When I set off that spring morning to explore the mountain area around Hakone I did not predict that I would be scratching at the walls of a basic cultural concept by the end of the day.
“The Japanese people,” our Intercultural Knowledge professor had told us, “are a very traditional, a very group-oriented people. They divide the world into their in-group, uchi, and everybody else on the outside, soto. You all here, you will never be on the inside.”
Certainly, viewing Fuji-san from across lake Ashinoko, the bright red torii shrine gate of Hakone Jinja breaking up the clear blues of the sky and the water, yes, this is traditional Japan.
I spent the day looping around Mount Hakone by train, cable car and on foot, eating curry and browsing the souvenir shops peddling their tacky wares at Togendai port while waiting for my pirate ship to sail me back to the Tokaido checkpoint – the classic Hakone experience.
When I finally disembarked at Hakone-Yumoto I was dusty and tired and very much looking forward to my half hour in the inn’s private onsen hotspring. I checked the time. It was still early, my bath still a few hours out. I sighed and dug the tourist map out of my backpack to explore some more. A little shrine across the river caught my eye.
I set off and was soon in a residential area where other tourists didn’t venture. I checked my map to see that I was going in the right direction. The noise of chatter and laughter made me look up. Just ahead was the shrine indeed, and opposite the entrance a group of locals who had set up under a lush pink canopy of cherry blossoms stretching to all sides. Tarps, blankets, pillows, tables, coolers, grills… this was no mere picnic!
“Oiiii!” Some of the group had spotted me and were now waving at me. I smiled and waved back, about to turn to enter the shrine. “Kochi, kochi!” Over here! A few people had gotten up and were coming over. The group was a strange mix of people: men and women of all ages, some teenagers, some in their eighties and the rest somewhere in between.
I gestured towards my back. “I came to visit the shrine,” I pieced together in Japanese.
“No, no, you need to sit down,” the middle-aged woman next to me told me, another pulling up a chair, shooing me towards the group.
“It’s okay,” the grey-haired man beside me told me, “the monk is here as well.” He pointed to the back where another man in dark robes and monk hat was cheerfully waving at me.
Before I knew what was happening I was sitting in the middle of the group, a chicken skewer in one hand, onigiri in the other, a can of Asahi in front of me.
“Here, have some sake,” a man in a business suit handed me a small cup while yet another woman was trying to find a way to make me hold a handful of meji chocolates, finally giving up and dropping them in my lap.
After the initial excitement wore off, we started talking. About Japanese car culture and about Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. I heard stories from the local grocer and the head of the local fire department. He was retiring today. I learned that Marilyn Monroe had asked my bench neighbor for directions in Tokyo, back in the 50s. We would occasionally get interrupted when the next stranger passed by and needed to be kidnapped into our little gathering.
I asked the monk about groups in Japanese culture and how they invited me. He pointed up to the flurry of blossom above us.
“No groups today,” he said, “that is the beauty of Hanami.”