Outdoor Onsen -hot spring in Hokkaido

I spent my first 23 years in Japan. I was born and bred in Hokkaido (北海道), and went to college in Tokyo. I then spent the next 30+ years in the U.S. and currently reside in the suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. It is the most unabashedly American city of all the places. I consider myself native to both countries.

Having spent more time in America, I’ll admit that my perspective is more American than Japanese these days. When I travel and visit Japan, it’s always an eye-opening experience.

Japanese People are trustworthy and it never crosses in their Japanese minds that someone might be untrustworthy, even a total stranger. This is especially true in the other parts of Japan outside of Tokyo, called Chihou (地方). I am a county bumpkin from Hokkaido where the pace of life is slower and people are nicer and friendlier. You can think of this like the difference between living in New York City VS living in a Midwestern city.

Last time I was visiting my mom in Hakodate (函館), Hokkaido, I took her to a Onsen (温泉)in town for an overnight stay. It is a Japanese national pastime to enjoy hot spring baths in Onsen hotels. I highly recommend one if you are visiting Japan and want to immerse yourself in real native culture.

I made a reservation through a travel site months before, and got a good discount, and there was a money-back for reserving through the site. I thought, “Great, more savings.” I went on to check myself in at the front desk, and this nice Chinese man who spoke impeccably polite Japanese helped me with the check-in; so far so good. He bowed to me many times during the check-in, I had to bow back constantly to be maintain the politeness. You see, when trekking back to Japan, my Japanese upbringing kicks in every time and become an expert at bowing because you do NOT want to be impolite in Japan.

At the end of the check-in process, he told me “In appreciation of you making an early reservation to our hotel, here is 2100 yen cash back for you”, and with another bow he handed me an envelope with cash in it. I was flabbergasted. Japanese hotels, especially the ones in small cities, mostly deal with cash payment at check out, and they normally do not ask for my credit card at check-ins. I did not pay them anything at that point, and they gave me ACTUAL CASH to stay at their hotel. At that point, I could easily have been a bad person, and skipped town with the money, and they would never find me, right? I was thinking like I do back here in the U.S.

This type of defensive thinking which can be totally normal in other cultures does not have a place in a small city in Japan. People just innately trust you. This begs the question: do YOU deserve this trust?

Well, I did not want to make a scene about getting cash before I actually paid them for the stay, so I bowed and headed off to the elevator to locate my room. The front desk clerk was sending me off with another bow. On the way to the room, the American side of my mind is telling me, “I can’t believe what just happened to me!”

When you are shown this type of respect and trust, you want to strive to act trustworthy, and want to return the respect and trust. At least, that’s how I feel.

If you are visiting Japan, I would like you to know that there is a lot more to Japan than the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and traditionally beautiful landscapes of Kyoto.  There are many small city charms in Japan like extra polite and friendly people at cute local Onsens.

On the same trip, I stayed in a business hotel in Hamamatsuccho (浜松町), Tokyo for a few days before returning to Las Vegas. During the stay, I found that city folks in Tokyo are also trusting despite being from a big city.

It was raining one day, and I discovered that the hotel let you borrow umbrellas. “Great!”, I thought, because it is a pain to carry around umbrellas in your luggage, but umbrellas are necessities in Japan. I went to the front desk and asked for 3 umbrellas for my family and myself. The front desk lady came around and unrolled 3 brand new umbrellas with tags and handed them to me with a bow and polite version of “I will see you later” (いってらしゃいませ). There was no paper work, or recording of our room number. Again, if I were a bad person, I can just take the umbrellas and sell them to someone on the street, right? They had no record of me borrowing the umbrellas and by the time I returned to the hotel at night, the front desk clerks would be all different after shift changes. My guess is that these borrowed umbrellas actually return to them without fail, and it’s a waste of time to keep track of who has checked them out.

Yet again, I was amazed at the culture of trust in Japan. This past trip was full of little surprises that made me appreciate more about people and culture in Japan.



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