- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

When the sun first dances through the trees of Ginzan, an innkeeper rises and prepares her guests sheets of seaweed, fermented soybeans and sourpickled plums.

In the ancient Japanese village, everyone — from the cook to the noodle shop owner — has jet-black hair and dark eyes, except Jeanie Fuji.

She is blond, white and American.

She is, in fact, the only American-born “okami” (proprietress) of a Japanese inn, her husband’s 350-year-old family business.

“In the beginning, people saw me obviously as, ‘Oh, there’s an American over there,’” Mrs. Fuji says. “Now they see me as one of the town folks.”

Mrs. Fuji, 39, first came to Ginzan as a 22-year-old foreign student. She spent the night at Fujiya Ryokan and met the inn’s owner, Atsushi Fuji.

Three years later, she became his wife.

Although Mr. Fuji cherished his American wife, his Japanese family was skeptical — especially Mr. Fuji’s mother.

The 69-year-old woman spoke a strong local dialect, and the American Mrs. Fuji was struggling just to learn basic Japanese.

“We’d be in the kitchen together,” Mrs. Fuji says, “and you could hear a pin drop.”

The silence continued as Mrs. Fuji learned how to care for the inn, a three-story, 12-room wood structure that caters to about 40 travelers every evening.

Mrs. Fuji’s first day began at 6 a.m. She helped her mother-in-law prepare a breakfast of pickled vegetables and pieces of fish for the guests.

“Completely different than Corn Flakes and strawberries,” Mrs. Fuji says.

After serving the meal, Mrs. Fuji cleaned the mats and bathrooms. If she got a break, she would sleep for an hour, then start preparing a dinner of rice, soup, seaweed, noodles, deep-fried shrimp and raw fish from the river.

The guests checked out by 10 a.m., and the new visitors arrived at midafternoon. Mrs. Fuji served them dinner, prepared their futons and fell asleep — ready to rise again at first light.

“The beginning was very tough,” Mrs. Fuji says. “I didn’t have time to think about anything other than, ‘I’ve got to start cleaning Room 21.’”

And she made many mistakes.

Mrs. Fuji took a guest to the wrong room, served raw fish to a customer who didn’t ask for any and gave insect spray instead of mosquito ointment to a little girl with a pink bump.

The worst day came when she received a call from a customer who asked whether the inn would remain open on “Omisoka,” the Japanese word for New Year’s Eve.

But Mrs. Fuji thought he said “miso,” a bean paste used in cooking, so she assumed he was selling the ingredient and told him they didn’t need any more.

Then Mrs. Fuji realized he wanted to make a reservation.

“When would you like to come?” she quickly asked.

The man replied angrily.

“Oh, I’m sorry, we’re full,” Mrs. Fuji finally told him.

Despite her blunders, Mrs. Fuji persisted, and eventually the village of about 150 people started opening its arms to the foreigner.

Mrs. Fuji said full acceptance came about eight years ago when she ran into one of her neighbors who was going to the temple to cast her ballot at a local election.

The woman asked whether Mrs. Fuji voted — a right she does not have in Japan as an American citizen.

“That’s the best thing I’ve heard ever,” Mrs. Fuji said. “She saw me not as the foreigner, not as the American, but as one of them.”

Now Mrs. Fuji is one of Ginzan’s famous innkeepers, having appeared in Japanese public service TV spots promoting that country’s traditional culture. She expanded on the theme in her book, “Japanese People Are Not Japanese Enough.”

She still wakes at dawn, but today Mrs. Fuji does only the work she loves because she has hired 17 workers.

“What I really enjoy in my job is the hospitality side, meeting the people,” Mrs. Fuji said. “You will be sent off with a deep bow, a sincere thank-you and a friendly wave goodbye.”

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