Overlooking a volcano

Meet Yoshi. One of the unfortunate things about visiting a place far away is that there are always things you regret not doing. Below is the best photo of Yoshi I have. Like so many other wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, we didn’t take enough pictures of or with him. Viewed in a positive light, it’s one of the millions of reasons to see these people again.  Notwithstanding there are qualities within this photo I’d never have captured had I known I would forget to take a few more. 

I like the following photo of Yoshi. But before you look at it I want to try and describe the man himself. I understand you never fully know a person, however a some you can learn a lot from someone that is willing to open their doors and let it all hang out so to speak. Sure, in Japan it’s a culturally significant act. If you’re going to be a host, you’re going to be the best damn host there is and that means opening up your life just a little bit.

But people will surprise you when you least expect it. In Japan, the level of hospitality that we experienced, its something that will make you feel like you’ve never felt before. Here in the states we’re all so afraid of letting people in, letting people get close. And the Japanese, in our films and books and history, have this reputation of being stand-offish. There oceans of books about the closed society that is Japan. Some would say the glimmer that Yoshi shared with us was more to show that the Japanese are extraordinary and unique, but I would argue he did it to show us how similar we are and how culturally unique we all are.

There is much to be gained in letting your guard down and opening up your trust. I’m still learning. Hopefully by the time I lay to rest for good, I’ll understand how all this works mostly. Yoshi brought me and I think us both closer towards opening our hearts fully. We spent a little over four days with Yoshi and I grew to respect and love him as a friend and wise soul. It’s not just that he took in complete strangers and hosted them in such a welcoming and open manner, it’s that he did it with pride and caring. Hospitality with no-expectation of anything in return.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal and I don’t think I’d go on about it so much if I felt I could encounter it a little more here in the states. But I remain a skeptic, an un-trusting, fearful, questioning American at heart. But this man let us into his life, his home and showed us the beauty, joy and delight that can be lived in a very unique culture that began hundreds of generations before ours. In turn, he shared with us his respect and value of some of our very own cultural values that are questioned and frowned upon by people within our very own borders and shared with us his delight for the exceptional nature of our own country and that its position in the history of the world isn’t something to be taken lightly or belittled as much as we do.He taught us respect. Respect is not something that is permanent. It’s hard gained and a long and winding road. The potholes are huge sometimes and it could use a good paving. He showed us we could be the pavers or the ones driving over without slowing down. That was in our hands.

Yoshi is man that stands tall at around 5 foot 7. Every move seems deliberate, unsentimental and unwavering. Here he stands in front of a roadside egg vending machine. They aren’t the eggs he usually buys, but something of a novelty that he wanted to share with us. Us being interested in food. The sun in Kyushu is unrelenting at times and Yoshi is always prepared. Khaki safari shorts, cut just above the knee hung loosely over his energetic, seeming, thirty’ish frame. His golf shirt, collars thankfully cuffed where they belong, curled and resting on his tense shoulders, his sunglasses firmly concealing his glimmering eyes. His corporate hat pulled just over his brow, brim slightly curled from moderate wear. Gold bespectacled sunglasses flash the likeliness that the Kyushu day will blast us with its direct sun and dehydrate us with its steamy sea breeze. Skin a tanned hide of restful exertion in the South Japanese sun. Kagoshima like the Florida of his dreams. Snow falls infrequent and for brief moments at best.

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Landed in the land of Yoshi-San

We haven’t spoken much about our time in Japan. By all means this is not because we had nothing to say, nothing to reflect on instead it’s quite the opposite. Japan is as it ever will be an intriguing and mysterious island for travelers arriving from a western perspective. A few hundred years ago I imagine it was even more shocking, for we have a world of bindingly interconnectedness.  After we left Japan, the only country that came close to the particularly alone feeling that is Japan was Ireland. Japan stands out, culturally, geographically and as a place to move through. 

I’ve lived to see the innovation and capitalistic strength that has set Japan onto the world stage. The war was long over by the time I squirmed out from the womb but Japan has infiltrated our landscape in a way that few back in the forties would dare to believe. Yet, being surrounded by the products of Japan’s efficiency and export economy has not had the effect of bringing any sort of intellectual, historical or cultural understanding of what is Japanese. When we began in February to talk about the places in the world we’d like to try to visit on this journey, Japan landed at the top of the list. So, we dug through our minds and eeked out a few loose connections that we had to the far flung island.

I’d been working in fine dining as a Chef in NY for a few years, short by any stretch of the imagination for old-school Chefs, but I had managed to make a great many friends and connections in that short period. After I’d let my restaurant know I was leaving I pulled Nafumi, our Wagyu beef supplier, aside and told her about our plans. We’d been ordering from Nafumi for over 3 years so it just seemed natural to ask her. I spoke with her on the phone more than much of my family. As soon as she learned of our interest in Japan and our supposed itinerary she insisted that we come over for dinner and discuss how she could help us in exploring Japan. Nafumi had always been a hard lady to bargain down prices, so I chose not to argue and welcomed the opportunity for a new friend.

We spent a lovely evening at her house and enjoyed a nice braise over terrific wine. She made a commitment that she would ask all her friends and see if she could find us a place to stay or two while we were there. We were shocked and thankful and left her home glad to have such a wonderful new friend and advocate for our adventures. 

Time compressed and shoved us all the way to Seoul before we realized that we hadn’t done a good job at finalizing our plans in Japan. We had found a intriguing farm to stay at but that was about a week and a half away and we were leaving Seoul in a few days. Time was getting short. We began barraging Nafumi with follow up emails within a few days of realizing we were getting too close and needing to purchase tickets. The prices were creeping and for any of you that have ever traveled to Japan, you know how it is; for those who’ve yet to go, save all you can.  We didn’t hear from Nafumi for a few days and started to panic. We quickly booked a flight to Tokyo as we needed to leave Seoul and be in Japan with plenty of time to find the farm we wanted to visit. 

The next day, I get an email from Nafumi. “Ok, Wayne. You are good in Kagoshima.” She goes on to explain that her friend Yoshi is available and willing to ‘host’ us. We quickly called the airlines and changed our flight from Tokyo to Kagoshima. We were on our way to Japan. Into the arms of a total stranger. We only knew he was nice and would pick us up from the airport. 

For the last few days in Seoul I put all that out of my mind and didn’t really think about it until we were on the plane to Japan. Who is this guy? What will he be like? Are we intruding? What are we getting into here? 

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