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Saturday, June 30, 2007

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The trouble with foreigners — wayward ways amid the regiment


Renting rooms to foreigners can be a sensitive subject for many minshuku owners in Japan. It's not that the owners can't speak English, nor that they don't like foreigners. Through the years, I've gotten to know some minshuku owners and have learned that foreigners can indeed be a bit mendokusai (troublesome) mainly because when in Japan, we do not do like the Japanese.

The truth is that the Japanese are fascinated with foreigners and would love to have them stay at their minshuku, if only foreigners wouldn't saunter.

We foreigners are indeed saunterers. We saunter down to breakfast in our own time, we saunter into the 6 p.m. meal at 6:15. We are anything but punctual.

Staying at a minshuku in Japan, with set meal and bath times, can be a very regimented experience and may seem like boot camp to foreigners. But a minshuku is usually a family business and the limited number of staff means things must run efficiently and smoothly in order for them to be able to get everything done. And to the Japanese guests, this organization of time is a blessing — one more thing taken care of, one more thing sorted!

So, although the Japanese are on a schedule, we are not. We mosey back to our rooms upstairs to retrieve a forgotten camera or wallet. We mosey over to the coat rack, we fumble with our hats and handkerchiefs.

The Japanese guests, on the other hand, sprint to retrieve that camera, come downstairs with their coats already on and have had their hat and handkerchief ready for a week.

They do not inconvenience others, they do not make them wait. Not even the minshuku staff has to wait to make up the beds.

No doubt, we foreigners are lingerers. After dinner, we like to have a coffee and chat. And chat, and chat and chat. Even in restaurants in our own countries we are all guilty of suddenly realizing the restaurant staff is vacuuming under our feet because they want to close, and that we are the only customers left and in fact, have been for the past hour.

In a Japanese minshuku, everything is impeccably timed for a reason: The staff must finish up one thing so they can get on to the next.

As foreigners, we invariably have special requests, be it dietary requirements, toilet preferences, or wondering if we really must bathe with those other guests. And we hope people will accommodate our special needs. After all, it doesn't hurt to ask, right? Wrong! Asking in Japan makes you look, well, a tad selfish.

A foreign guest arriving at a seaside minshuku and announcing he or she doesn't like fish, is going to stir things up. Especially if the staff has been out all day long catching fish for your meal. You prefer beef? Going out to catch fish is one thing, but going out to rope cattle is quite another.

If you don't eat meat at all, including fish, this is equal to coming to dinner and announcing you can eat nothing but houseplants. How is one supposed to react?

Don't get me wrong. The minshuku don't mind that you are vegetarian. Just don't tell them. Allergic to peas? Congratulations! But a minshuku is not Burger King, and you cannot have it your way. Eat what you can, and leave the rest.

So, when we foreigners finally do leave, and our minshuku hosts bow deeply, send us off with gifts, and thank us as if they have never before had such distinguished guests, it's not surprising that there is also a huge sigh of relief when we check out.

If we actually check out, that is. Even at check-out, it is said that we amble. Check-out time is 11 a.m. but we are almost always running a little bit late. And, by the way, we don't want to be a bother, but could we possibly store our bags here for the afternoon? And, do you think it would be all right if we sneak in a quick shower when we get back?



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