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Working for and beyond the call of hospitality

by Stephen Mansfield

WELCOME TO SAWANOYA, Welcome to Japan, by Isao Sawa. Omega-Com Inc., 2006, 203 pp., 1,200 yen (paper).

It seems at times as if, by common consent for the other’s altering tastes, that East and West are exchanging positions. The West’s love of the subtle side and back lighting, in the spirit of Junichiro Tanizaki’s lovely extended essay “In Praise of Shadows,” and Japan’s preference for the glare of the fluorescent strip is one example.

Others are the modern Occident’s taste for minimalism in interiors vs. Japan’s cluttered rooms; Britain’s growing vegetarian population, Japan’s carnivores; the West’s interest in Japanese gardens, the English garden boom here. There are more Zen practitioners now in California than in Japan, and the last hope for the sake industry we are told, is the foreign market.

Ironically, it is the patronage of foreign visitors that is also helping to preserve older style inns, those long forsaken by a Japanese clientele favoring the modern facilities of the business hotel. This reverse shift in accommodation is commented upon in Isao Sawa’s “Welcome to Sawanoya, Welcome to Japan,” the story of a budget inn located in a downtown district of Tokyo, one that exemplifies the old school of service: attentive without being intrusive.

Being a long established family business, the Sawanoya, run by Sawa and his wife Yoneko, provides a model for sketches and cameos of Tokyo social history and customs. We learn, for example that, having left a drunken husband, Yoshi, the original founder of the inn (and mother of the present owner), arrived in the Yanaka district of Tokyo in 1940, opening first a boarding house, then a billiard hall and finally the ryokan that became, in the immediate postwar years, Sawanoya.

Sawa gives a spare but vivid portrait of his mother-in-law as harridan and taskmaster. After her daughter flees the entrapment of home, her mother, white with rage, reports the young Sawa to the police for abduction, sending the hapless Yoneko off to a temple.

In a curious reversal of a predicament more common to young brides in Japan, Sawa’s fate was to be the sternly treated son-in-law. If the writer thought that diligence would earn the respect of his mother-in-law, he quickly discovered that an adopted son-in-law’s first lesson is how to kowtow: “Mother would make Isao kneel formally on the tatami,” Yoneko recalls in the book, “and hector him about what she called his shortcomings.”

The hardships of inn-keeping in those years are enumerated upon. “If regular customers appeared at the same time and expected to be accommodated,” the writer recalls,” Yoneko and I would give up our room and sleep either in a closet used for storing futon or with Yoshi in her room.”

Drunken guests were common, and empty bottles of alcohol left by departed high-school groups were routinely discovered behind ceiling panels. As Japanese guests dwindled with the popularity of the business hotel, the Sawas were faced with the daunting prospect of taking in foreigners, a step that would mean a learning curve in language, treading softly through minefields of cultural distinctions, a daily adjustment to the needs, preferences and tastes of their new guests.

Doubtless too much is made in Japan of such cultural differences, while the overriding similarities are downplayed, but with short-stay visitors, whatever differences exist are likely more visibly, intensely manifested. Foreign residents in Japan might be puzzled by the lengthy explanations about the hurdles of the Japanese toilet, bathing, eating habits and manners but, as with many works of cross-culturalism, much humor can, and is, extracted from describing the collision of customs.

Interestingly, many of these cultural slipups concern misplaced objects, a fact nicely captured in the complaint of one of Sawanoya’s part-time cleaners: “It’s room 21,” she despairs, apparently not for the first time, “The tea canister is filled with hot water, there are shoes in the tokonoma (alcove), and there are bananas in the shoe cupboard!”

The long-suffering Sawa clearly benefits from a sense of humor and forbearance as he encounters fresh oddities and eccentricities: the guest who uses a recently purchased chabako (wooden box for keeping loose tea) as a suitcase; the Middle Eastern gent who sets himself up as a door-to-door pistachio salesmen; an American who puts his sneakers into the tumble-dryer.

If the Japanese are inordinately fond of knowing how foreigners view them, here is a rare chance to see how the Japanese perceive us.