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Japan 8: Osettai

"Osettai," if I'm not mistaken, means "welcome," but really it is an act of generosity and hospitality toward a pilgrim. We were recipients of osettai on many occasions during the pilgrimage.

Traditionally, common people gave osettai to monks making the pilgrimage because they wanted to be blessed by Buddha for their support. They also believed that osettai, beyond its practical benefits, would be a blessing for the monks. In more recent times, since the onset of the Edo period (c. 1600), it has become popular for common people to make the pilgrimage, and the hospitality toward pilgrims has also become more commonplace.

Osettai, it seems, has become ingrained in the culture of Shikoku. The beauty of it is that it bestows grace on both the giver and the recipient. Osettai should not be refused, even if the person who receives it is well-to-do. If that's the case, he or she can pass it on.

There was apparently a well-to-do businessman in Kochi who built a shelter for pilgrims. When asked why, he said that he didn't do it for the pilgrims, he did it for himself.

When we received osettai, we would take out a slip of paper, then write our name, the date, and where we were from. We would then give the slip of paper to the person who gave us osettai.

One day I was having breakfast outside of a convenience store (canned coffee and a roll), standing by my bike, with my henro (pilgrim) vest on. All of a sudden a guy walks up to me and hands me a cold drink which he had bought inside.

Between temples 87 and 88 there is a o-henro museum. We were chilling there, waiting for the radio people to show up. I was reading outside when a Japanese man, after chatting with me for awhile, took me to the vending machine to buy me a drink.

One day Sensai and I (the two of us being big seafood lovers) went to an izakaya (an eating and drinking establishment) in Tosashimizu (Kochi prefecture). We had our beers, seared bonito, some deep-fried freshwater fish, and some wonderful clams. We paid our bill and were ready to leave, but the owner, finding out that we were pilgrims, decided to hit us with some osettai, meaning that we moved to the bar, and were treated to prime cuts of bonito, several more drinks, misu soup with clams (mmm), and summer noodles (cold, with boiled eggs, ham). We had a great time. I ended up not only giving them an osettai slip, but also the Obama T-shirt that I was wearing (the drunken son-in-law of the proprieter gave me the dress shirt from his back). It was the best restaurant experience of my entire life.

But perhaps the most remarkable example of osettai happened in the city of Imabari in Ishime prefecture. We visited temple 59 in the late afternoon and after going through our rituals, Sensai was talking about places to camp with some locals who were passing their time at the temple. The guy said there were no good spots in the city, and invited us to pass the night at his house. He was separated and lived with his son. The ten of us split, five and five, and slept in the two upstairs rooms. That night I stayed up late, drinking and talking with the guy (or, more appropriately, listening to Sensai and him talk, since my Japanese is non-existent). Still, it was an incredible act of hospitality.




February 2019



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