A cold Sapporo night. The snow is falling steadily, the smiling faces of Japanese emerging from izakayas, fresh from filling their bellies with Hokkaido crab. It is a special night for this city of two million people; the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) is in full bloom. Odori Park is lined with the huge snow sculptures. Standing against one of them will fill your entire field of vision.
I'm walking down another popular attraction in Sapporo at this time: the Susukino ice festival. As the entertainment district of Sapporo, Susukino is filled with drinking establishments, restaurants, stores, and, on this night, scores of ice sculptures. This city does give tribute to the meaning of "winter wonderland". And if the sight of a Chinese dragon or a unicorn with its wings spread isn't enough for you, there are the ice booths.
An ice bar offering warm Bailey's Irish Cream mixed with Sapporo milk. Another letting you test a karaoke machine. Each with walls at least ten inches thick, they offer refuge from the cold winds and snowy skies for a short while.
I'm walking past the first row of these ice booths, having just consumed a nice crab ramen (カニラ-メン) from the nearby famous ramen alley. My stomach full of warm noodles and crab meat, I'm rather enjoying an evening stroll in this white paradise.
A voice a few meters behind me. That was awkward. I really hope it wasn't addressed to me. Though 99% of my encounters with Japanese people are quite favorable, there is always the occasional miscreant, who is usually drunk and suddenly gets the inclination to harass English-speaking foreigners. This time, judging from the urgency in the call, I'm assuming it's the latter.
A little louder. Yeah, he's definitely talking to me. The question is, will he give up if I don't answer, or should I address him?
And now a tap on the arm. There's no denying him now. I turn around. It turns out to be a quite sober man in his 50's and his teenage son. More to the point, with the exception of getting my attention, he starts to speak to me in Japanese. Definitely not a man seeking a free lesson. I'm in no rush, and would love the conversation, so I walk and talk.
"Doko kara kimashta ka?" (where are you from)
"America kara. Shikashi Hiroshima ni sunde imas." (from America, but now I live in Hiroshima)
Standard question for any tourist. We go through the usual paces of conversation (where I'm from, what am I doing here, did you like the snow festival, etc...); he even bought me one of the Bailey's drinks and told me about his son's education; he had just taken his university entrance exams and was waiting for the results. His son's English level wasn't so good, but he clearly knew a few words. Trying to indulge his father, I spoke to him in English and his father in Japanese.
Any other time an encounter like this happens I'm somewhat skeptical, mainly because it's just a random person emerging from a bar who feels like testing his high school English. That's not the case here; I was talking to two natives of Hokkaido (though originally from Shikoku, I later found out), who wanted nothing more than to learn about some of the culture that was entering their corner of the world this week - many foreigners come for the Yuki Matsuri.
Even more so, Taka-san, as he liked to be called, was very friendly and easygoing, willing to speak Japanese to me in simpler words so I could understand. His son was a little shy, or maybe he just felt nervous about speaking English, or being around a stranger for the evening.
Eventually we ended up having a drink at Rad Brothers, a gaijin bar that had been recommended to me earlier in the evening; whether Taka-san thought I'd be more comfortable there or was headed that way to begin with, I'll never know. However, I strongly suspect he walked in to put me at greater ease; maybe it was just the closest bar. But, in either case, it was a chance to relax. We talked some more, I had fun with his son reviewing the days of the week in English and Japanese, and I learned a new Japanese idea:
"You want to understand Japan? Majime. Remember, majime."
Of course I couldn't understand the Japanese, and he didn't have the right English words, but I later found out majime means sincerity, or seriousness. Respecting someone with a bow shows majime. An apology shows majime. The parts of Japanese culture I was describing to him about why I chose Japan (i.e. the kindess of the Japanese people) show majime. However, a drunk Japanese technician working on the missile defense program at the Air Force base in Aomori was not exactly majime; I couldn't even talk to him, because I had no clues what the Japanese words were that he used to describe his job (try explaining missile silo or aerial tracking with hand gestures).
Even Taka-san seemed somewhat embarassed by his behavior, which let me think more highly of him: a family man who clearly doesn't get drunk every night, and goes out with his son. However, what he said next threw me a bit:
"You stay at my house tonight."
It wasn't a question. It was a request, however, and I could tell it wasn't too arbitrary; he had clearly been observing what kind of person I was, and wanted to do something nice. I was still a little thrown; we had only been talking for an hour, and this man is inviting me into his home? With his family? I hadn't had the pleasure of being a guest in a Japanese house as of yet, but I knew I couldn't accept his offer: I didn't want to inconvenience him, and I knew I'd have to leave there pretty early in the morning anyway - I was flying out of Hokkaido the next day.
Luckily he didn't seem too offended, and understood that I already had a hotel room for the night. He gave me his meishi (business card - quite common to exchange when you meet someone) and took his son home in a taxi, encouraging me to contact him if I was ever in Sapporo. I was really stunned at his generosity; clearly there was a side of Japan I had failed to see before, and I wasn't going to let that happen again.
I met a man and his son on the streets of Sapporo, we talked for an hour, and he offered to invite me into his home, his life. That's not something easily forgotten. I will be keeping a more open mind about everything I see from now on.