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Dean Raffaelli, D.O.

He is president of the Chicago Urasenke Association. His past articles are available at

• Japan is a benevolent country. Its people are friendly and generous. So helpful, that I feel guilty about being in their country and being inept at the Japanese language. As much as this lack of language skill is a determent to navigating the various complexities and even the simplicities, what is worse is that it puts my host at a decided disadvantage. Once I have entered into a conversation that I sense will go nowhere, most Japanese are committed to see my request through whether they understand it or not.

• I have learned that if I quickly withdraw my request, thank them, and move on, no one will feel beholden. But if I persist, then in most cases, they will feel the need to help no matter what. This scenario played itself out multiple times on our recent three-week stay in Japan.

• Charlotte and I began our trip in the relative ease of Kyoto. Kyoto is at the same time a modern sophisticated city and a charmingly medieval one. They are used to foreigners. There are gaijin crawling down every small lane, inspecting every temple and shrine, and standing befuddled outside the ubiquitous curtained entryways; they — we — are everywhere.

• For the most part in Kyoto we got away with English, but the farther south we ventured, the less and less we were understood. It caught us off guard, and it required the Japanese citizenry to rescue us several times.

• Maybe I will try to a relate a few episodes, not in any particular order for my jet lag addled brain will not allow for that. One of the reasons we went south to Kyushu and then to Hagi was to see the origins of famous tea pottery. This led us first to Karatsu. It is a small town with a large castle perched on its highest point and it even has a street named after the tea bowls produced there, Chawan-Gama Street.

• Though the town had a 100yen bus to shuffle tourist around we choose to walk. And walk we did. By the time we had walked out to the castle site in the late afternoon it was raining and our feet were aching, so why not take the bus back to the train station. The only problem was we could not find the bus stop. It must have been right in front of our faces but as far as we were concerned, it was invisible.

• It started to drizzle so we stepped into a beautiful little shop at the base of the castle mount with our maps in hand. I had the bright idea of asking the shop keeper. He was somewhat older than middle age, nicely dressed in his grey cardigan sweater, and did not seem concerned when we came up to him wheedling multiple maps while blurting out, “bus stop”.

• Calmly he surmised the situation and picked up the phone. After a moment of referring to the hieroglyphics on our maps, he had a conversation and wrote the gleaned information down. He gestured to the time he had written on the paper, and pointed to a corner on the other side of the street from his establishment. We thanked him, bowed deeply and left the shop befuddled. We walked to the area but there was no sign of a bus stop; so, deciding that it was not that far to the train station started walking. It began to rain as we crossed a bridge and took a right towards the station.

• We were about three blocks into our journey when a spotless white Toyota Camry cut us off. The side window opens and it is our shopkeeper motioning us into his car. Without a moments hesitation we jump in the back seat and he hurries off as we both simultaneously say, “arigato gozaimasu”. Next thing we know we are in the train station slipping our tickets into the carousal with five minutes to spare.

• Then there were the two men who finding us having a somewhat heated discussion with maps in hand, go out of their way to walk us to a road where their hand signals make sense. And the blue clad JR information woman that is so flustered that she cannot help us, calls down to the first floor to have an English speaking fellow employee intercepted in the parking lot before she gets in her car, to help us buy tickets and board the bus to Hagi.

• The list goes on. The staff at the impeccable Japanese inn that put their three heads together and realized that we will never catch the bus if we waited for a taxi, then dragged a well suited gentleman from the back office to impel him to get the van and drive us to the station.

• There was the charming Japanese couple, that have been living in Detroit for the last 44 years, who informed us that the slivers of speckled white translucent fish we have just eaten is fugu or blowfish. And the man on the shinkansen that after giving us the wrong information risks missing the train to track us down and guide us to our seats.

• I cannot remember more now. I think the Japanese do this because in their hearts, while we are in their country, they feel responsible for our well being. And this benevolence is reflected in chanoyu’s second guiding principle, kei or respect. So, before we return I think I will either get a better navigation program on my phone or learn some rudimentary Japanese. Or we could just stay in Kyoto, not a bad choice either!