Mount Fuji

When in Rome, do as Romans do?

by TOBY HARWARD

Soon after my arrival in Ōmu-cho in August 1994, my kacho (or section manager) spoke with enthusiasm at the idea of organising a home-stay in my ‘mother country’ the United Kingdom. Having organised many school trips to, and home-stays in ‘America’, and having inspected the fire department in Sebastopol, California, more times than he could remember, he was very excited at the prospect of planning a trip to the country which founded ‘America’ and inspecting a fire department there. The dates and schedule were drawn up and the traditional Japanese holiday period — ‘ten days from Ōmu to Ōmu’ — was decided on. I pointed out that, since it took a day to reach Tokyo and a day to fly to London, this time restriction would leave only six days to explore my country. Kacho was unperturbed…. after all, what on earth is there to see in Britain outside London apart from, maybe, the golf courses of St. Andrews and the birthplace of John Lennon? In fact six days was so long that it was decided to visit Paris and Rome, as well as my parents’ small West Country town of Wiveliscombe. Thirty-six hours would provide ample time to explore a city. I couldn’t complain as my small area of England was getting equal treatment with three great European capitals. 

The preparatory meetings began. The group consisted of eight Japanese and myself. Led by the noble kyoikucho (head of the local board of education), five young people would be accompanied by an elementary school teacher with a good command of English, and the essential travel guide from Nippon Express, or tenjoin, who always accompanies Ōmu travellers on their foreign excursions. One evening a month before departure our tenjoin came to Ōmu to lecture us on Europe. His speech included everything the discerning traveller would want to know and a lot more. Such information included reminders that all toilets are western-style, and that we all should follow the curious European habit of showering inside the bath, with obvious consequences (to me, at least) if we didn’t. We were also given little lectures on such topics as the inside mechanism and workings of the complicated European hotel card key, as well as warnings such as not to drink European water! This last point was too much for me and I let out a howl of protest at this apparent slur on British natural resources. However, it was quietly explained to me that all European water contains a mineral that upsets the delicate Japanese stomach. Our international specialist’s speech was followed by one from a representative of JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) who, although not responsible for the trip, had just happened to pop by with some travel goods. For a further hour we were subjected to the salesman’s talk on which suitcase to buy — the bigger the better, room for all the omiyage (or souvenirs); which hand luggage to buy — the one with lots of secret pockets to foil all the crooks and pickpockets you are bound to encounter; which passport and money bodybelt to buy — ditto with a strong buckle; as well as the essential aeroplane goods — thick socks (which all good airlines give you anyway), blow-up pillows to cushion your head (ditto) and, most intriguingly, throwaway paper underpants (which no self-respecting airline would ever give out). My travel companions were delighted and our man from JTB made a handsome profit, especially from his sales of the underpants, which came in a variety of easy-to-use sizes. 

Preparations gathered a pace both here and in the UK, where my father was planning a tour of all the essential services, public buildings and amenities of Wiveliscombe. My boss had informed me that the purpose of visiting the town was to compare a typical English town with Ōmu. My father and I were keen to make sure that the comparison was favourable. While our young explorers were to experience home-stays, the kyoikucho and our tenjoin would stay in the local hotel. When my boss discovered the cost of a night would be a mere 4,000 yen he was appalled. Such a place, he assumed, would have filthy bed sheets, cracks in the walls and legions of cockroaches. I tried to allay his fears but I don’t think he ever became reconciled to the cost. Hence in London the chosen hotel was the Regent’s Park Hilton, and in Paris and Rome the equivalents.

On arrival at London’s Heathrow airport we met up and boarded the Nippon Express bus that was to be our daytime home for the next couple of days. Driven by an exceedingly grumpy old Londoner (obviously a veteran of Japanese tours) we were whisked up to central London accompanied by our London-based Nippon Express guide, a middle-aged woman with an exceedingly tedious voice whose microphone I soon wanted to stuff down her throat. Since our London-allocated 36 hours had already started ticking, there was no time to go to the hotel, or even to get breakfast. Over the next eight hours we were subjected to a tour of London, Japanese-style. Everything was pointed out from the sublime to the bizarre, from Westminster Abbey to Hugh Grant’s flat to any place that might have had anything to do with any of the Beatles. At various points the bus stopped, our weary travellers were roused, and we all baled out for the quintessentially Japanese photo-op in front of London’s famous monuments. 

' "Chiiiizu……"   click!’ — replaced our guide’s incorrigible monologue. And there was Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, 221B Baker Street, the Royal Albert Hall, Harrods, Westminster Abbey, St. James’ Palace, to name a few, all forever preserved on film — click, click, been there, done that, and back on the bus. The Tower of London and the British Museum were given special treatment. Over one hour was spent at each place with hoards of other tourists, primarily Japanese, all struggling to view the Crown Jewels and ancient Egyptian antiquities respectively. As the day wore on, our grumpy driver too became increasingly irritated. I was particularly conscious of this fact as it occurred to me that the driver would be the only Englishman my group would meet in London, and thus the only Englishman that most Japanese tours ever meet. 

Having exhausted London as well as ourselves we finally arrived at the Regent’s Park Hilton, where my travelling companions were met by crowds of other Japanese guests and a plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I, meanwhile, got the hell out……

Mitsukoshi's London storeThe next day was omiyage (souvenir) shopping day. However, the chosen recipient of my companions’ tourist pounds / dollars / yen was neither ‘Burberry’s’ nor ‘Scotch House’, nor even ‘Harrods’ or ‘Selfridges’. Why go to any of these when you have a handy ‘Mitsukoshi’ round the corner? So, off to the venerable Japanese store we went for an appointment with the Japanese manager to explain to us the contents of the store and the methods of payment. Japanese tourists flock to their overseas outposts of ‘Mitsukoshi’ where they can buy typical, traditional products of that country tax free and in yen. So there we were in central London surrounded by ‘Harrods’, ‘Selfridges’, ‘Burberry’s’ and ‘Scotch House’ products all priced in yen, being tended by Japanese sales assistants. The sight of black London taxi models and double-decker buses priced in yen made me panic and I fled from the store, leaving our intrepid adventurers to do what they had to do. Two hours later I returned to find them still in ‘Mitsukoshi’ drinking ocha ( green tea) in the Japanese restaurant. They had not left the building. 

Lunch at ‘The Sea Shell’, a fish and chips restaurant of some repute, was predictable. We ate our plateful surrounded by other Japanese tourists and irate, rude waitresses. I was very relieved when we boarded our bus once more, ejected our guide, and began the drive down to the south-west of England. By this point I was extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to show my Japanese guests just a little piece of the real England, and for them to meet some genuinely friendly English people, even if they couldn’t communicate.

On arriving, two bemused families took the four even more bemused girls to their respective houses, leaving the remaining four, including my 64-year-old kyoikucho — the most bemused of all — to have dinner. After a rocky start when the old man had to be coached in the use of a knife and fork, we all soon began to relax, thanks in large part to my father’s constant plying them with red wine, a drink which they were not at all familiar with. Red faces and tipsy behaviour occurred even sooner than usual. Kyoikucho’s jaw dropped when my father, clad in his usual jacket and tie (traditional trademarks of a real, traditional English gentleman, apparently), got up to help my mother clear the plates. This extraordinary behaviour completely shocked him…and all this going on with a dog in the room, sitting under the table on his feet!

The next day we all gathered for a tour of the town. The school alone was the subject of more photos than the whole of London put together; the church, beer factory, library, bank, fire department, doctor’s surgery and old people’s home received equal treatment. Never has the town been so well photographed. The pig farm was a little too much just after lunch and the stench overpowered a few. However, on seeing little piglets born ten minutes before our visit, shouts of 'kawaiiii...' ( 'Oh so cute!!!') caused even the fainthearted to enter the barn. Of course the reassuring thing for my Japanese guests was that English pigs look and behave just like Japanese pigs, unlike humans. Thus on a pig farm it was possible for them to feel that some things on the other side of the world remain constant and that everything is not quite so alien. In London, ‘Mitsukoshi’ plays that role; in Wiveliscombe, where as yet there is no ‘Mitsukoshi’, it was left to the pigs and my father’s Nissan. 

The evening promised to be entertaining. A party in the local pub had been organised for our travellers, home-stay hosts and distinguished local dignitaries. Four of us spoke a modicum of each other’s language, thus having to serve as translators. We tried to position ourselves evenly. Kyoikucho began with a speech in Japanese, eulogising the town and me, and then sat down to face what I face at every enkai (Japanese-style dinner party) — complete incomprehension at what other people are saying. Everybody coped in a confused sort of way, while blank uncomprehending faces soon became red uncomprehending faces. Despite this it was a huge success, especially when the landlord forced my kyoikucho to pull a traditional English pint, to be downed be the young, shy male press-ganged into the trip. Roared on by the village elders, the young man skulled his pint and raised his glass in salute. It was clearly his moment of glory and he basked in it.

Hangovers were forgotten the next morning at dawn, as our travellers boarded the bus to take them to Heathrow and an aeroplane to Rome, the next stage of their European odyssey. The girls started crying as they bade farewell to their home-stay hosts. Whether it was spontaneous or the polite, proper Japanese thing to do, I found it remarkable and very touching as they had been in Wiveliscombe for exactly 36 hours and had hardly communicated a word directly.

Back in Ōmu at debriefings and photo-sharing and natsukashii (do you remember when…?) meetings, Rome, Paris and London have all been politely discussed. But the most talked about aspect of the trip was their brief, whistle-stop visit to Wiveliscombe. All of them have said without hesitation that the home-stay was their favourite part, and I get the feeling they honestly mean it. They have all benefited, in a small Japanese sort of way, from their experiences, especially the shy young man who had never wanted to go in the first place. He has come up to me regularly since our return wishing to talk with me and re-live his experiences, remembering every place he went to in Britain with remarkable precision. They all said that they would have liked to stay a little longer and even suggested that maybe adventures should be limited to one country as opposed to taking on three. I strongly backed these sentiments up by expressing my own controversial opinions about the London tour. Kacho smiled wryly and shrugged his shoulders: “Thiz iz Japaneze culcha,” he said. 

Read more...