Our last day in Kyoto was rainy and depressing. What started out as precipitation devolved into the kind of rain that makes you feel damp right down to your skin. We were out in it because we had been working for a few days, so this was our last chance to see the city.
On a friend’s recommendation, we set out for a temple reputed to have delicious food. The nearest subway station was next to the Kyoto Botanical Garden, so we decided to walk through it on our way. Beautiful as it was, the garden’s dripping tree branches just made us feel more wet and cold. We emerged on the other side of the garden very much in need of a warm beverage and a respite from the rain.
We walked down the street, headed toward the temple, and spotted a coffee shop. What luck! It was even called Cafe Meister Tanaka – which was fun, and it was open. In we walked, to see a man in his fifties behind the counter of a deserted cafe. He looked up silently as I said ‘good afternoon’ in Japanese. I followed that up by asking for a ‘tea, please,’ still in Japanese. The man indicated that this was not possible by shaking his head. ‘Coffee?’ I asked tentatively in Japanese. He gave a curt nod. I don’t drink coffee, so I paused for a second to think. Because of the rain, being picky was out the window; instead, I came up with an alternate solution. ‘One coffee and one hot water, please,’ I asked in Japanese. After all, they would need hot water in order to be able to make coffee there, right? But the man said, ‘No,’ with an unfriendly look that suggested his distaste at my perseverance. Trying to ignore his antipathy, I decided that even holding B’s warm cup of coffee would be enough for me – and why should he be denied his beverage because coffee tastes like dirt to me?
Just as I was about to downgrade my request to just a coffee, B said, ‘Nevermind. Let’s go!’ And he was right: this employee or owner clearly did not want us in there. The appeal of a warm cup and some time indoors wasn’t worth evil looks for fifteen minutes. So, we left.
Continuing down the residential street without another cafe or restaurant in sight, I debated what I could have done to anger the man. Was he in the process of closing the shop, and he didn’t know how to say ‘closed’ in English? But he didn’t try to pantomime that or gesture us out. Was he opposed to our wet state? But we had tried to brush off some of the rain before entering. Maybe he didn’t appreciate us being foreigners? But we had tried to speak his language, inelegant as the attempt had been. Whatever the reason, we weren’t having a drink at the Cafe Meister, and that was that.
It’s not that we expect all shopkeepers in any country of the world to welcome everyone. Nor are we under the impression that everyone has to like us. Our disappointment was because during our two weeks in Japan to that point, everyone we had met had been welcoming and patient with us. ‘The Japanese are super friendly,’ we wanted to shout from the rooftops! Alas, here was a blatant counter-example we couldn’t shake.
After yet another week in Japan, I feel confident saying that this man was an anomaly – and letting go of my attempts to guess what we did wrong. After all, fifteen minutes after we left there, we stumbled into another cafe, where we got two cups of tea each and a cake – with a smile. Mission accomplished.