Today was mostly a travel day as we relocated from Kanazawa to Kyoto for our final five nights of the trip. The one thing we did do, however, was a staple of our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. (Consider this a plug: this is the fourth time we have traveled with them and recommend them wholeheartedly, not least for the uniform excellence of their tour leads, such as Mariko.) OAT is heavily into cultural immersion, and every trip includes at least one local home visit, which happened to be today. Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa, ages 72 and 68 respectively. He owns a nearby sake factory and judging from their house and possessions appears very prosperous. There were four of us on the visit: Alice and me of course, and another couple from our group, Ann and John (who are US-born but happen to be ethnic Chinese). The rest of our 15-person group were distributed among other households.
Mrs. Nakagawa spoke no English but Mr. Nakagawa could get by reasonably well as long as the topic of conversation was one that he was used to: sake, his art collection, and his family. (Mariko had equipped us with a Japanese cheat sheet, so we could wow them with some stock polite phrases used when entering a house, presenting a gift — we gave them some NASA paraphernalia — or eating.)
They were, as you might expect, very hospitable, especially since they do this at least a couple times per week. Mrs. Nakagawa had a collection of beautiful silk kimonos, which of course Alice and Ann to dress up for your basic Tourist Photo Op.
Their house was larger than we expected, about the size of a large American townhouse, and though the building exterior was very Western-looking, the interior was in many ways classic Japanese, elegantly furnished with lots of art and beautiful hardwood floors. The guest bedroom was like a small museum in its own right:
The open closet on the left is actually a very compact but elaborate Buddhist shrine.
Our hosts’ welcoming attitude and the elegance of the house notwithstanding, it was nonetheless a somewhat odd visit. Mr. Nakagawa was friendly and voluble to the point of not letting anyone get a word in edgewise, and his entire presentation — for at bottom, that is what it was — was pretty much a guided (and rather boastful) tour of every piece of expensive art in the house, followed by a lengthy walkthrough of about a half dozen family photo albums of their children’s weddings and a vacation that they took in Okinawa several years ago. (A minor bit of surrealism during the latter activity: the photo album books themselves were all Mickey Mouse-themed, with Disney characters on the covers and decorating the margins of the pages. Okayyyyy……) We also briefly met their 18 year old granddaughter, whose entire interaction with us consisted entirely of her saying, in English, “My name is Toriko. I am 18 years old,” with a deadpan expression that made it clear that she would rather be doing just about anything else, including drinking laundry detergent.
Mrs. Nakagawa served us tea at one of those low Japanese tables that force you to sit on the floor. However, no one has to sit on their knees, or cross-legged, or whatever, in this dining room: there is actually a below-floor-level rectangular well underneath the table to accommodate your legs, so despite the fact that your butt is on the floor (actually on a cushion on the floor), your posture is the same as though you were sitting in a chair.
The visit lasted about two hours, and concluded with Mr. Nakamura bestowing upon us two gifts: a small ceramic pot and a piece of calligraphy in which he had written our and his names in Japanese characters, along with an adage about friendship and the date and address of the house.
It’s actually pretty cool-looking — the upper six characters in the leftmost column are our names — and so it seems a little churlish to confess that by the end of the two hours we were ready to leave. I talked to Mariko afterwards about how Mr. Nakagawa seemed to spend most of the time trying to impress us, rather than have a genuine two-way interaction, and she said that her father (who is about the same age) is exactly the same way. She suggested that it was some kind of generational thing, the need for Japanese men of that age to express themselves as alpha males, and related that she and her sister often have to ask her father to dial it back. She also related with some amusement that when her father is in conversation with another man of similar age that the conversation spirals completely out of control since they get locked into a spiral of one-upmanship. So I guess on reflection that we learned something about the culture from this home visit after all, albeit not quite what anyone had in mind at the outset….