club Lounge on the 35th floor. There Junko, a staff member, helped us to arrange dinner reservations – something we had not expected to be a problem but turned out to be a real challenge with the many Japanese holiday tourists in town. We enjoyed dining at “En,” a casually elegant restaurant on the 42nd floor of the Shiodome City Center. (The restaurant offered three types of seating: traditional Japanese rooms with seating on the tatami mat floor, modified Japanese seats with wells for feet, and western-style tables.)

We especially enjoyed the “tako” (grilled octopus dressed with dried fish flakes called mitsuba), tuna sashimi with avocado, “shiretoko” (chicken cooked table side on a sizzlingly hot stone), Japanese codfish in miso, asparagus served in a bamboo box on a bed of chopped ice, and boiled conger eel. The most expensive item, the shiretoko, was still only 1,350 yen, or about $13.50. Dinner for the three of us, which included two tall bottles of beer, was $112 (paid in cash, as per usual throughout most of Japan).

En

Higashi Shinbashi 1-5-2,Minato-ku,Tokyo

Next: The Happiest Place on Earth, Japan-Style

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