On the Kindness of Strangers Part I: Japan 2008

New Englanders are not known for their politeness.* In Massachusetts, where my parents have lived for the past eight years, residents take their “masshole” nicknames to heart- terrorizing the roadways and Yankee fans everywhere. It’s only when I travel outside this area that I realise how odd this behavior really is.

In July 2008, my family and I had just arrived in the middle of a particularly excruciating heat wave- the kind where walking more than five steps required a hearty swig of water and then another five seconds to recover from such an exhausting act—and we were starving. Having arrived mid-day, in the middle of the business district with no food places in sight, we were truly becoming desperate.

My father decided to ask a nearby workman for directions. Now, I wish that I could say that my mum and I encouraged his gesture to move beyond sterile tourist information booths and interact with local residents. Instead, we stood back in the shade, mocking his attempt to communicate with some who surely wouldn’t understand his gesture of mime-chewing and pointing at empty buildings. (Yes yes I know we are awful humans…I blame the hunger).

As expected, the workman stared blankly and retreated into the cool building behind him. Mum and I prepared ourselves for a hearty chorus were of “I told you so,” when a man in a nice black suit emerged from the beautiful air conditioning, gestured for my father to follow him and headed down the block. Stunned and speechless, my father followed the man.  We in turn, more stunned and even more speechless, followed my father.

And we walk. And walked. And walked some more. We left the already sparsely populated business district, and wove through the long series of residential neighbourhoods. With each passing house, we wondered whether the man knew that we were seeking food not shelter.

After about fifteen minutes of walking, the businessman stopped and pointed at a small house, gesturing for us to go in. Not wanting to be rude, we got ready to pretend to check-in to the hotel and wait for him to leave so we could venture out in search of food. The man, sensing our general disbelief, gestured for us to follow him inside the courtyard. Oh boy, I thought, we’re going to have to explain to another person that we already have a hotel.

We walked past a beautiful koi pond, and garden and into a small three room house, complete with takami mats, and a space to leave your shoes. Out of nowhere a woman appeared, in a kimono, exchanged several words with the man, and then said the most glorious words “please follow me, I shall seat you for lunch.” As turned to man, he bowed and without a word or moment to receive our long speech of gratitude, he quickly left the building to make his long journey back to the office building.

*

* Don’t be mistaken- New Englanders can be the kindest, most gentle people around. We just don’t like to publicize this fact, less more Yankee Fans decide to come up.

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(Following our amazing guide)

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