Saturday, 22 June 2013

Japanese Hospitality

The Legendary Kindness of The Japanese to Strangers

Today some fellow long-distance cyclists, who are currently travelling through Japan and experiencing this phenomenon, asked on Facebook whether others had experienced similar kindness when travelling by bike. I felt I should reply, since in Japan in particular I have experienced it a great deal.

The Japanese word for foreigners is Gaijin. Literally this means 'outside people'. It has been translated by some as 'aliens', since it sounds rather xenophobic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Japanese love visitors and like to show them great hospitality. They are concerned to give a good impression of their country. They seem to see it as their moral human duty as much as a national tradition. Imagine if everyone in the world was like that!

Back in the early to mid-80's I used to live in Japan as an English teacher. I met my wife there in fact (a fellow TEFL Teacher). Early on, before I met Lorna, my friend Steve and I needed to go to South Korea to renew our visa. We were low on cash so we decided to hitchhike down to Shimonoseki to take the boat. The Japanese didn't know what hitchhiking was back then. It was tough getting lifts but when we did, the people were incredibly kind and helpful - taking us out of their way. It's a long time ago but I suppose it must have been on the second day, a man picked us up and we got into vigorous conversation. He was excited about having this opportunity to talk to young foreigners (we were around 21 and 25). He was going to his brother's wedding, he explained. Later we stopped and he insisted on buying us lunch. He phoned his brother. Re-starting, he then insisted we should join him at his brother's wedding. We were invited, he said. Can you imagine how amazing that was for us? We stayed an extra night and left for Korea the next day wondering what had hit us! This is only one example of the hospitality we encountered on that short trip and one of the many experiences I had living there for two years.

Back to recent times. Fairly near to the end of our big trip, cycling from Ireland to Japan, my son Sam and I found ourselves on Shikoku island at the start of the Golden Week public holiday. I was reminded that during this holiday, hotels, hostels and B&Bs charged a premium and were very over-subscribed. We spent hours riding around the lovely small city of Kochi, looking for accommodation. People tried hard to help but everything was full. Finally, feeling very tired, we went to the tourist office at the central railway station. There we were helped by enthusiastic students doing a holiday job. Against the odds they managed to find us a traditional ryokan (Japanese family run B&B). It was expensive but we felt lucky and extremely relieved. We stayed for two days and were royally treated. Each day we found special Japanese treats left in our room and discovered that all our clothing had been washed and ironed by the old grandmother. By the third day we felt sad to leave. The whole family came out to wave us off. As we left the old grandma handed us a substantial packed lunch each.
"What amazing, kind people," we said as we rode away.

100kms later we stopped by a mountain stream to eat our picnic lunch. Unpacking mine, I found that the money we had paid for our two night's stay had been neatly wrapped and put inside. You don't find hospitality like that every day.

The river where we ate lunch and discovered the money

 One puncture in 10,000miles and it happened in Shikoku

 Kochi Castle. Sam and I were taken places by local people who befriended us

Owner of a bar demonstrates some Japanese dancing. This bar was closed for Golden Week but a friend we met (Kenichi Harada) asked them to open it especially for us - which of course, being Japanese, they did.

To read more about the amazing father and son journey from Ireland to Japan by bicycle, just click on the links in the right-hand margin of this blog. Thanks for reading.


  1. Mark, what you say reminds me the experience that my wife and I had in Japan 30 years ago when we chose this country for honeymoon. We met amazing people all around, sometimes having just a smile and a friendly pat on the back to communicate. Japanese people are very curious and everything concerning we as Italians was incredibly interesting for them. We left a bit of our hearts over there! Valerio

    1. Hi Valerio
      A great place for a honeymoon.
      Yes, I remember when I was living there in the early 1980's that when I asked Japanese people (as a teacher) what nationality they would like to be if not Japanese, most of them said Italian.
      Lorna and I will be coming to Tuscana for the month of August (by camper-van). Going to the Palio in Sienna around the middle of the month. Seems quite a long way from Abruzzo though.
      All the best