Long before Karuizawa became a popular resort town west of Tokyo, it was a key outpost along the Nakasendo road system maintained by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a place where traveling government officials could find food and bedding for the night. So for hundreds of years, this sleepy woodland area along the base of Mount Asama has prospered on the coin of travelers. However, sometimes it is the traveler who leaves a little bit richer.
As I stood in front in front of a bulky vending machine next to the Japan Rail Karuizawa Station, my eyes moved over the sugary canned coffee drinks lined up behind a hard plastic panel. This was part of my penance.
My wife, Miko, carefully planned every detail of our summer escape to the cool environs of Karuizawa, which the Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw described as a “hospital without a roof” because of its ability to rejuvenate tired souls. The only responsibility she dared place in my hands was the buying of two bullet train tickets, which I did. Unfortunately, I left the tickets in my office desk — an oversight that did not come to light until we arrived at Tokyo Station with little time to spare before our train departed.
During our three-day vacation,Miko pulled off a masterful balancing act, making sure that we enjoyed ourselves, while still never letting me off the hook for inflating the cost of our trip with an extra set of train tickets. Case in point: If I wanted a coffee, it would be coming out of a vending machine and not from the Starbucks across the street.
I was so absorbed in the many drink options that the light tugging on my shirtsleeve almost went unnoticed. A small, elderly Japanese man was standing next to me, surprisingly close for a culture that values personal space. Moist eyes beamed from behind thick, scratched lenses. His blue and white checked shirt was worn and dusty, but neatly tucked in his trousers. A few missing teeth made his grin all the more disarming.
“Excuse me, kind sir,” he said in Japanese.
I blinked a few times in mild surprise. A Japanese person will rarely approach an unknown foreigner and begin speaking in Japanese. The pervasive assumption is that the native tongue is just too tricky for the mind of a gaijin.
“Excuse me, sir, could you be so kind as to provide me with any unneeded spare change?” the old man asked.
Not only was he speaking to me in Japanese, but his words were honeyed with the nuanced honorifics reserved for people in this society of much greater status than I had achieved. The way he used the language suggested a man of high culture and education. What forks and blind alleys along the road of life led him to spending his golden years panhandling tourists, I wondered.
The novelty of someone speaking to me in honorific Japanese was strangely pleasing. So much so that some reward seemed in order.
I reached into the front pocket of my jeans for a 50- or 100-yen coin, but could only find a 500-yen coin. I hesitated. This was a considerable sum of money. That coin alone could pay for five cans of coffee. His face twitched ever so slightly. Each second that I made him stand there with outstretched hand seemed another sting to his dignity.
The weight of the coin placed in his palm surprised him. He squinted carefully and confirmed his good fortune. Fingers wrinkled and coarse like the dried, late-summer leaves near the top of Mount Asama slid around my hand.
“You, sir, are a great, great man,” he said, gently touching my chest with his forefinger. His tone was so sincere, almost daring anyone to question his conviction.
“Tonde mo nai,” I offered in my poor Japanese, trying to wave off his compliment. He shuffled back into the crowd and I turned back to the vending machine.
Miko emerged from the restroom looking fresh and ready for the ride back to Tokyo.
“What do you want to drink?” I asked, struggling to fit a crumpled 1,000-yen bill into the slot.
“You don’t have any change?” she asked, having completely missed my encounter with the kindly beggar of Karuizawa.
Miko took the bill from my hand and smoothed it against her pants leg, all the while shaking her head. It was clear that her view of me as a forgetful baka-mono would not end with the conclusion of our trip.
As we made our way to the ticket gate, I again saw the old man shuffling among the crowd. As we passed, his eyes grew big, as if spotting a dear old friend. He took my forearm in one hand and pointed at me with the other.
“You, sir, are a great, great man,” he echoed his earlier compliment, only this time adding more emphasis to the second “great”. Without another word, he turned and walked out of the station.
Miko’s bag slipped off her shoulder and hit the ground. She stood there blinking, confused by the encounter.
“Why did that old guy just call you a great, great man?” she asked, tiny wrinkle lines forming over her nose.
I mustered a comically condescending smirk and said, “Isn’t it obvious?”
Before I could say more, the chimes sounded and we were caught in a wave of travelers pushing toward the train.
I could tell Miko was working hard on something in her head. Passengers making their way up and down the aisle probably thought we were not together as several minutes passed without a word between us. Finally, Miko blurted out, “No, it is not obvious.”
I just smiled and shook my head, refusing to offer any clue that might help unravel the riddle.
I looked out the train window and watched as Karuizawa slowly faded back into the shadows of Mount Asama.
Best 500 yen I ever spent.
Jim Hawe writes out of Tokyo, Japan where every day he performs acts of greatness that go largely unnoticed by his wife, two children and beagle.