Can you travel around Ja­pan without speak­ing Ja­panese?

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - SILKE PFERSDORF

Trav­el­ling around Ja­pan without a word of the lan­guage.


I just don’t know what they mean. Some look like sim­ple stick men, others like tan­gled tree trunks. I’m sit­ting in a kind of snack bar in Ky­oto, con­fronted with a menu writ­ten en­tirely in Ja­panese. I’m hun­gry, clue­less and, worst of all, com­pletely un­able to com­mu­ni­cate. In the end, I de­cide to take potluck. “Fish,” says the man be­hind the counter and gives me the thumbs up. Fish sounds good. As for the rest of it, I’ll just have to wait and see.

There are plenty of restau­rants in Ky­oto that dis­play plas­tic repli­cas of their dishes in the win­dow so you just have to point to the one you want. But they don’t al­ways have them in the side streets of the old geisha and en­ter­tain­ment dis­trict of Gion. Here, red and white lanterns sway in the gen­tle breeze in front of small, half-hid­den restau­rants that make no ef­fort to at­tract tourists be­cause there are plenty of other cus­tomers pass­ing by. I find a cosy seat at the counter in one of the nar­row wooden houses and watch the cook as he fries my food. In the back room some­one is pluck­ing away at a Ja­panese stringed in­stru­ment called a shamisen. The cou­ple across from me are feed­ing each other with chop­sticks. They smil­ingly raise their glasses to me. I smile back, as I look for­ward to my fish or what­ever it is I have or­dered. I’ve al­ready started to un­der­stand that in Ja­pan, hap­pi­ness has no need of words.

Ja­pan without a word of Ja­panese. Lost in trans­la­tion, thrown back on my own de­vices. While I’m in down­town Tokyo, I don’t feel quite so far out of my com­fort zone – al­most ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing the metro map, is also writ­ten in the Western al­pha­bet. But all that changes as soon as you start trav­el­ling around the city on the green cir­cle line to places like Nip­pori in the an­cient dis­trict of Yanaka. Tiny shops, stray cats roam­ing the al­leys, a won­der­fully quaint ceme­tery. This is Tokyo at its most au­then­tic – and in­de­ci­pher­able. Like a ship­wrecked sailor, I find my­self wad­ing through an ocean of alien sym­bols. My eyes des­per­ately search around for one of the pal­try 26 let­ters that they are fa­mil­iar with. But all they find are shops that I will need to en­ter if I want to dis­cover if they are sell­ing some­thing to eat, a pair of thongs, or a new hairdo.

I’m thirsty, what to do? Through an open shop door, I spy a shelf with bot­tles con­tain­ing a trans­par­ent liq­uid. My brain rashly jumps to the con­clu­sion that it must be wa­ter and tells me to buy it without de­lay. What­ever the

drink re­ally is, it is sick­en­ingly sweet. My taste buds grumble and my brain sulks petu­lantly be­fore sud­denly be­ing gripped by panic: how will I ever find my way back to the train sta­tion? Per­haps wan­der­ing around aim­lessly wasn’t such a great idea, when all the while I feel like a child who has lost her mummy in a big de­part­ment store. I spot a lit­tle old lady with a pur­ple rinse. “Nip­pori?” I ask her ten­ta­tively. She im­me­di­ately starts ex­plain­ing how to get there – in Ja­panese. I try to mem­o­rise the se­quence of her ges­tures. Straight ahead, then right, then left. I get there in the end, al­beit one hour later – af­ter a fur­ther four peo­ple have ex­plained the way.

Things are much eas­ier in the city cen­tre. Ten years ago, you still had peo­ple who ran away in ter­ror if a tourist asked them for di­rec­tions in English, be­cause they were wor­ried about the em­bar­rass­ment it would cause if they didn’t un­der­stand. But with just two years to go un­til the Tokyo Olympics, lan­guage cour­ses are boom­ing.

“Can I help you?” I’m in the mid­dle of the bustling Shibuya dis­trict in the cen­tre of Tokyo, at what is prob­a­bly the world’s most fa­mous cross­roads. When the lights turn green at its six pedes­trian cross­ings, the streets are en­gulfed by a f lood of hu­man­ity. I’m stand­ing there with my map

and sud­denly there’s a man next to me, guid­ing me first one way, then an­other. The man is wear­ing a dark suit and car­ry­ing a brief­case and was ob­vi­ously on his way home from work. But in­stead of con­tin­u­ing on his way, he takes the time to show a for­eign woman to the Hachi­mangu shrine, which must be at least a kilo­me­tre away. Then he bows and wishes me a pleas­ant stay in Ja­pan. In ac­tual fact, I’ve al­ready started en­joy­ing my time in this coun­try – I now feel sure that ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be just fine.

The Aus­trian-Bri­tish philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein once said, “The lim­its of my lan­guage are the lim­its of my world.” But that doesn’t stop me from go­ing to Ky­oto. It’s easy enough to catch a Shinkansen (bul­let train), even for a novice like my­self. The ticket of­fice staff in the larger train sta­tions speak English, and the signs are very clear.

Once I ar­rive at Ky­oto sta­tion, my next chal­lenge is to find a bi­cy­cle hire store. Ac­cord­ing to the in­for­ma­tion page I con­sulted, it’s just three min­utes away. But in which direction? Much to his em­bar­rass­ment, the man I ask doesn’t know either, but he still in­sists on show­ing me the way. I have no choice but to fol­low him and ten min­utes later we find our­selves back at the sta­tion. He bows low, mum­bling an apol­ogy, and quickly scut­tles away. So I head for the sta­tion’s tourist in­for­ma­tion of­fice where they draw di­rec­tions on my map. I could have worked it out for my­self, if I’m hon­est.

Hir­ing a bike for the day costs around $15. Ky­oto is as flat as a pan­cake, the hills are all off in the dis­tance. There are 1600 tem­ples and 400 Shinto shrines. On the way to the Golden Tem­ple I get lost in the maze of side streets. A be­gin­ner’s er­ror – why didn’t I just stick to the main road?

I spot a po­lice­man stand­ing in front of a small build­ing with a red light. I read that these mini po­lice sta­tions are called kōban and are found in ev­ery neigh­bour­hood. I point to my des­ti­na­tion on the map, and the po­lice­man re­peat­edly sig­nals right and left. I as­sume he is giv­ing me di­rec­tions. In the end, he fetches a bi­cy­cle and rides ahead of me un­til we reach a cross­roads from where I go straight ahead.

You learn as you go. Two days later, I’m en route to the sa­cred moun­tain of Kōya-san. This is def­i­nitely


some­thing that should only be at­tempted by ad­vanced learn­ers. Once south of Osaka, I am forced to rely on lo­cal trains. I find di­rec­tions on­line, stick rigidly to what the GPS on my mo­bile phone tells me, and make it onto the train, where there is stand­ing room only.

The train may be full, but at least I’m sure it’s the right one thanks to the sign on the plat­form. Once I’m on board though, I find my­self look­ing at all the dif­fer­ent ad­verts and try to guess what they’re sell­ing. This must be what it felt like when I was a small child. Com­pletely clue­less, the world around me a to­tal mys­tery. I hear an­nounce­ments that I don’t un­der­stand, then sud­denly I’m all alone on an empty train. Ev­ery­one’s

get­ting off, don’t ask me why. An old man ges­tic­u­lates and tries to ex­plain in his bro­ken English. Fi­nally, I get the mes­sage – the train won’t be go­ing any fur­ther. I don’t even know the word for sta­tion, but here I am stand­ing on yet an­other plat­form.

A young man tells me, this time in pretty good English, that the train has bro­ken down but a re­place­ment is wait­ing for us on the op­po­site plat-


form. He bows and apol­o­gises as if he were per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for the de­lay. You would never catch rail­way em­ploy­ees from most coun­tries mak­ing such a dis­play of con­tri­tion, not even if the ser­vice had been com­pletely can­celled.

At least my en­forced si­lence on the moun­tain of 117 tem­ples is a won­der­ful thing. When I fi­nally ar­rive af­ter a tor­tu­ous two-hour train jour­ney and cable car as­cent, it is pic­turesquely shrouded in mist. If you can’t lis­ten in to other peo­ple’s con­ver­sa­tions, you au­to­mat­i­cally con­cen­trate more on the sounds and sights of the place it­self. The clack­ing of the wooden geta san­dals on the as­phalt, the monks chant­ing in the tem­ples, the wind whis­per­ing through the cedars. You can stay the night at most of the tem­ples; they even do half board. I booked on­line for my lodg­ings at the Muryoko-in tem­ple.

This is the home of Genso. The na­tive of Switzer­land came to the Kōya-san some 18 years ago. He is only too happy to tell peo­ple what to see and do while they are up here. And he does so in sev­eral lan­guages. Nat­u­rally, he ac­com­pa­nies me on my walk through the an­cient Okuno-in ceme­tery. A hun­dred thou­sand stone lanterns and Bud­dha stat­ues watch over the graves of re­li­gious lead­ers, feu­dal lords and samu­rai, the cen­turies-old stone cov­ered in moss.

Then it’s time for a cof­fee and a visit to the toi­let. It’s a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen: two toi­let doors, two in­scrutable sym­bols. Do I go for the cube on legs or the in­ter­lock­ing boomerangs? A man emerges from the door with the cube on it, so I head for the other one. When I come out, a child is laugh­ing and her mother gig­gling be­hind her hand. Did I some­how get the wrong one af­ter all? Then I re­alise I’m still wear­ing the plas­tic slip­pers pro­vided for use in the toi­lets. It’s a clas­sic faux-pas for for­eign tourists. Any thoughts I may have had of blend­ing in with the lo­cals evap­o­rate in an in­stant.

On my fourth day, I make my way to the Hakone moun­tains some 70 kilo­me­tres from Tokyo – without in­ci­dent. Mount Fuji is show­ing well,

with two wisps of smoke ris­ing above its sum­mit. I en­joy per­fect views of this vol­canic land­scape, be­fore head­ing off with my back­pack. I want to walk to the top of Ōwaku­dani. It’s no great feat, just a hike of a cou­ple of hours or so. I see an old lady com­ing to­wards me. “Ōwaku­dani?” I ask, sim­ply to make sure I’m still go­ing the right way. She looks at me apolo­get­i­cally, cocks her head, and takes a deep breath. Per­haps she didn’t un­der­stand me?

Then she says some­thing and crosses her hands. I’ve read that in Ja­pan this ges­ture means ‘no good’. At that very moment, a Ja­pane­ses­peak­ing Amer­i­can shows up and tells me that the path is closed a lit­tle fur­ther along be­cause the sul­phur vents are cur­rent ly spew­ing out poi­sonous vapours.

Among the many things I am learn­ing is that the Ja­panese are in­cred­i­bly po­lite and al­ways friendly, but don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­press what they want to say very clearly.

It’s evening and I’m ly­ing in the on­sen at my ho­tel. The Ja­panese are crazy about the lo­cal hot springs. I’ve pre­pared well and know what to do: first of all, I sit on a small wooden stool and pour buck­ets of wa­ter over my­self, du­ti­fully sub­ject­ing my en­tire body to a thor­ough scrub­bing. Only once I have re­moved ev­ery trace of soap do I climb into the bath. But I needn’t have both­ered look­ing up the cor­rect on­sen eti­quette be­fore­hand; it is clearly dis­played on two wall charts where lit­tle car­toon men show you what to do.

Two evenings later I’m back in Tokyo feel­ing like a hero­ine. I take one last stroll through a city awash with alien char­ac­ters. Ev­ery char­ac­ter is a pic­ture, the city it­self a pic­ture book. For the last time, I en­ter a restau­rant in a small side street and point at words I can­not read. It’s fun not know­ing what you’re go­ing to get; some­how ev­ery­thing is al­ways de­li­cious any­way.

I say “ari­gato” as I leave. Thank you. The only word of Ja­panese I learned on my en­tire trip. A man at the bar claps and the cook con­grat­u­lates me from be­hind the counter: “Good Ja­panese!” he laughs. What won­der­ful peo­ple the Ja­panese are.

Crowds on the street at sun­set in the Shin­juku dis­trict

Ev­ery day tens of thou­sands of peo­ple cross the street at the fa­mous Shibuya in­ter­sec­tion

(Clock­wise from bot­tom left) Hun­dreds of Bud­dha stat­ues guard the tran­quil grave­yard at Oku-no-in; plas­tic mod­els of the food on of­fer are com­mon­place in Ky­oto’s restau­rant win­dows; the breath­tak­ing Golden Pavil­ion is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list

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