Tales from Japan: 90 years on the job


The screen door slid open, inviting a blast of cold air that was tempered by the warmth of the charcoal burning slowly in the middle of our hut. In came an old lady, carrying a heavy-looking plate of chicken that was to be part of our menu for the night.

She looked at each one of us, kindly, and smiled.

“失礼いたします。”

Please excuse me – it was a polite expression made even more polite by the expression itashimasu. But it seemed really impolite for us to excuse an old lady who was 1) almost 3 times our age, and 2) carrying a heavy-looking hotpot and 3) preparing our dinner.

If we had our way, we would have 1) opened the door for her, 2) invited her to come in, and 3) prepared dinner for her. But since we were guests, she wouldn’t have suffered this attention. Besides, she would have been horrified by the dinner we prepared for her.

We smiled.

Skillfully, the old lady prepared our dinner on a hot plate that laid over the glowing charcoal. Her face turned bright red from the heat, but she didn’t seem to mind. She invited us to start, before turning to leave.

Just as she opened the screen door, she asked, “How old do you think I am?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question – my goodness, no. She sounded so kind, we swooned.

“60 odd?” I guessed.

She frowned, kindly. “No, no, no.”

“I am 90 years old.”

She’s probably right. Judging from those wrinkles on her face – and her fingers – she’s probably right.

“大変失礼いたしました。”

I replied, feeling twice as embarrassed.

“No, no, no. Do not be. I started working since I was 14, as a servant. I could have stopped working now, but I insist on working. I am grateful because I could provide hospitality for my guests, and make them happy. I love my job.”

I didn’t reply, though I felt thrice as embarrassed – for complaining about my job at times, and here I have a 90-year-old lady telling me how much she insists on continue working.

“It’s not for money, no.” she continued, “it is because of the feeling of gratefulness I get from serving my guests. I do not like rich people, no. In fact, rich people come to our restaurant sometimes, and the next day I would complain to the hotel. The most important things in life are gratefulness and humbleness.”

I trust her – just by the restaurant’s location in a non-descript suburb near Kyōto, and how genuinely kind the old lady and her family is.

“My granddaughter, Kairi-chan; she is 14, in middle school, and insists on helping out at the restaurant without pay. She just wants the experience of working.”

Where do you find a 14-year-old like this?

“My grandson, Fuuta-kun; he is in high school, and spends 40 minutes cycling to school each day. That is about 1 hour 20 minutes return. He insists on doing that.”

I probably wanted to bury myself, ideally in the charcoal that was burning in the middle of the hut. That’s partly because I don’t even know how to cycle.

Gratefulness. Humbleness. On the road, you get to meet ordinary people who are simply extraordinary. Our dinner was delicious, but to meet this old lady and her family – that really is something more valuable than the most delicious of dinners.