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Keeping Tradition Alive at a Japanese Inn (January 26, 2004)

Trends in Japan is featuring interviews with notable foreign residents of Japan. Our interviewee this time is Jeanie Fuji, who runs a traditional Japanese inn amid the spectacular mountain scenery of Yamagata Prefecture.

"I like Ginzan because it's a small community," says Jeanie Fuji, referring to the village in Yamagata Prefecture that she has called home since 1991. "It's nestled in the mountains, and we're surrounded by beautiful scenery and nature. I like to be in a place where I want to raise my kids, and I feel very secure here. My children go out to play and come back at lunchtime, and I know that they're safe. Everyone looks out for each other, and that's what I really like about living in Ginzan."

A Tough But Rewarding Job
When she arrived in Japan in 1988 to teach English, little did she know she was embarking on an adventure that would see her gain national fame as the okami, or innkeeper, of a traditional Japanese guesthouse. During her teaching stint, she met the manager of the Fujiya Ryokan (ryokan means inn) and eventually married him, committing herself to becoming the inn's next okami. She has now occupied this position for over a decade.

"It is a very tough job," she says. "The first couple of years were hard. There's just so much to get used to. And you work every day, every day, every day. You think, 'When's my day off?' The answer is: 'You don't get one!' And the hours are so irregular."

The early years at the inn were especially challenging: "The first six years, I was on duty non-stop, so I'd wake up at six. In the very beginning I was working with my mother-in-law in the kitchen, and we'd make breakfast, serve it, put away the futons, wash the dishes, clean the rooms, get the rooms prepared for that day, and that would be until twelve or later. Then we'd have our lunch, and then the customers are checking in around three, and you're making dinner, and you serve dinner, clear it away, lay out the futons, and prepare for the following day. This could go on until eleven or twelve at night. So, it was very hard in the beginning. But once you get used to the rhythm, you fall into it. In the beginning, though, I didn't know Japanese that well, and there was so much physical work."

The inn has since hired more staff, allowing Fuji to adapt her schedule to balance her duties with raising a family. She also decided to move her family out of the inn and into a separate house in order to create a boundary between work time and private time.

Fujiya Ryokan
The Fujiya Ryokan

A Warm Welcome
Although she was apprehensive about how a small, rural Japanese community would receive an American, it turned out that she need not have worried. "Most of the people in Ginzan have been born and raised and will die here, and it's a tight community. I thought, 'How are they going to feel about this foreigner coming into this world?' But everyone has been so nice and so helpful from the start. I think Ginzan is unique in the sense that you have people coming in and out, so people in Ginzan meet and have contact with such a variety of people. Maybe that makes it easier for them to accept an outsider."

Fuji is keen for her daughter to take over as the inn's next okami: "My daughter Saori, well both kids actually, have been raised in this environment, and they're very comfortable talking with strangers or other people. I think it's hard for an outsider, foreign or Japanese, to come into an inn and be told, 'Go talk to the guests and entertain them.' Because Saori's been raised in it, it's no problem for her. I think it would be easier for her to jump into this job than for someone completely on the outside, and I think it would be fun to work with my daughter. She's great!"

Rising Popularity
Local tourism officials cite Fuji's presence as a big factor behind Ginzan's rising popularity as a hot spring resort, but Fuji herself is modest. "Ginzan is becoming more popular, but it's not because of me!" she laughs. "The Yamagata Shinkansen [which was extended in 1999 and now stops nearby] has made it easier for people from the Tokyo area to come to Ginzan, and we've definitely seen an increase in customers during the winter months. It used to be very slow in the winter. Travel agents have publicized Ginzan, and we've had television up here. I'm a very small part!"

There has also been an increase in the number of overseas visitors coming to stay at the Fujiya Ryokan. "There has been an increase in Fujiya's foreign clientele, I think probably because people think there is less of a language barrier with me here. Most of the foreigners don't come on their own. They're usually with a Japanese counterpart, a business partner or a home-stay. They want to give the foreigner a Japanese experience, but there might be a communication problem, and I can explain the food in English, and the inn and the baths, and so on. Before there were zero foreigners; now there's a handful, from all over. We get quite a few from Europe, actually: England, France, Finland, Sweden. If there's been an increase in foreigners, it's mainly been from Asia, mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong."


One of the greatest joys of life in rural Yamagata is the local cuisine, which is sustained by the wide variety of edible plants and vegetables found in the surrounding mountains. Fuji takes full advantage of these at the inn: "What's probably top of my list is the sansai, the mountain vegetables. They're so good. Like kogomi [ostrich fern fiddleheads] and urui [plantain lily petioles]. I've seen them in the States, but we look at them and we think it's a plant, it's not food. I've seen warabi [bracken] a meter high, but no one picks it because they don't think it's food. In the past I guess American Indians did eat warabi, but we don't eat it now. Which is a shame because it's delicious! To go out into the mountains, take a stroll and start picking up ferns and buds, and then to take them home and eat your bounty . . . it's fun!" The mountain vegetables are usually boiled to remove any bitterness, although they can also be used in tempura.

Overseas guests are treated just like Japanese guests, and Fujiya believes this is just how they like it: "Most people come to Japan to experience Japan. I have an idea of what foreigners can handle, and I try to keep the menu as a regular washoku [Japanese cuisine] menu, because I think that's what they want to experience. They don't want to come here and have a steak and potatoes! Unless there's a specific request, we keep it as is, and I think that's probably best. They want to experience Japan. You treat them like any other customer. You don't have to do anything extraordinary to accommodate a foreigner. I mean, on the side we might have a fork and a spoon ready, but we just treat them like any other customer, and if there's a hitch we can help them out. They like the sashimi [raw fish], they want to give it a try. They're interested in the mountain vegetables around here. They say, 'Oh, this is a fern! I've seen this in my garden!'"

Reevaluating Japanese Culture
Fuji's autobiography, Nipponjin ni wa, Nihon ga Tarinai (Japanese People Are Not Japanese Enough), has sold well. Explaining the provocative title, which was taken from the catchphrase of a public service announcement she appeared in, Fuji says: "I feel that young Japanese don't have an interest in their own country - in the history, the culture - and they're just looking on the outside. I think before you can understand the outside, you've got to know the inside. I compare America and Japan quite often, and I think there's a lot of great things about Japan that need to be reviewed. People need to say 'Hey! This is great! Let's hang on to this!'" She describes the response to the book as "fairly positive," adding, "Most people have agreed with it. I've had a few letters with different opinions, but everyone has their own opinion, so that's OK. If it's been a stimulus for others to think about their own culture and what's good about Japan, then it's been positive."

As for the future, the inn will undergo some remodeling starting in March 2004, and Fuji intends to reduce capacity in order to enable more personalized service for each guest. For anyone considering a trip to Japan and wishing to experience traditional Japanese hospitality, the Ginzan area, and the Fujiya Ryokan in particular, are an ideal choice.


Jeanie Fuji
Born in San Francisco, California. Graduated from Linfield College in Oregon and came to Kanagawa Prefecture as an exchange student in 1986, studying in Japan for five months. After graduating from college, came to Yamagata Prefecture in 1988 on the JET program. In 1991, married Mr. Fuji Atsushi, the son and heir of an inn with a 350-year history. Now working as okami of the Fujiya inn.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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