The Spirit of Omotenashi (お持て成し）
There are a million and one things I love about Japan--I could go on forever about the convenience stores and the food and the festivals and the food and the history and the food. Did I mention the food?
But if you ask anyone, no matter how long they’ve been here for, two weeks or two years, they will pretty much all agree that the Japanese people themselves are a jewel.
Now I’m not saying everything about everyone is all sunshine and daisies, I’ve had problems here and so has most everyone I know. However in my experience the number of kind things people have done for me, with absolutely no prompting, far outnumbers anything unpleasant!
This past weekend on my trip into Kamakura the idea of omotenashi, or the spirit of hospitality, was pounded into my head with clouds and rainbows. Slightly smothering, but oh, so welcome.
I had stayed in a hostel in Tokyo overnight so I could get an early start and there I met Sarah (yes, another one) from New Zealand--fresh off the plane for a winter working on the ski slopes of central Japan. I love meeting people you can talk to like you’ve known them forever and I got to explore with her on her first full day in Japan. It brought me back to how I felt when I saw everything for the first time. That “holy cow! I’m in Japan!” feeling, and I sincerely thank her for that.
We had trouble with the trains but when we finally got off at Kamakura Station no sooner had we put our stuff in lockers than these two little old ladies started shoving papers at us and talking faster than I could ever hope to comprehend!
Turns out they were from a small Buddhist temple up the way and were trying to invite people (particularly foreigners) to come and see how they worshiped. Sarah and I hadn’t yet come up with a silent means of communication so it took a lot of frantic and curious looks to end up just going with them. We had no plan, they were so old and tiny. What could it hurt?
Absolutely nothing is the answer and I got one of my favorite memories of Japan out of it! On the walk they were excited that I could speak some Japanese (their English didn’t exist outside of “where you from?”) and we were joined halfway there by a cheerful, little old man.
The first thing we did upon arriving at the temple was to be given gifts of beautiful o-hashi (chopsticks), English information pamphlets, and loads of snacks and tea. Even I didn’t need anything after that and yet still stuff was materializing in front of me.
The service itself saw us sitting in front with our helpers, a book of chants in front of us and being shown how to hold the prayer beads. The rhythm of the chants and wafts of smokey incense was very tranquil and you do feel yourself emptying your mind and falling into a meditative state.
Maybe two-thirds of the way through our helpers got us up and we went up to the altar and the leader for him to bless us, pray for the strength and happiness of our families and loved ones, and we’re pretty sure something in there got us adopted into the Buddhist temple because on our way out–after some more chanting– the other worshipers there that day applauded,welcomed, congratulated, and thanked us. You’re welcome?
If it hadn’t been such a beautiful day, after more snacks, basically becoming adopted grandchildren (we got hugs! Do you know how rare that is in Japan?!), pictures, and an invitation to someday visit the main temple near Mt. Fuji together, they would have driven us to wherever we wanted to go next and we would have let them. But we had decided to walk the trail to Koutoku-in (home of the daibutsu, the giant Buddha) and the entrance was nearby so they settled on walking us halfway and giving us a lot of instructions. And more hugs!
If that wasn’t enough omotenashi for you, hold onto your hats!
Even with all those directions, we still wound up lost and while looking at a map of a park, an older gentleman (73 years-old, though I never in a million years would’ve guessed that) asked us if we needed help in English!
When we told him we were looking for the trail head for the daibutsu he took us on his daily walk through the park, being our personal tour guide for all the cool little shrines and whatnot in there, bought us grilled konnyaku at a booth (truly disgusting stuff, but it was so sweet of him and I’ve learned to just swallow things I don’t like whole) after pointing out the view of a snow-capped Mt. Fuji through the trees, and we wound all the way to the trail head where he anxiously gave us directions down the path that had no branches or intersections of any sort.
Score two for omotenashi!
The rest of the day was a blur of fun conversations, quirky shopkeepers, fellow autumn beach-goers, direction-pointers, joke-tellers, and one man in Kotoku-in (高徳院) who came up to talk to me for a little bit and gave us each a handwritten letter pasted on old magazine ads to make them stiffer and more durable. He and his wife are both 74, enjoy gardening and are retirees. They have been studying English for five years and it was his dream to receive a letter in English from someone so it had his address and a few things about his family on the back.
Any other country and I would say that’s a dangerous thing to do. But here in Japan I’m less worried about him and got my family in California to all send him letters too.
I’ll stop rambling on about the countless examples of pure human goodness we encountered that day but just know that my faith in humanity had never before reached such high levels! I suppose the main idea I’ll leave you with today is to be kind to people, it goes a long way. Every act of kindness or meanness towards someone can have a major impact on their day or their life. So tell me, what kind of impact do you want to make?