Unfairly or not, Japanese people seem to have a reputation for being shy, especially when it comes to new social situations and meeting foreigners. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented, when they know I’ve lived in Japan, on how the country’s inhabitants are supposed to be quiet, polite, reserved, unassuming, introverted, etc. etc. This isn’t a stereotype that’s limited to outsider opinion, either – Japanese people have likewise told me this plenty of times.
While that may be true in many cases, I hesitate to make such generalizations because I was often pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming people could be in Japan, regardless of whether I had already formed any kind of relationship with them. This is probably partly because I lived in tiny towns in extremely rural areas, but I lost count of the number of times I was approached by complete strangers wanting to give me a hand or show their appreciation simply for me being there, and who didn’t seem to care that I might not be able to communicate with them through words.
Being a very food-driven culture in many aspects, one of the most common ways people demonstrated these feelings was naturally through food. In fact, I accumulated enough of these kinds of experiences to write an entire (and entirely overdue) blog post about just a few of the random people/food-related encounters I had over the course of the 6 years I lived in Japan. None of these people knew me, nor I them, yet all of them felt the compulsion to give, and I think that’s something genuinely special.
The Coffee Incident
Back when I first moved to Japan, I had a bit of trouble getting around. Not always simply because of the language barrier, but because for all the praise Japan’s infrastructure and transport system gets, small towns often don’t see the benefits of this. The first town I lived in had no train at all, just buses that started at around 7am most days and finished service around 9pm. The buses came by every 1-2 hours, so if you missed one, you were doomed to either an extremely long walk (and a dangerous one, as many areas had no kind of footpath or other pedestrian-safe route), or a long, lonely wait until the next bus showed up.
I wasn’t aware of this at first, and as I had no car, I dutifully hopped on the bus to get to my nearest supermarket (about a 20-minute ride away) and buy some groceries. In August, especially in the south, Japan is murderously hot. Coming out of the supermarket with several bags in both hands, I took shelter under the seatless bus stop overhang… and waited. And waited. Then I waited some more.
Suddenly, out of a nearby dentist’s office dashed a man, still wearing his white lab-style coat. He literally ran over to the vending machine just outside the door, shoved some money inside, and bought a can of something. Then he hurried over to me, bowing profusely and holding out the can like a sacrificial offering. He didn’t say anything – just bowed a couple of times again for good measure and trotted back inside, where he presumably had legitimately important stuff to do. It was a can of Boss Coffee, deliciously cold.
I don’t like coffee, but believe me when I say I drank every last drop long before the bus pulled up.
The Chicken Sandwich Incident
It should come as no surprise that, given my complete lack of kanji knowledge when I first moved to Japan, I got on the wrong bus several times. I couldn’t go too wrong, since from my house, there were only two directions you could go, but obviously, some buses did go further than others, or pulled up at different stops while skipping others. I had once gone to the next town over, about an hour’s ride away, to do a little exploring of some local sights, and on the way back, I accidentally got onto a bus that wasn’t destined for my original stop. Instead, it terminated service roughly halfway there, much to my initial confusion.
The driver, having ascertained that the one foreigner on his bus was indeed confused as to how she was supposed to get back home, and upon hearing the name of the stop I was aiming for, took me inside the small waiting building and introduced me to a wizened old lady surrounded by shopping bags, who he seemed to know pretty well. It transpired that this lady was heading in the same direction as me, and would helpfully now take me under her wing and make sure I got home safe and sound.
A few minutes later, the correct bus pulled up outside the waiting area. The tiny stooped woman beside me took my wrist in a surprisingly forceful grip and hauled me onto the bus, chattering brightly all the while. She sat, patted the seat beside her, and as the bus started up, rustled around inside the numerous shopping bags at her feet. She pulled out a pre-sealed supermarket chicken sandwich, presenting it to me with a flourish and telling me (I think) to eat it when I got home. She then explained in great detail how to go about taking a bus in Japan. “Push this red button”, she instructed happily in Japanese, “and it will go, ‘ding-dong!’ Then the bus will pull over when it gets to the next stop.”
When the bus reached my stop, the woman nodded at me reassuringly, gave my hand a little pat, and waved wildly from the window when I made it outside. I never saw her again and never even knew her name, but I’ve never forgotten her.
I don’t know what supermarket it came from, but the chicken sandwich was delicious.
The Watermelon Incident
In the first house where I lived in Japan, not much traffic went by. My driveaway didn’t lead right onto the main road/highway, but onto a back street where only a few families lived. Except in the summer holidays when a few young kids splashed about in a paddling pool in a small apartment complex parking lot, the cicadas usually made more noise than anything else. There were no shops around – just a very small car mechanic place. Small farm trucks occasionally went slowly by, selling baked sweet potatoes in the fall, much like an ice cream truck might go around selling to neighborhood kids in other countries in the summer, but otherwise, it was very quiet.
Except one day, as I was walking home after a late afternoon stroll on the weekend, a lady was there selling watermelons. It looked like she was just packing up her stall for the day, and only a couple of watermelons were left in a box beside her. The road, as usual, was pretty much empty.
She was clearly far older than me, and I was a guest in this country in any case, so after recovering from my double-take, I made sure to bow first and greet her. The lady jumped to her feet and bowed back. “Hello!” Her grin was enormous, like she couldn’t believe her luck that a foreigner lived about these parts, much less that the foreigner’s house was apparently only a few meters away. “Watermelons!” she said happily, gesturing to her leftover box. She reached down and grabbed one, handing it to me. “I’m so sorry, it’s a little overripe…” She bowed again, genuinely regretful, at the idea that the watermelon she was giving me might be less than absolutely perfect, before packing up the rest of her stall and going on her way.
To this day, no watermelon has ever tasted sweeter.