The bell on the door rang loudly as we opened the door, breaking the silence that previously filled the shop. We glanced around the rows of beautiful cloths waiting to be made into kimonos. It did not seem like anyone was there so we turned to leave when suddenly an old woman appeared from the behind the long shelves of cloth. She gestured emphatically for us to sit at a small table in the middle of the shop. We looked at each other, unsure of what to do, the woman was still smiling and pointing at the two chairs, so we sat. She stood across from us, her smile lifting off her face and asked, “kohi, tea”? Still completely unsure of what was going on, we felt like it would be rude to say “no, thanks” so we both said “kohi”. The woman disappeared into a small kitchen in the back of the store and reappeared laden with a tray of coffee and sweets. She meticulously spread the sweets on the table and poured our coffee. She smiled and made drinking motions to us. We looked at each other in confusion and then drank. She disappeared again and came back with a pot of tea and plum candy. She added the plum candy next to the growing pile of sweets on our plates and watched in satisfaction while we finished the coffee, making sure we drank ever last drop before she poured us tea.
Meanwhile, the bell on the door rang again as two more people entered the shop. One was a woman we had run into earlier in the day who had profusely thanked us for visiting their small town, the other was a man, and both took out their cameras upon seeing us in the shop with the older woman. They gestured to their cameras, and then to us. Confused, we nodded, and they began snapping photos of us while we were force fed more sweets. The old woman then gestured me out of my chair and pointed to an elaborate kimono hanging on the wall. I took off my hiking shoes, which suddenly seemed so cave-mannish compared to her delicate slippers, and stepped onto the tatami mat. She pulled down the kimono and held it up for me to put on. She carefully tied the intricate sash and faced me toward a mirror. The kimono was made of the lightest, softest silk I had ever felt. It was obviously quite old and had been cherished over a very long time. I held up my arms and watched as the intricate silk panels fell from my wrists to the floor. The cameras from our onlookers, which had now grown to three people, snapped wildly. Isaac looked as bewildered as I felt, but he picked up my camera and joined the audience.
After the impromptu photo session was over, the old woman disappeared into the back again and brought out a large album. She flipped it open and showed us a photo of a beautiful, young geisha posing with her face painted white wearing the same kimono I had just tried on! She gestured to herself and then to the photo. The other woman spoke a few words of English and explained in awe that the photo of the young geisha was the same old woman who was standing in front of us sixty years ago. She was as amazed as we were when as she translated for us, holding the photo album up for us to see. For a moment, the shop fell silent and everyone gazed at the photo and the smiling ex-geisha in front of us, perhaps imagining, as I was, what it would have been like to be a geisha in the forties and fifties following World War II. No wonder she had so adamantly served us and entertained us by showing off her gorgeous kimono silks. She had not expected, nor wanted us to buy anything at all, she had simply wanted to serve and entertain us with the joy and pride that belongs to that of a geisha.
On our way out the door, she shoved more sickly sweet candies into my hand and bowed deeply. We thanked her profusely and stepped back outside onto the street. Japan is a lot of things— sumo, sushi, geishas, samurai, temples, mountains, snow, tuna, comic books, gothic bunny girls, video games, neon, monkeys, onsens, serenity, zen, ramen, cherry blossoms— but for me that day, Japan was about the kindness and hospitality of complete strangers. It was about being humans, together in the same moment, shedding the layers of years, wars, and language that make us different.
Later, in Tokyo, we wandered among the crazy streets of Kabukicho and Golden Gai; toured grandious temples; drank in dark taverns late into the night with new and old friends; joined the masses at Shibuya Crossing; gawked at the fancy stores in Ginza; rode the subway back and forth across the largest city in the world; drug our ski bags through the insane mass of people in Tokyo station; and dodged reeling carts of fish in the Tsukiji market. Japan is an extremely diverse country, of which I saw just a slice, but that was enough to make me fall in love with the rich and resilient culture and the varied landscapes that make the grand island of Japan.