Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Cycling in Japan - Omotenashi and Osettai

Our first osettai
Six weeks ago at the beginning of our trip we cycled from Osaka to the port at Wakayama where we planned to catch the ferry to Tokushima on Shikoku. But the ride, over 100 kilometres of mainly urban cycling, took us all day and by the time we reached Wakayama it was nine o'clock. We could not work out the way to the ferry port so we stopped and asked a woman passing with her shopping. As I've mentioned, our Japanese is not great. She told us that her son was dating an English girl and she had picked up a little English from him. But although she did her best, we clearly were some way off from the port and it was clear we were struggling to understand her instructions. We thanked her, hoping we would be able to find it.
'Hungry?' she asked. We nodded and she showed us a restaurant that served a very good udon and then said goodbye.

Half an hour later, as we were halfway through our meal, she came into the restaurant with her husband and handed us a carefully drawn map, annotated in English. She had obviously telephoned her son and asked him to translate everything for her. She gave us the map and checked we understood it properly. We thanked her profusely and she left again, waving cheerfully as she and her husband drove away from the carpark. Our brief enquiry for directions to the port had resulted in us taking up nearly an hour of her time that evening. It was our first experience of the helpfulness of Japanese people to visitors. It was not to be the last.

This man gave us lunch

A present from the campsite owner on Miyajima -
sandwiches  and doughnuts!

In fact we began to be wary of stopping and asking for help, not because we would not get any, but because we felt guilty at disrupting someone's day! In Tokushima we could not find the accommodation we had booked via the tourist office and asked a passing man who looked like he was on his way home from work. He stared at the name of the guesthouse and shook his head. He didn't know it. So he took the piece of paper from us and headed into a local shop to ask the proprietor. Armed with instructions he led us off down the street, along another street and finally stopped outside a small building. Comparing the piece of paper with the sign on the door he informed us we had reached our destination and said goodbye. 'Enjoy your trip,' he said. 

It seemed we were experiencing omotenashi, which means not only hospitality but kindness to strangers. This was explained to us by a man we got talking to in the castle grounds at Uwajima. He was either a neurosurgeon or he was on his way to see his neurosurgeon, on that point we were a little confused. But his English was generally very good and he wrote the word omotenashi down for us in my notebook.

Photcopied Maps 
When we were cycling through a small place called Honai on the west of Shikoku, it started raining. And raining. And raining. We were experiencing yet another typhoon. We took cover outside a convenience store which had table and chairs under a canopy. Three hours and two scrabble games later we were still there. A man came over and asked us where we were going. I showed him my map, which was hopelessly inadequate for our task, on a scale which showed the whole of Japan on a sheet barely bigger than a 1:25,000 OS map at home. He looked at it pityingly and then ran through the driving rain back to his car. Returning with an atlas, he went into the store and photocopied (10 yen per sheet) all the relevant pages to get us up to the top of Shokoku. He then traced the best route with a pen and placed arrows to show the route we should follow, insistent we should understand. What was it with these people? They showed more care for me then most of my relatives did - for me - an absolute stranger.

Nashi pear given to us by local farmer

Gift of a lift up the mountain

And we have experienced the same care and concern constantly during our trip. Only yesterday, while camping at a michi-no-eki (road station) a woman came over to talk to me while Mick was off doing something else. She spoke no English but I managed to explain that we were on holiday and had cycled from Osaka via Hiroshima to our present location (somewhere near Hijemi). She gestured muscle flexing, clearly saying I must be strong. I laughed and shook my head. 'Not strong, tired,' I replied, miming a sleeping pose. She went back to the van where she and her husband were sleeping the night in the carpark (common practice at the michinoekis). Ten minutes later she came over to the bench were Mick and I were sitting watching the night lights flickering on the islands scattered across the Seto Inland Sea. She placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder and handed me a bag of satsumas and sweets. She said something in Japanese which I couldn't understand, smiled and went back to her van. 

For our brief time as pilgrims we experienced another facet of Japanese kindness - the giving and receiving of osettai or charitable giving to pilgrims. During that time we received so many gifts, both physical and in kind, it felt almost overwhelming. Everything from bottles of water, fruit, sweets, a lift up the mountain, a place to sleep, the generosity was stunning. As I understand it, omotenashi is a general act of kindness whereas osettai is more specific - a gift to a pilgrim which - while it assists the pilgrim - also offers a benefit to the giver, in that by assisting the pilgrim, osettai bestows grace on both the giver and the receiver. As such it should never be refused. Another pilgrim, a woman from Sydney called Rachel told me she had been given 10,000 yen as osettai, a gift so generous she felt guilty about accepting it. Feeling unable to refuse the osettai she had decided instead to share the gift with other pilgrims, which I thought a wonderful solution.

It rubs off too. This morning, sheltering under a small hut we were joined by a man pushing a shopping bike and clutching a tatty umbrella. He stood with his back to us staring out at the rain. It felt natural to offer a share of the satsumas and nashi pear we were eating. 'Sumimasen' I said. 'Excuse me'. He turned around and I gestured towards the fruit, offering him some. He took it and thanked us. 'Arigato gozaimasu'. It felt good, sharing our fruit, the three of us sheltering from the teeming rain.

When I have returned home I will try and practice omotenashi. It could be Japan's finest export.


  1. That grate trip! and it was realy long long way.
    If you have a chance I reccomend visit to Kagawa in Shikoku. Kagawa is also good place too.

  2. Yes, Japanese are incredibly friendly and helpful, even in Tokyo. I am happy reading that in 2014 you are enjoying oHenro.
    In 08/2014 I am continuing my pilgrimage, it will be hot then :-)