Our People: Etsuko Ota

By Jill Nicholas

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Etsuko Ota. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER
Etsuko Ota. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER

Kiwi joker's international phone line proposal put ring around Japanese tour guide's unconventional marriage

When Etsuko Ota met Ian Kernot her first impression was of a 'grumpy, grouchy' bus driver.

She was a newbie tour guide overseeing a party of Japanese tourists consigned at the last minute to his Road Services bus, an unexpected replacement for the company her employers, Thomas Cook, generally used.

Five years on they married but their's wasn't any bog-standard courtship.

When Ian's proposal came it boomed down the international phone lines, Etsuko, then a long haul flight attendant, had called him to say she'd be arriving in New Zealand on a Monday.

"He said 'right, we'll get married on Saturday'." It was two years since the pair had seen each other. Could Mills and Boon have scripted it better?

In a multi-cultural twist, their wedding was in the wharenui at what was then the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, now Te Puia.

Director, the late John Marsh a close friend of the groom, offered the venue and was their celebrant.

"It all happened so fast Ian didn't have time to come to Japan and get my parents' permission, I had to ask them for him." The memory sets Etsuko into a fit of the giggles, Ian harrumphs.

The compressed pre-wedding time factor meant she had no family present and no wedding dress.

"Luckily I had a white dress in my luggage, the guides from Whaka and Ian's driver mates came. We went to the CT club for a few drinks, had our honeymoon at the Waitomo Caves hotel, it was free because Ian stayed there so often."

For those expecting a traditional "they settled down, living happily together ever after" ending there's another twist to this two-nation romance.

Although the "lived happily ever after" bit's where it should be, the 'together' strand goes missing for a while. For three of her married years Etsuko continued with her Tokyo-based Swiss Air job, spending her leave with her husband.

Here we'll back pedal to her early years and what went before her unconventional marriage to a "real Kiwi joker".

Fresh out of school, she left her home city, Yokohama, for Tokyo and a course teaching Japanese history, customs and culture in English. She'd studied the language since her junior high years. That Japan's junior highs equate to our intermediates is one of the many things we learn from Etsuko.

Another's her Yokohama home; our mind's eye picture of it is one of those massive blocks where families live in apartments no bigger than a New Zealand garden shed.
Not a bit of it.

"I grew up in a two-storied house with four bedrooms, the seventh generation to live on the same spot."

'The same spot' are the keywords here. The house of her childhood was very different from the one her forebears knew. "That was totally flattened by the bombings [World War II], my grandfather lost 100 properties overnight."

She fills another gap in our Kiwi-Japanese knowledge. While it's the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings we know, how many are aware that Yokohama, a prime target as a port city, was severely damaged by earlier air raids?

For families such as Etsuko's they were as intense as Europe's. "My mother and aunts were evacuated to the country, just like London kids."

Dreaming of a career in the skies since she was 10, once she graduated Etsuko applied to every airline that flew out of Tokyo. "They all turned me down, my English wasn't good enough."

She joined a travel agency, working hours were 7am to midnight.

Tired out and still wanting to improve her English she came to Auckland; she'd liked it on a school visit.

Thomas Cook employed her to guide her fellow countrymen.

The trip she met Ian she was still green and a last minute ring-in. "It was a disaster, I had no itinerary, our lunch place ran out of food, the bus got dirty fuel, crawled to Auckland at 20kph, we got lost looking for our dinner restaurant, had to ask guys in a fire engine for directions."

Let's say guide and driver didn't initially bond, however at the tour's end phone numbers were exchanged.

When next in Rotorua Etsuko rang Ian, a flatmate answered. "I thought he had a girlfriend, went into the bar where we were staying, Ian was there . . ."

That sentence tails off before she confesses they warmed, Ian alerting her the Sheraton was looking for a Japanese speaker.

"I was their first Japanese receptionist, went out with Ian a bit, when my work visa ran out I thought I'd travel around, went to Australia and Europe by myself."

Returning to Tokyo Swiss Air offered her a job. "I rang Ian, said 'what shall I do?' He said 'take it'."

We've already revealed what came next, but being together full time took two years, that was 23 years ago.

Initially she guided Japanese visitors to Rainbow Springs and the Agrodome, but was drawn to the bed and breakfast concept she'd discovered in Australia.

"I thought it would be good to do here. We saw an ad for a Whakaue St property, it was this really old house, no one had lived in it for a long time, cobwebs were everywhere, it was like a haunted mansion."

The couple made an offer, by the time they reached home the phone was ringing. "The owner was so keen to get rid of it he was willing to sell it for $25,000 less than we'd offered."

The "spooky" house was demolished, Etsuko's dream B&B opened as Best Inn in 1994. It comes complete with Furo, a traditional, thermally-heated Japanese bath.

Etsuko, who still wears her kimono for special occasions, admits doing things the Kiwi way took time to master.

"Ian's friend [the late] Pat Johnston became my Kiwi mother, taught me how to clean carpets, sew, knit, cook a roast, make rice pudding. We never cook rice in milk, now I love it. Everyone's always been so friendly and helpful."

Does she ever suffer homesickness?

"I love Rotorua, all New Zealand, in Japan there are too many people."

ETSUKO OTA:
Born: Yokohama, 1963.
Education: Locally, Tokyo.
Family: Kiwi husband Ian Kernot, mother, sister in Japan.
Interests: "Looking after my husband and guests." Travel, reading "the library has a good selection of Japanese books." Walking. "For the world's safety I don't drive."
On Rotorua: "It's so compact, a good place to do business."
Personal philosophy: "Helping and healing people."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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