While tourism officials can’t be sure, they suspect Jeanie Fuji, 38, is Japan’s only American “okami-san” (ryokan proprietress).

While tourism officials can’t be sure, they suspect Jeanie Fuji, 38, is Japan’s only American “okami-san” (ryokan proprietress). (Courtesy of Jeanie Fuji)

Disaster was brewing. Tired and frustrated by language problems with their tour guides, a group of Americans vacationing in Japan a few years ago was getting grumpy. The last thing they needed was more cultural confusion.

Yet it seemed they were about to get just that as they pulled up to the Fuji-ya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn nestled in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture about 125 miles north of Tokyo. As luck would have it, though, the person from the inn who greeted them turned out to be an American.

“I thought they were going to kill the tour guide,” recalls Jeanie Fuji, who was Jeanie Pugh before she married into the family that owns the inn.

While tourism officials can’t be sure, they suspect Fuji, 38, is Japan’s only American okami-san (ryokan proprietress).

At first, though, simply the sight of the fair-haired, blue-eyed Californian who spoke their language was not enough to put the Americans at ease.

One man waved his finger at Fuji, saying he looked forward to his 8 a.m. departure the next day. But Fuji and her staff turned the mood around, helping the weary Americans appreciate part of Japanese tradition.

“When they left the next day, everyone was smiling and saying what a good time they had had and that they were glad they came,” Fuji said.

Since then, she’s continued to offer an insight into Japan for foreign guests and is even part of government efforts to revive interest among Japanese citizens in their native culture. The hospitality of traditional Japanese inns is an important part of Japanese cultural history.

“If you want to be treated well and get the full service, definitely go to a Japanese inn,” Fuji suggests.

Though appealing, Japanese hospitality can also be intimidating.

In addition to language barriers, things like wearing yukata (summer kimonos), removing shoes, eating raw foods, and following the bathing protocols at onsens (hot spring baths) are etiquette-errors-in-waiting for many foreigners.

Explained in English, though, the seemingly endless list of do’s and don’ts becomes part of a ryokan’s charm.

After arriving in Japan in 1988 to teach English, Fuji began learning the ins and outs of the inn business in 1991, when she married Atsushi Fuji. That meant lots of cleaning, office work, staff management and cooking, which her mother-in-law taught her.

While she learned the beauty of Japanese tradition, she also discovered it can be frustrating.

“Being a young woman managing men doesn’t always work,” she said. She quickly learned about Japan’s seniority system, where recognition is based more on time served than merit.

Though Fuji-ya bears a slight American imprint — including some non-Japanese menu items and decorations for Halloween and Christmas — it is still authentically Japanese, from its traditional roofline to its tatami mat floors.

In fact, having been run by the family of Fuji’s husband for more than 300 years, Fuji-ya is unique — a quintessentially Japanese place where English speakers can feel at ease. The ryokan, housed in a Taisho Era (1912-26) structure, is set in an area known for its old fashioned atmosphere and healthful hot springs, which are said to soothe things from burns to rheumatic diseases. The Yamagata tourist organization bills the whole prefecture as “the real Japan.”

Fuji has come a long way from her 1991 arrival at the ryokan. At first a curiosity (“The Japanese media just went crazy,” she recalls), she is now something of an authority.

Japanese people recognize her from public service ads promoting culture. She also has worked with publishers on two books about her experiences in Japan. One, “Nipponjin ni wa Nihon ga Tarinai” (Japanese People Are Not Japanese Enough), details what she sees as decline in interest in Japanese culture and history.

Japan’s government has become concerned about the same thing. Worried that today’s Japanese are too swept up in modern trends and Western ways, some prefectural governments have started centers for crafts specific to their regions.

The Japanese are interested in Fuji and other Westerners involved in the traditions of Japan, according to Alex Kerr, an American who has won awards for his books describing the beauty of Japan and the withering of its culture.

“Every time I’ve ever seen a Westerner involved in these arts,” he says, “it’s always had a stimulating impact.”

Fuji is part of that impact, carefully tending a place where Japanese visitors can reacquaint themselves with their traditions and where foreigners can learn about it.

Matthew Meritt is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.

If you go ...

Fujiya Ryokan

443 Shinpata Oaza Ginzan

Obanazawa-shi, Yamagata-ken


Phone number: 0237-28-2141

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