The author and her husband (center) with the extended Akita family in Osaka. (Photo/Courtesy)
The author and her husband (center) with the extended Akita family in Osaka. (Photo/Courtesy)

A meeting of cultures in Japan: Green tea, chicken soup and mild faux pas

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When we reached Naoki Akita’s home on the outskirts of Osaka, we removed our shoes at the door, put on house slippers and climbed the stairs to the third floor. It was early May, and my husband and I were on our dream trip to Japan.

Naoki’s mother, Akemi, was waiting for us. She sat on a tatami mat, stirring a thick green paste of matcha for the tea ceremony. But first, we met the extended family, those living and departed. On the wall in front of us was a Shinto shrine, topped with kanji letters that symbolize world peace. To the left of the shrine was a photo of a revered family member, a philosopher who had passed some 100 years ago.

Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion that predates Buddhism, has no scripture, codes or dogma. But practitioners honor the divine in nature. They also revere elders. On this night, we were the elders, honored guests in the three-generation, three-story townhouse, where Naoki’s parents share an apartment on the first floor. Naoki, his wife, Tomoko, and their 7-year-old son, Masaki, sleep on the top floor, with the kitchen and dining area on the second floor.

As friends of Naoki’s good friend in Ottawa, we received a coveted invitation to a Japanese home. Naoki’s sister, brother-in-law and teenage children were also invited to meet the Americans.

As Tevye proclaims in “Fiddler on the Roof,” what ties Jews together is tradition. But what creates bonds between cultures is the sharing of traditions. And in any culture, a good host glosses over the guests’ faux pas.

Before the visit, I knew to wear clean socks, dress modestly, bring gifts and bow frequently. I also knew not to ask for sugar for green tea, a gaffe equivalent to mayonnaise with pastrami. But I wasn’t prepared for ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers.

Aki, Naoki’s niece, explained the ritual in English. Akemi carried in a tray filled with several empty vases and another vase filled with assorted long-stemmed flowers. I was to choose a vase and a flower. 

I selected a lovely white vase adorned with red flowers and then a pink-tinged carnation that would harmonize. But when instructed to cut the carnation’s stem, I cut it too short for the vase and shook my head in dismay. Allen did better. His yellow alstroemeria complemented a slender blue vase, and his cut was perfect. Then we were told to contemplate our flowers. I angled my carnation to one side, while the family reassured me.

Before the visit, I knew to wear clean socks, dress modestly, bring gifts and bow frequently.

Fortunately, I did better during the tea ceremony. Akemi placed a bowl of green matcha tea in front of each of us and Tomoko gave us a small candy to offset the bitterness. We were surprised that we were the only ones to be served tea, but that is the nature of the tea ceremony, which is designed to create a bond between hosts and guests and a peaceful respite from worldly matters.

After Aki and Tomoko placed small plates of food in front of the family shrine, we ambled downstairs for dinner, mostly prepared by Akemi. Other family members assisted in serving the Japanese pickles, tempura and vegetables, followed by brown rice, out of deference to their California guests. Luckily, Allen and I are reasonably competent with chopsticks.

When Akemi set a small bowl of chicken soup in front of me with tiny noodles, reminiscent of my favorite Jewish soup, I asked for seconds. Akemi beamed.

Naoki speaks English well, and Masaki was eager to try out his English. He asked if we like pizza. Tomoko, who is less confident in her English, used a mobile phone app to translate and communicate. 

But some customs are not in the guidebooks or on our phones. When Allen returned to the table wearing slippers relegated only for bathroom use, his faux pas resulted in good-natured giggles. House slippers don’t enter the bathroom, and bathroom slippers don’t leave. The Japanese are fastidious.

After dinner, we exchanged gifts. We brought Stanford souvenirs, a golden poppy towel and a National Parks calendar. But we were surprised that the family showered us with presents too: teas, matcha-flavored candy, brushstroke prints and small towels. 

Then we shared our music, singing “You Are My Sunshine.” Haruo, Naoki’s father, knows the song and joined in. As Naoki drove us back to our hotel, we sang “Old MacDonald” with Masaki, who had learned it in his English class. We laughed at Allen’s animal noises. 

After Allen and I emailed our thanks, Naoki thanked us too and sent photos. “My family was overjoyed, and it was a great dinner time,” he wrote. “My parents say it was one of the best memories they have had at the end of their lives. Please take care of yourself on your long trip. We look forward to seeing you again.”

Later, he sent another note with a picture. “Good morning,” he wrote. “Your flowers are doing well.”

The family had placed my too-short carnation into the blue vase along with Allen’s alstroemeria. They were in harmony.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].