The Lady at the Sushi Restaurant

September 19, 2016
I’m sitting in an airline lounge at Narita International Airport outside Tokyo, and I was reflecting on my recent stops here in Japan. I just disembarked from a 15-day trans-Pacific cruise that started in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and ten of those days were sea days. Our five days in port were in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, USA, and then our four ports in Japan — Otaru and Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido, and then Tokyo (proper) and Tokyo (Yokohama) where the cruise ended. I was one of the guest speakers on this cruise (you can visit my cruise speaking page by clicking here), and that is a pleasure that is still as exciting as the first time.

I’ve been to Japan many times, initially while I was working for a major Fortune 25 company, and then many times after taking the early retirement so I could travel and write and have fun! While I’ve been to many exciting places and seen so many wonderful sights in the 55 countries and over 125 cruise ports I’ve been to, it’s the people who are memorable and who make the trips so enjoyable.
There was the tour guide on our 21-day journey through six countries in Europe; we heard her speak the five languages (Dutch, German, Italian, French, English) fluently and with ease every place we went. And then on that tour we met many nice couples, including one with whom we’ve since cruised a couple times as well as vacationed together. There was the chap in the pub in Glasgow who told us about the “contest” with the Germans on who could make the strongest beer. (Who won? It wasn’t the Germans.) And there was a whole group of Australians that we had a great time with on a six-week cruise from New York to Sydney (they were finishing a 100+ day world cruise).
And there have been so many more.

And then on this recent trip, there was a lady at the sushi restaurant in Hakodate. I don’t know her name; I don’t know where she lives, or if she’s married or single, or if she has any children or grandchildren — I really know nothing about her. Except. Except I do know that she made such an impression on me because she wanted me to feel comfortable where I was in a situation that could have been very UNcomfortable.
You see, I purposely went in to a sushi place that didn’t cater to tourists. Why? I eat with tourists all the time; I wanted to eat with locals. And when you’re in another country and you’re not fluent in their language, it can get tricky. I was given a place at “the bar” right next to her; sushi plates were coming by on a conveyor belt, but there was also a menu from which you could order. I wrote down a couple items (the hostess gave me a menu with English), and then I sat there waiting for them to arrive. The lady had instincts (as do most women) and I’m sure she knew that I didn’t know what to do.
She took a new tea glass and gently pushed it my way. Then she opened a nearby container, scooped two small helpings of green tea powder into the glass (ceramic actually), and then showed me how to operate the hot water faucet to make tea. She handed me the tea and smiled. ‘Arigato,’ I said as I smiled back at her. I now had some hot tea (and it was HOT!) and I had something to do while waiting for my food to arrive.
I ate the sushi that I’d ordered, but I wanted more. Nothing on that conveyor belt appealed to me, nor did anything else in the menu. But I did see something that I thought I’d like that was on a banner hanging from the ceiling. One problem — it was only in Japanese. At least in France or Italy I can write down the words even if I don’t know what they mean. But there is no way that I can write Kanji without unintentionally insulting someone or ordering 50 pounds of broiled sea cucumber! I took a piece of paper and a pen; looked over at her, and pointed to the banner. “Ah,” she said as she smiled again. She took the pen and paper and wrote down the item that I wanted. She handed the paper to the waiter, and my new plate was soon on its way to me. Once again I said ‘Arigato’; one of the ten words (okay, maybe seven or eight) in Japanese that I know.
She smiled; finished her lunch, and left.

Her kindness was special; special to me. I’ve always felt comfortable in Asia, even when I can’t speak, read, or understand the language. The locals are such warm and caring people who want visitors to feel welcomed in a land where many might feel intimidated or scared. But I don’t feel that way.

The lady at the sushi restaurant didn’t go out of her way to make me feel comfortable; she offered me the assistance and kindness that I’m sure she shares with everyone, and it’s that kindness that I see in everyone in Asia. I can’t wait for my next trip — eight weeks of Southeast Asia in early 2017!


Happy Travels!

Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, sends out a monthly newsletter (almost every month!), is an avid TripAdvisor reviewer, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at You can also connect with him and other travelers on his International Travel Expert page on Facebook at

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