Sunday, June 3, 2012

Let me get closer and see this great sight…

What happens when you put three Japanese managers and a clumsy Sicilian guy in one very elegant restaurant in Kyushu? 
This is their story.
My hosts were determined to impress me. With traditional Japanese hospitality they had printed out the page of our website that lists the food a Jew can and cannot eat, and had made a reservation at a traditional Japanese restaurant. A path made of large stones, like the ones found in Japanese gardens, led from the sidewalk to the building, a clear sign of opulence. The name of the restaurant was engraved on a black, rugged mountain rock, standing at the beginning of the path. At the other end of the path, behind a bamboo fence, was the restaurant. The concrete building had all the decorative elements that are supposed to elicit the nostalgic image of a traditional Japanese house: a roof made of black tiles with decorated ends; white plaster walls and wooden posts, lintels, and rafters; reticulated shutters; bamboo mats hanging loosely in front of the ground floor windows, and on the second floor shields at the windows to give privacy and let the people inside the house spy on the samurai outside from a higher level without risking their heads (if this story is true); rain-chains pointing to a stone barrel partially covered in moss. It couldn’t get more Japanese than that.  And I loved it.
In the stone vestibule a woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore greeted us and stood in attention, while another woman, in white tabi socks and wearing an elegant light blue kimono and flowery obi, came to welcome us from the inside walking on the tatami floor. Tatami are the traditional flooring of Japanese homes, made of weaved grass panels and one is supposed to walk on them with socks or barefoot, a habit probably born out of hygienic and economic factors (tatami, for being so delicate to maintain and expensive to make, were reserved only to the wealthy). In time a mixture of customs and superstitions as accrued and regulate the way they are laid out in a room and the way one cares for them, but no matter how westernized one is, the rule everyone observes is that no slippers nor – God forbid - outside shoes touch the tatami. Ever. Walking inside a house with shoes is already a major faux-pas, but trampling with shoes on the tatami mat is tantamount to an act of extreme violence that only the police are permitted to do under special circumstances. It is almost a desecration of the holiness of the other person’s home. Accidentally, the idea that a tatami room is special is so deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche that last June, the group of volunteer I joined to work in one of the towns hit by the tsunami was instructed to remove our boots every time we entered the tatami room in the house we working one day, even though the tatami was really ruined.
Since I am in Japan, I have become more careful about my socks: I always make sure they match and at the slightest sign of wear and tear I throw them away, as you never know when you’ll have to take your shoes off. However, despite this added care, every time I’ve found myself in this situation the first thought has always been an anxious scan of my lower extremities; and the second has gone through the steps that make a smooth, seamless "shoes on-shoes off-up on the raised level of the living quarters" sequence. Anyway, I always try to go last because my anxious gaijin self wants me to observe once again what people do in order to imitate the locals. 
Fate had it different that evening.
The senior among my hosts bowed showing me the way with his right hand that I enter first. In return, perspiring and with twirling bowels, I bowed back showing him the way that he enter first. He did not recede, so I had to go first. “You’ve done this literally hundreds of times in the past three years. You know how to do it without crashing the sliding paper door or leaning against anyone else (which they do, by the way). Just relax and do it.” Deep breath. First shoe: off. Deep breath. Second shoe: off. Then I hear one of them telling the other: “He has really learned our customs, hasn’t he?” At which point I stooped, picked up my shoes and before the woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore could reach them, as politely as possible, I lifted them and put them on the tatami mat. It was then that my blood froze, waiting for all the Kami of Japan to smite me through the hands of my hosts.
After one second or one hour of the heaviest and stillest silence in my life all I could say or think was “Sumimasen, I’m sorry” while trying to evaluate what kind of bowing the present circumstances would require: 90 degrees, 130 degrees, or down on my knees sticking out my neck to a sword. They were really gracious. Well, I mean the hostess was. Using a very polite word that means “It is ok” she lifted my shoes and handed them to the woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore, while my three companions kept apologizing to her for the foreigner who clearly had not yet learned the proper Japanese customs. The hostess smiling silently just motioned for us to enter.
And when I thought the evening couldn’t get any worse…