February 16, 2000
I was most of the way through a 1300 kilometer pilgrimage around
Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island. After a slew of sunny
days, I packed up my winter jacket and sent it back to Osaka to
lighten up my pack. A day later I got caught in a freak snowstorm
on a mountaintop. Ten days after that I wobbled into a bank to change
a traveler’s check, sat down on a bench, and passed out. I
woke up in a hospital. Double pneumonia, the doctor said. He knew
I was on the pilgrimage – I had been brought in wearing pilgrim
white, with a Buddhist rosary and a Kobo Daishi staff. He had done
the trek himself, twice. He knew I wasn’t a Buddhist but still,
he was impressed.
They don’t normally feed you in a Japanese hospital –
your friends and family are expected to bring you food and clothes
and anything else that you might need. The nurses in that hospital
arrived with platter after platter of homemade food - -enough to
feed an entire sumo stable. I have never tasted such superb sushi
in my life, and ate until I was too exhausted to chew. While I slept
one of them took home my backpack, washed and folded and pressed
all the clothes inside, put my toiletries in tiny silk bags and
wrapped stray batteries in bits of colored string.
the royal treatment, I was worried. Although I had health insurance
back in the States, the overseas deductible was significant, and
the Japanese healthcare system was even more expensive than in the
U.S.A. For months I’d been stretching my budget like a rubber
band, eating out of the day-old food bin at the local 7-Eleven and
sleeping in bus stations and graveyards. A week in the hospital
would take a bigger bite out of my budget than the entire trip to
After a day or two I asked the doctor how much longer I needed
to stay. "Two weeks", he said.
Two weeks! I couldn’t possibly afford… I had to
finish my pilgrimage… get back to Osaka… "How about
three days?" I asked. He was taken aback -- he clearly wasn’t
used to his patients bargaining with him. Rock, paper, scissors,
I suggested quickly. It’s a common childhood game in Japan,
and before he knew it he had unconsciously responded to my gesture
and his hand was up. He was committed. Best out of three. I won.
When it came time to pay, the doctor just shook his head gently
and said "osettai". It’s a Buddhist concept –
a gift you give a pilgrim, like an orange or bowl of rice or even
a place to stay for the night – because it increases your
own good karma for the next life. I at least knew enough to follow
the rules – you never turn down osettai. I nodded and smiled
and put my hands together in thanks.
But this wasn’t osettai, and neither were the dozen tiny
plates of homemade sushi and tempura that the nurses pressed upon
me as I walked out the door. It was the purest generosity –
the kind you offer to a stranger who you know you’ll never
see again -- the core of kindness that is so fundamentally Japanese.