Arie is a small town of about 8000 residents on the western shore of the Shimabara Peninsula
. It is a close knit community of farmers, most of whom grow two crops of rice each year. The majority of the homes are built in the traditional Japanese style, with ornate roofs and rich, varied gardens and shared by extended members of the family.
Arie has two things that set it apart from the rest of the towns on the Peninsula. The first is the huge Jusco just off the main route, the 251, in the south of the city. Jusco, a national chain, is very much like Wal-mart in North America, containing products for all your household and personal needs. The second is the karaoke trailer park where, for 1500¥ an hour, you and a dozen of your friends can sing your favorite songs in a fully refurbished trailer. Gives a whole new meaning to trailer trash.
Kim, Manon and I had just crossed the busy 251 into the rice paddies on the south side of Arie. We were quietly, slowly strolling under the burdensome heat of the noon sun, listening to the gentle sounds of the wind blowing through the rice. We were full of yakisoba and somewhat giddy from all the Japanese stationary we had been reading at Jusco. We had no plans other than to wander aimlessly along the edge of the rice paddies, gawking at the huge houses next to them, imagining what they were like inside. That was when the old man pulled up behind us.
He was in his 70's and wobbling along on a rusty bicycle, most likely older than any of us, if not the combination of us. As had become habit over the past week, we stopped and said our konichiwa's. He let out a little cry of surprise, returned our greetings with several bows and, getting off his bicycle, started to walk along with us. Our combined knowledge of Japanese, enabled us to translate that he had gone to the bank only to find it closed. I am an old man, he told us, I forgot it was Sunday. Then he laughed at his own error and continued to stare at us as if we were from another planet.
Truth is, we might as well have been. While Japan has been open to the outside world for well over a century and most Japanese have access to Western culture through television and imported films and music, the majority of residents outside of the city centers have not been face to face with gaijin. Our new friend couldn't resist getting a good look at us. Despite how this might sound, it was neither intrusive nor rude, maybe because it was born of such curiosity.
After a few minutes of stunted conversation and confused exchanges, we realized he was inviting us over for tea. A few more steps and we were outside the front door of one the massive houses we had been admiring. He slid open the doors and motioned us inside. The house was all that I had read about and seen pictures of back home. The front entrance, the genkan, was several steps below the rest of the house and stepping up, I noticed that the entire first floor was made up of tatami matts. I had thought myself lucky that one of the rooms in my apartment had tatami, but here was a whole house of them. The rooms were separated by sliding doors, all of them open to let the air through on such a hot and humid day. There was little else in the house, other than pretty watercolor pictures and hanging cloths.
The old man scurried ahead of us, disappearing into a back room, calling out to his wife that he had three foreigners with him. We were left in the middle of the house, admiring its simplicity and elegant aestetic. When he reappeared, he led us into the sitting room, the only one we had seen with any furniture in it. His wife came in, and like many of the elderly women I have seen in Ariake cho, she was severly hunched over so much that her body resembled a question mark and her head was almost below her knees.
Then we got a taste of real Japanese hospitality. We sat on the floor, like proper Japanese ladies, our legs tucked underneath us. We were served orange juice and ocha by the man's daughter as well as mysterious yet delicious cookies and cakes. We talked for about an hour, again, amasssing our limited knowledge of Japanese and laughing when we failed completeley to reach any understanding. We learned that the man and his wife knew all about Niagara Falls and that guns are a big problem in the USA. The only token of Canada we had between the three of us was a cent I found in my wallet. We tried to leave it with them, but thinking it was an offered payment for the refreshments, it was refused. We were unable to relate to him that the worth of the coin was purely symbolic.
We politely took our leave and the family walked us to the genkan. We stepped down, put our shoes and when we turned around to say farewell, the old man and his wife and daughter, were all on their knees, their fingertips pressed into the tatami in front of them, gently bowing to us over and over again, while thanking us for visiting, asking us to come again whenever we could and saying farewell.
We walked away, stunned. Japanese formality may just be formality, but it is both welcoming and full of kindness.