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Saturday, July 7, 2007

JAPAN LITE

How a look out to sea can help you determine lodging rates


Just as I was jogging down the beach past Amano-san's house, I saw her in her yard with a hoe, turning up the grass. I winced each time the hoe cut into the ground, digging up another patch of green, but she was working very hard at this. I suppose dirt is easier to take care of.

Amano-san is an obaachan who has been renting out her beach house for 20 years to Japanese guests. She used to also have a campground next door, but a few years ago a big typhoon came along and blew it away and she has never been able to find it since.

She has continued to rent out her beach house though, and I had been meaning to ask her if she would rent it out to foreigners, since I had received inquiries from people wanting to rent a house on the beach.

"Sure," she said, delightedly. Then she looked thoughtfully out to sea.

This looking thoughtfully out to sea is not unique to Mrs. Amano. I've noticed this trait among almost all people who live next to the sea. They periodically look out to the sea for answers.

"But I worry about letting foreigners stay here in this old Japanese house," she continued. "Won't they hit their heads on the low doorways?"

"Probably," I said. "But foreigners are used to having to duck inside Japanese houses. Tall foreigners usually have a large callous on the top of the head that serves as a speed bump, reminding them not to pass too fast under the doors. If you're still worried, we could always give them helmets."

"Well then, they can stay here for 2,000 yen per person per night," she said. "My price hasn't changed in 20 years. This includes a futon on the floor, and they can use the gas stove and refrigerator." She instinctively started giving me a tour of the house by waving her hands in different directions.

"There are two cold showers and a bath/shower unit with hot water." She said, gesturing to outdoor shower stalls.

"If people use the hot water, I charge extra."

"Really!" I said. "How much extra?"

"Well, it depends." Then she did it again. She looked out toward the sea. She paused, focusing her eyes on a passing ship and said, "If they take long showers, I might charge 500 yen extra."

How did she determine this? Did she put people on a shower timer? Or perhaps they had to sign in and out of the shower and write down the time.

"There's a fan inside too, and they can use the refrigerator. But if they use a lot of electricity, I'll add a few hundred yen for that too." I wished she would stop looking out to sea, as every time she did, the price went up.

Besides, how would she know how much electricity they used? Perhaps she had some previous work experience as a meter reader.

I wondered how I was going to explain this difficult payment system to foreigners. Japanese seem all too happy to pay for extras. Come to think of it, I have never seen people pay so happily and heartily for things as the Japanese do. They are absolutely thrilled to hand over handfuls of 10,000 yen notes when paying for everyone's dinner, the same way we might go on an indulgent shopping spree and toss the credit card at the shop clerk with a broad smile, bathing in the glory of a plastic moment.

Amano-san looked out to sea again, scanning the horizon. I held my breath.

"Do you think the foreigners will mind the butsudan?" she said, referring to the family shrine with photos of the deceased and offerings of fruit laid out.

"Oh, I'm sure that will be fine," I say. And then I added, "They don't have to pray to your ancestors, do they? Or leave an offering?" I thought it prudent to be thorough.

"So, how much should I tell people you charge then, if they are definitely planning on using hot water, electricity and gas?"

She sucked through her teeth and said, "Well, it all depends on the guests. If they cause problems, I charge them more."

What a great system! I thought, and followed Amano-san's gaze out to sea.

That's when I realized she was not looking at boats out there. She was looking at Benten Island, where the goddess of the sea and protector of wealth and fortune lives.



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