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In Osaka, When You Ask for Directions, the Locals Won’t Just Point — They Will Walk You to Your Destination

When I was writing Osaka: 5 Lessons in 10 Photos, I debated whether to include a sixth lesson which was the most significant of all. In the end, I stopped at five because the sixth deserves a post all its own.

Deers roaming freely in Nara Park
Deers roaming freely in Nara Park

It’s not about the deers in Nara Park. I’m just using the deer photo because this story began years ago with a reference to Nara.

Gary’s Nara experience

In Bacolod, I was having lunch with my younger daughter, Alex, and my U.P. Law classmate, Gary, who grew up and lives there. We were talking about travel and he remarked that it is has become more expensive to travel locally than to go abroad. You should go to Japan, he said, the people are terrific. And he told us a story about this old shop owner in Nara.

Gary was in Nara with his family and they were trying to locate a place. I forget now if it was a restaurant or some other establishment. They entered a shop to ask for directions. They approached the shop owner but it was difficult communicating because they didn’t speak Japanese and the shop owner spoke no English. To their astonishment, the shop owner stepped out of the shop with them and walk with them far enough so that they would have an easier time going to wherever it was that they meant to go. He was so impressed with the kindness and helpfulness; so was I.

The angle that really got me was how the shop owner seemed confident enough to leave the shop unattended — unworried that someone would go in, take advantage and commit robbery. That says a lot about the locals’ perception of peace and order in whatever area of Nara Gary and his family were. But it was just a passing thought. At the back of my mind, I wondered if the kindness shown by the shop owner was the exception rather than the rule.

The young couple on a street in Osaka

Then, it happened to us on our first night in Osaka and we were searching for M. A couple offered to walk us to the restaurant that we couldn’t locate. Gary was the first person I thought of. Apparently, the shop owner in Nara was no fluke. Still, two similar instances don’t exactly establish a pattern. But as if to prove me wrong about my often jaded perception of people in general, it happened again. And again.

The following day, after lunch at Robert, Kat went to Toys “R” Us while I hunted for a smoking area and dessert. I spotted a security guard and started asking where the smoking area was. With his hands, he gave me instructions. Enter a building, go left and…

I walked toward the direction he pointed but the array of restaurants and cafes beckoned. Pretty soon, I was taking photos and taking too many turns that I lost track of where I was supposed to go to get to the stairs to the basement leading to the smoking room. Never mind, I told myself. There was an ice cream place, Amato Maeda, and it looked promising. Dessert and coffee first.

The girl from Amato Maeda

Dessert and coffee done, I started retracing my steps. But I kept going around in circles. Finally, I went back to Amato Maeda and asked the girl behind the counter where the smoking area was. She started gesturing with her hands and I must have looked totally flustered. She gave me a smile, stepped away from the counter and brought me to the aisle just outside Amato Maeda and started motioning with her hands again.

I don’t know if I was still wearing a blank look on my face or if I was squinting as I sign of desperately trying to focus and understand. But less than a minute later, she was motioning me to follow her and she walked me all the way to the door that led to the stairs to the basement. I said thank you, she turned around to return to Amato Maeda and I managed from there.

The Takashimaya sales lady

On our last night in Osaka, Kat and I were doing some last-minute shopping at Takashimaya. At the time, we didn’t know about the tube that connected Takashimaya directly with Swissotel where we were staying. For days, what we did was access Takashimaya by passing through the Namba train station. So it happened that we exited Takashimaya on a different floor and the way back to the hotel was unfamiliar. In short, we were lost. Namba Station is a maze and, for a newcomer, I often got the feeling of being engulfed by the constant motion and hubbub of trains and people.

We went back to Takashimaya and asked a sales lady how to get back to the hotel. Because we couldn’t understand one another, she left her post and motioned us to follow her. She led the way to Namba station to show us where to turn left and where the Swissotel logo and an arrow beside it was plainly visible. We thanked her profusely, she gave us that typical Japanese bow, turned around and walked back toward Takashimaya.

The Japanese has always been stereotyped as being “polite” but what we experienced was beyond politeness. They seem to have this sensitivity to people’s needs that they give, or offer to give, more than what is asked of them. That’s the common denominator among the shop owner in Nara, the couple who offered to walk us to M, the girl from Amato Maeda and the Takashimaya sales lady.

Casting aside prejudices

For someone who grew up with a grandmother’s stories and grade school lessons about how mean and despicable the Japanese were when they occupied the Philippines during World War II — for someone who had been taught from childhood to treat the Japanese with suspicion — I felt an emotional conflict. Was I being disloyal to my grandmother’s memory and was I being unpatriotic by thinking how gracious and kindhearted the Japanese we met were to us?

In war, anyone can turn into a monster. But the war was over a long time ago. It ended when innocent Japanese civilians were incinerated by the atomic bombs that the United States dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The people in today’s Japan had nothing to do with everything that happened almost 80 years ago. How can I hate them? That would be absurd.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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