The Perils of Presents

I received several more emails from my sister-in-law about footwear, and an in-person demonstration at their house.

One additional thing related to footwear – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Continuing the topic of shoes – you usually take off shoes at ryokan, minshuku (either at entrance or when you get into the room).  You will be barefoot (or in socks) in tatami rooms – you’ll wear slippers provided (or your own footwear if allowed inside) when walking around outside your room in the building, going to shared bath, dining halls, etc.

Oh, there’s also the topic of bathroom slippers….don’t go into bathrooms in your regular indoor slippers …use the slippers provided in the bathroom…I know there’s way too much on footwear and slippers….

I’m doomed to make a faux pas with my filthy feet, and I accept that.

As I write this I am waiting to check in for my flight, unload the dishwasher, and leave a note and small gift for my subletters before driving away for a month.

Which brings up the whole Japanese gift-giving thing.  I always bring gifts for people when I travel.  Often they are items native to Minnesota, like wild rice; or made in Minnesota, like Aveda, Target, 3M, or General Mills products, or even Spam, as a joke.

I will call my sister-in-law Keiko, her mother Hiromi, and her dad Fred (he does go by a western name) to protect their privacy.

I asked Keiko what gift I could bring for her parents, and she suggested some good chocolate that’s made in the USA.  I’ve got that, but then I got to thinking….

When Fred and Hiromi first came to the US to meet my family when Keiko and my brother became engaged, there was a memorable gift exchange at the home of my mother and her husband.

We sat in a circle around the living room, the three of them and 10 of us.  Within minutes—without anything overt being said—it became clear that this was about Fred and my mom’s husband, Jim.  The two of them talked to each other across the room.  If anyone else spoke, they were ignored.  It was fascinating.  It was all about the alpha males.

Jim said, “We have some gifts for you,” and waved in the direction of my mother.  I know they were aware that gift giving is a big deal in Japan and that they had put some thought into what they should give.

My mom jumped up and delivered gift bags to Fred and Hiromi, from which they withdrew Minnesota Twins baseball caps.  They smiled and laughed and seemed very pleased.  Japanese are obsessed with baseball, so whew—gift-giving success, right?

Then Fred went out to the rental car and brought in a box about three feet long and one foot deep.  He placed it on the floor in the center of the room and lifted the lid.  This was no flimsy cardboard box. It was cardboard, but of a sturdy and obviously high-quality nature.

Fred withdrew a pair of white cotton gloves and donned them, then lifted layer upon layer of tissue to reveal a porcelain figure of a geisha wearing a silk kimono.  As he lifted her he explained, “This is a limited edition; one was given to Bill Clinton by the emperor during a state visit.”

Gulp.  There were oohs and ahs but also sideways glances among my family members as Fred accessorized the geisha with a parasol and shoes.

So, chocolate?  Sure, but today I’ll run over to a store that sells all things Made in Minnesota to see what else I can bring.

And tomorrow I leave.  Do you ever feel, just before heading out for a big trip, that you don’t really want to go?  I do.  There’s something to be said for the comfort, familiarity, and ease of one’s own home. Japan is intimidating and I’m not even there yet.

But I’ll go, of course.  See you on the other side!

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