Essential
Experience
36

Hospitality Needs No Translation

Tokyo, Japan
June 28, 2011
Before me stood a house that I can only describe as coming straight off of an antique porcelain plate. With peaked roofs and gabled eaves, the house was a charming relic of a bygone era.
Hospitality Needs No Translation Chris, Mr. & Mrs. Kurihari, and comedian Larry Larkin pose for a picture together.

When most visitors travel to Japan, they think of the quiet serenity of the countryside, where an emphasis is placed on nature and religious sites, or the brash, kinetic lure of non-stop action along Tokyo’s dazzling shopping districts.

My first visit took a path not usually taken. I was invited into the home of a Japanese couple I met during a cruise aboard the original Star Princess.

I knew it was an honor to be invited into someone’s home while traveling, perhaps never more so than in Japan. So when this couple extended an invitation, I was pleasantly surprised.

That’s how I ended up a year later in my hosts’ Tokyo house, reminding myself to feel honored, as I forced down my first-ever plates of sushi. We eat our fish fried and with chips in Liverpool. But I didn’t want to offend. I’d wash down each bite of sushi with sake only to find my plate and cup immediately refilled.

What came next was even more disorienting. I was taken by limo to a community center and whisked through the lobby to a small auditorium. My hosts directed me to get on the stage and sing the “Love Boat” theme song.

There I stood, alone. No band, no back-up singers, an audience of five expectantly watching me, waiting.

“Love, exciting and new. Come aboard. We’re expecting you.”

Mrs. Kurihrari and Chris on the second formal night aboard the original Star Princess in 1990.

An already surreal situation took on a sense of déjà vu. Three years earlier, I stood in a rehearsal hall in Liverpool auditioning for a job as a vocalist for Princess Cruises. “Love. Exciting and new,” I sang, not realizing that “The Love Boat” was Princess’ theme song. What else should I have sung? I’d even brought along my own back-up dancers and dressed them in feathers and bikinis.

I got the job as a vocalist for Princess; later I was privileged to be Cruise Director and the world outside of my home town opened up. “The Love Boat” theme song even became part of my nightly repertoire. I’d sung it per usual one night on Star Princess during a run to Alaska. The next night, I was mixing and mingling with guests during a cocktail party when a very elegant Japanese couple approached me.

They were dressed in traditional kimonos and asked if they could take a photograph with me as they’d recognized me from the show. The couple asked for my address, and promised to send me a copy of the photo. Although we’d exchanged no more than two dozen words, they said I must contact them if I ever went to Japan.

A few months later, I received a copy of the photograph along with a beautiful sea-green silk tie with little flecks of blue.  I couldn’t believe they’d remembered me. A year later, when Tokyo was on the itinerary, I thought I’d have a real Japanese experience with this family rather than go shopping with colleagues. I exchanged letters with the couple and they offered to pick me up at the terminal.

Mt. Fuji.

The approach to Tokyo is beyond beautiful. I woke up early and saw Mount Fuji covered in snow. As we pulled along the dock, the thundering sound of a troupe of traditionally dressed Taiko drummers greeted our arrival. I was pumped up for my tour of Tokyo.

I had researched the city and was wondering where my hosts would take me. Would I see the Harajuku district, made famous by trendy, Tokyo teenagers? Steps from the Harajuku train station, we could go to Meiji Jingu, a shrine devoted to a former emperor and empress. There’s a 400-year-old well there that is said to be a spiritual power spot. Also close by is Yoyogi Park, a forest within the crowded city.

Maybe my hosts would take me to Roppongi, a glitzy international area known for great nightlife. Perhaps we’d go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the world’s largest with stall after stall of vendors. Or maybe I’d buy a clever gadget in the Ginza, an area world famous for electronic wizardry.

The Kurihari's Daughter & Son in Law at the pier to pick me up from the Pacific Princess, Tokyo 1992

Before I disembarked, the ship’s Deputy Captain came up to me and said, “Chris, there are people with a banner that says, ‘Welcome to Japan, Chris Nichol.’” (I used Nichol as my stage name.) That was my first hint that this tour would be a little different than expected. The ship’s social hostess said, “Chris, don’t you have a gift for them? It’s a tradition.” Of course, the ship’s boutique was closed and I had to scramble to put together a bag of key chains and pens bearing the “It’s more than a cruise, it’s the Love Boat” slogan.

The couple had brought along their daughter and son-in-law. I invited them on board for a tour and as we were leaving, Larry Larkin, an English comedian performing on the cruise, asked if he could join us. The couple, who spoke very little English, indicated their agreement.

We assumed we’d get on the Tokyo Metro with them, but a different transport — a huge, black, chauffeur-driven limousine — pulled up. As we glided through Tokyo there wasn’t a lot of conversation going on. They kept pointing at buildings, saying, “Apartments…. Apartments.” I was thinking to myself, “Buildings…what’s so special about them?”  During the drive, the son-in-law pulled out a tiny cell phone, which was fascinating to see. After all, it was 1992 and most cell phones were as big as bricks.

The Shinjuku ward contains Tokyo’s skyscraper district (Nishi-Shinjuku), Shinjuku Station (the busiest train station in the world), luxury hotels, shopping centers, nightclubs and apartments, as my hosts continually reminded me. Much of it was constructed during the 1970s, and buildings shimmered with enough neon to rival Times Square.

Mrs. Kurihari in her garden wearing her kimono.

We drove up a quiet little side street and the limo deposited us by a brick wall. Ducking through a little door, I was surprised to enter a serene, landscaped garden with huge willow trees and a pond stocked with lily pads and bright orange koi. We’d just been surrounded by skyscrapers seconds earlier! Before me stood a house that I can only describe as coming straight off of an antique porcelain plate. With peaked roofs and gabled eaves, the house was a charming relic of a bygone era.

It had been built by my host’s grandfather, he told me. He ushered us into this delightful house, with traditional tatami mats, dividing screens and amber-hued woods. We exchanged our shoes for slippers, as is customary, and sat down for a sushi banquet. This is where Larry stepped up his act. Knowing I had a novice’s fear of eating raw fish, he kept passing me sushi with his chopsticks. (It turns out serving others with chopsticks is a no-no. Present the plate for others to choose from instead.)

After downing sushi–which I can only imagine must have been of the absolute best quality–with cup after cup of sake, I was then led to the community hall for my command performance of “The Love Boat.” As funny as it felt for me to sing there, my Japanese friends seemed to enjoy the performance and Larry looked highly amused.

My performance was followed by the host’s wife, who performed a graceful, traditional Japanese dance. It was beautiful and I was truly touched by her presentation.

We went back to the hidden house. I got lost while going to the bathroom and entered a room filled with hundreds and hundreds of mounted keys. Then it occurred to me. All those “apartments, apartments” were theirs. They owned tracts of valuable real estate in this most expensive of cities.

I had been befriended by Tokyo’s refined version of the Trump family.

Mrs. Kurihari and Chris sitting on the step of the Kurihari's tea house.

As we said our good-byes, my friends presented me with a delicate tea set. We promised to keep in touch and we did exchange postcards for a while. A few years later, I was saddened to hear about the father’s death, soon followed by his wife’s. They were gracious, lovely people.

The last letter I received from the daughter invited me and my mother to stay at the penthouse suite at one of their hotels (it turned out they owned some of those, too) the next time I was in Tokyo. That was more than 15 years ago, and sadly, I haven’t been back since.

I’m sure I’ll return one day to see the sights of that remarkable city—where ultra-modern glitter seamlessly melds with the quiet traditional. But I cannot imagine it will feel the same without the impeccable and considerate attention provided by my Japanese friends. What I would not give to have the chance to sing that song again in that little community hall.

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