"JAPAN CLOSE-UP",  June 2005,  published by PHP 


Jeanie Became the Proprietress of a Traditional Japanese Hot-Spring Inn

By Masaomi Ise

Where Is gYamagatah?

Ginzan Hot Springs located near the border between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures have nearly a 400-year history as a spa. Along both sides of the narrow Ginzan River, there are rows of three- or four-story wooden inns built more than 85 years ago. This story begins with the marriage of an American girl into one of these traditional hot-spring inns, Fujiya Inn, which has a history of no less than 350 years. The girlfs name is Jeanie. She came to Japan in the summer of 1988 as a participant in the JET program for which she had applied before graduating from a university in the State of Oregon. JET stands for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in which Japanese local authorities invite young foreigners to assist in foreign language education at junior and senior high schools in local communities.


Jeanie had requested Kyoto or Nara for the place of her assignment, but the JET program assigned her to gYamagata.h This name was a completely unknown name to the American girl. She went to a library and finally found the place on a map. But there was little else she could find about the place except that it was a rural district with a lot of rice paddies. Needless to say, she was quite shocked. The winter in Yamagata was long and bitterly cold.  When she joined a one-night ski excursion, however, she met a young man named Atushi Fuji, the heir of Fujiya Inn. They soon started going out, and got engaged in the summer of the following year.


gWaka-okamih Was Born

Jeaniefs parents and friends were worried about whether she would be able to get along well in Japan. Atushifs parents were also doubtful about whether an American girl would really be able to serve as the okami (proprietress) of a traditional Japanese inn with a 350-year old history. Against all objections, however, Atsushi declared that he would go to the US and live with Jeanie there. So the people around him had no choice but to agree to their marriage.


In the midst of a freezing December in 1991, Jeanie married into the Fuji family at the age of 25 and started a new life as a waka-okami (young proprietress). Fujiya Inn had 12 guest rooms and accommodated about 60 guests per night during peak times. Her mother-in-law was doing almost everything by herself including cooking, cleaning, and putting down and folding up of the futon (bedding). The mother-in-law gave Jeanie full lessons on how to become a real proprietress, starting with behind-the-scenes jobs such as the arrangement of food on serving dishes, dishwashing, cleaning of guest rooms, baths and toilets, and putting down and putting away of the futon. In the kitchen, Jeanie saw a myriad of dishes of all different colors and shapes and thought that the inn must not have enough money to buy complete dish sets. It was not until later that she learned the importance of dishes in Japanese cuisine that aims at pleasing not only the palette but also the eye.


Jeanie got up at five thirty in the morning to get ready to help her mother-in-law in preparing breakfast before six ofclock. While the guests had breakfast in the banquet room, Jeanie and her mother-in-law would fold up the futons and put them back in the closet in each guest room. When breakfast was over, they washed the piles of dishes.  They had a break after lunch until around three. Then they went back to work in preparing dinner and checking in arriving guests. At dinnertime, they brought out the dinner on trays to each guest room. Then, at the right moment, they removed the dinner trays and put down the futons in each room. After that, they washed the dishes again and made preparations for the next dayfs breakfast. When all the work was done, it was already around ten ofclock at night. They could finally have dinner then, but Jeanie was completely exhausted.


Countless Struggles and Errors

Jeanie learned a lot from her mother-in-law. When Jeanie opened a door with her foot because her hands were occupied holding a heavy object, her mother-in-law cautioned her saying, gUsing your foot to open a door is not graceful.h On bitter cold days, the mother-in-law cared about Jeanie and told her, gYoufd better wear monpe (heavyweight Japanese-style pantaloons) during winter.h After about five months, Jeanie proceeded to front jobs such as helping out at the front desk and leading guests to their rooms. She also began wearing a kimono on the advice of her husband Atsushi. She learned from her mother-in-law how to put on a kimono properly, but the kimono fit her so tightly that Jeaniefs body cried out for help. Sitting down Japanese style, with the buttocks on top of the ankles, was also painful. Her feet went numb easily because she was not used to sitting that way. Moreover, she needed a lot of practice to not make noise when opening the door to a guest room, saying gShitsureishimasu (excuse me).h In the beginning, she mistakenly took the meaning of this phrase as gIfm coming in.h So such incidents happened that, when she opened the door to a room saying gShitsureishimasu,h a young couple was in the middle of something. She didnft know for quite a while that, after you say gShitsureisshimasu,h you have to wait for the guestfs answer before opening the door.


Jeanie also struggled with the Japanese language. One day in the parking lot, a guest spoke to her saying, gIfm looking for a trash can.h  She answered, gIfll throw the trash.h  In the dialect of Yamagata, you say gnageru (throw)h for gsuteru (dispose of).h  With a puzzled expression, the guest said, gDonft worry, Ifll take it home,h and drove away.  The guest must have thought that this foreign lady was going to throw the trash into the Ginzan River.


Growing Dissatisfaction

When the newspapers and TV reported the news that the waka-okami of a traditional Japanese inn was an American woman, the number of guests staying at Fujiya Inn increased rapidly due in part to peoplefs curiosity. Nevertheless, since Fujiya had only a few part-time waitresses, Jeanie and her mother-in-law had to deal with the several tens of guests. From early morning till midnight, they worked all day every day even giving up holidays. However, Atsushi was non-cooperative. He did no work other than cleaning the baths and slicing up the fish to make sashimi. Every night, he went out for a drink and came home after midnight. He then slept until noon. He never once tried to change this lifestyle


Jeaniefs dissatisfaction began to build up and she constantly quarreled with Atsushi.  In the eighth month, she finally gave up. gIfve had it!h She went back to the US because she felt that she had to take some extreme action in order to change Atsushi. He made a lot of overseas calls to Jeanie and promised that he would do his best from then on.  Believing his words, Jeanie came back to Ginzan. Before long, Jeanie and Atsushi had their first baby and they took this opportunity to move into a house within walking distance from Fujiya Inn.


One day, when Jeanie was cleaning the toilets, a guest asked her, gWhy are you cleaning toilets while you are the okami of this inn?h This event lead Jeanie to think what the okamifs job was. She began to think, gAll in all, the okami is different from a waitress.  Cooking, cleaning and dishwashing can be left to other people, but the okami must always place top priority on the services to her guests.h She therefore set about hiring waitresses and a master chef to create a system based on the division of labor.


All That Is Required Is Cordiality

At present, Fujiya has 17 employees, including part-time workers, as the cooking, washing, and cleaning personnel, office clerks, waitresses and general manager. Jeanie is in charge of training them. In the initial days that Fujiya began hiring workers, Jeanie sometimes became emotional when the employees did not do as she said. It was because she was only thinking of the guests and not the feelings of the employees. And when she became emotional, she was apt to make straightforward remarks like other Americans.  She also had a feeling that she had a right to do so because she was paying them a salary.  Some employees were offended and quit their jobs. Atsushi advised her to try to understand other peoplefs thoughts and feelings. He also advised her to speak more politely.


One day, Jeanie had an opportunity to attend a gathering with the proprietresses of the inns in Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures. She had a chance to talk to a famous okami there. From a TV program she had seen before, Jeanie had had the impression that the okami had perfect manners. When she actually met her, however, something was different. Until then, Jeanie had placed too much value on gformsh such as manners and polite language out of her desire to upgrade Fujiya Inn. But she realized that it was wrong. She came to think like this: Services do not always have to be offered in perfect manners. All that is required is our cordial hospitality. If my employees speak in Yamagata dialect or make a mistake, itfs not a big deal. We only have to be careful not to behave rudely to our guests.


Arrange Flowers for Guests

Jeanie loves flowers. She started to learn ikebana (traditional Japanese flower arrangement) when she was an assistant English teacher in the JET program.  Fortunately, a lot of flowers come out in Yamagata from season to season. Jeanie uses seasonal flowers to decorate more than 20 places in her inn, including twelve guest rooms, the entrance and front desk. gBecause looking at beautiful things is a comfort for everybody,h says Jeanie.


gI think Ikebana is a spiritual art. What is important is the attitude of mind to arrange flowers for the other party. I canft make a good arrangement if I canft put my mind into it or if I'm irritated. When I arrange the flowers, I always try to calm myself, love the flowers, and arrange them so that each flower will appear at its best. Producing a beautiful space. I do that for my guests, but it benefits me at the same time. Actually, the moment I do ikebana is my healing time.h


As the number of waitresses increased, Jeanie was free of the cleaning and washing jobs in the morning. Around then, she began to wear a kimono all day. She likes kimonos of quiet color and the calm, graceful atmosphere they create. These days, she does not hesitate to wear a kimono from early morning till late at night as the okami. The tightly fastened obi (sash) no longer bothers her. She can now put on a kimono in no more than 10 minutes without anybodyfs help. gAmong the traditional costumes of various countries, the kimono is special. It fits all kinds of people from children to the elderly, either men or women. I think it is wonderful. Getting dressed in a beautiful kimono to greet guests and arranging flowers are rooted in the same ghospitality,h I assume.h


Beautiful Japanese Language

In the early days, Jeanie used to speak Japanese based on the concepts and expressions of English, so her words sometimes sounded blunt or even harsh. On one rainy day, when a party of female guests was leaving the inn to get on the bus, Jeanie lent them bangasa (traditional coarse oilpaper umbrellas) with the Fujiya logo printed on them.  One of the ladies said to Jeanie who was out to see them off, gI like this bangasa.h  Jeanie remained silent not knowing how to answer her. The ladies then got on the bus with the umbrellas in their hands. Later, Atsushi told Jeanie that she should have said to the guest, gIfm sorry but I hope you wonft mind my asking you not to take it with you.h  Jeanie thought that it was surely difficult to say no to the guests without hurting their feelings.


gI think Japanese language is beautiful. It is profound, delicate, ambiguous and subtle.  Haiku by Basho Matsuo is a good example that expresses well the subtlety of Japanese language. Haiku is popular among Americans. I would say, there is no other literature like haiku in which you can express nature or your feelings so richly and finely in a small form of 17 syllables.h


Letfs Work Together for the Prosperity of Ginzan Hot Springs

During the years of Jeaniefs growth as a proprietress, there was a change also in the people of the town of Ginzan Hot Springs. In past days, each inn was separate and independent. But the people came to think that they should work together for the prosperity of the entire town. Jeanie helps other inns when they receive calls or faxes from foreigners.


The proprietresses of the inns of Ginzan Hot Springs gather together twice a month.  The proprietresses all work together to clean the streets or decorate the bridges with flowers. When they heard that the Shinkansen line was going to be extended, they visited the manager of Sendai Station and pleaded to have the Shinkansen train stop at Oishida, Ginzanfs nearest station. Their wish was realized and the inns began to receive a large number of guests from the Kanto region. The proprietresses also learned the history of Ginzan so that they could better inform their guests.


Patience and Kindness

Last year, Jeanie went back to the US along with Atsushi and their two children. One time, when they were spending a weekend on a beautiful beach in Oregon, their dog out of playfulness happened to approach a little girl walking by. The girl however started to cry from fear. The father of the girl got furious and began criticizing them. Jeanie apologized and got her dog back, but the father kept swearing at them. He was obviously acting in an excessive manner. She would have given him tit for tat if she were her former self. However, Jeanie now stayed calm, apologized again, and left. It was because she thought that there was no point getting angry at such a trifle. And she was surprised at herself thinking that way.


gI have lived in Japan for 15 years now. If I have acquired something like a characteristic of true Japanese during these years, it could be patience and kindness. I feel Ifve been growing. Patience and kindness. I think these characteristics are the inherent virtues or values of Japanese people.h It is apparent that the reason why Jeaniefs inn is prosperous is no longer because she is a rare foreign okami.

This article is adapted from the mail magazine, Japan On The Globe (No. 370).

Masaomi Ise is editor-in-chief of the magazine.