COUPLE Edgar and Liberty Bullosos, caretakers at the Japanese Garden in Cavinti town in Laguna province, never thought of meeting, much more shaking the hands, of royalty.
But on Jan. 29, they had the rare opportunity to speak with no less than Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who thanked them for doing their job well.
"We consider ourselves blessed and lucky. We were really not expecting it," said Liberty, 37.
The Japanese memorial garden in Laguna was among the last stops of Akihito and Michiko during their five-day state visit to the Philippines last week. Their visit marked the 60th anniversary of the normalisation of the diplomatic ties between Japan and the Philippines.
After a mournful bow at the cenotaph of Japanese war dead, the royal couple was led to meet the garden's maintenance staff. There were only three of them: the Bullosos couple and their supervisor, Emelyn Sanchez. They are employees of the National Power Corp., which supervises the 11-hectare Japanese Garden.
"We were told not to look at them in the eye, not to speak unless spoken to, and not to shake their hands unless they were the first to reach out," said Edgar, 36.
They were also barred from taking photos with the royal couple, he said.
Edgar has been working at the garden for 14 years and is specifically tasked to look after the war shrine. His wife has been working for 13 years and has been recently put in charge of the garden's restrooms. The couple, with a 4-month-old son, are minimum wage earners.
Edgar and Liberty said they were only told about meeting the royal couple shortly before their arrival on Friday. Edgar chose to wear a white polo shirt, while Liberty promptly left her station at the garden's restrooms to be at the memorial shrine.
"I was too nervous that my palms were sweating," Edgar recalled.
"We stood there for like over an hour. My legs were shaking but it was worth the wait," Liberty said.
Edgar said the Emperor and the Empress were assisted by at least six Japanese interpreters but he was surprised when the Japanese royalty spoke in English.
Akihito's message, he said, was: "Thank you for keeping this place clean and beautiful. Thank you so much."
"His voice was soft and very calm," Edgar said of the Emperor.
Michiko uttered "a countless 'thank you' and 'beautiful,'" referring to the garden, Liberty said.
Amid the attention, Liberty managed to only say, "You're welcome!'
"Imagine, we were face to face. I was worried how my breath smelled," she said.
But it was not only the garden caretakers that the Japanese royalty had to thank for. Liberty said the Empress also noticed the students outside the garden waving miniature Philippine and Japanese flags at them.
"[Empress Michiko] said, 'There were many people outside but I could not wave back because our windows are [heavily tinted]. Please tell them thank you for waving,'" she said.
"We were so flattered. They could have met with our bosses, but instead chose us, who are working on the ground," Liberty said. "We could feel their sincerity."
Liberty said her husband, who became too busy cleaning the shrine for the visit, had missed celebrating his 36th birthday on Jan. 28.
"But I told him that's fine because he had more special guests," she said.
Except for their name tags marked with the Embassy of Japan, she said they had no autographs or "selfies" as souvenirs of the memorable meeting.
But Liberty does not mind, since she and her husband have a story worth telling their son anyway.