Sebastien and I just returned from a vacation in Japan.
When we arrived in Tokyo we met our friends Steve and Amy at our hotel and went out for some ramen. Amy said that the noodle shop we were going to was one of the best in the city. At that point I was so jet-lagged that I didn’t care if the food we were going to eat came out of a garbage can. I just wanted to fill my belly and crawl into bed.
There was no hostess to seat us when we entered the shop nor a waiter to take our order. Instead we fed money to a machine then pushed in buttons to indicate what we wanted on our noodles. It was as simple as buying a bag of chips in a vending machine except everything was in Japanese and the tiny, faded pictures beside each button didn’t offer much help. I chose by way of eeny, meeny, miney, moe and the machine spit out a ticket. Then we headed to a booth in the back of the shop to sit and wait. We could hear other voices around us through the paper thin walls, but we couldn’t see anyone.
A panel to the right of our table opened and a man started shouting at us in Japanese. Sebastien and I looked at one another terrified and handed him our tickets as a peace offering. We hoped that he would know what to do from there. If nothing else, perhaps he would use the paper to make origami birds, I thought.
Steve, a Brit who met Sebastien as a child in Canada, started laughing once the cook disappeared behind the door. “Are you guys having fun yet?” he said. “You’re smiling and nodding and you don’t have a damn clue what they’re saying.”
He was right.
On the plane ride from New York I thought it would be good to learn a few common Japanese words, but I got distracted by all of the in-flight movies. Around hour 12 on the plane I decided to review my Japanese language app. There were the usual words like hello and thank you, but I became obsessed with one phrase in particular: Are you confident? I imagined saying that to the pilot after he announced that we would be making our final descent or saying it to a tour guide after they confirmed the way up the mountain.
But who was I kidding? As I sat in that noodle shop with Sebastien, Steve and other Amy, that phrase became a rhetorical question that would haunt me throughout our trip. Because I was unsure about everything.
For two weeks we toured the country like miming bobbleheads, exaggerating our gestures to ask for the nearest bathroom or Starbucks and nodding profusely once we thought we understood what people were saying. We couldn’t read street signs when trying to locate areas of interest and we gave up on adjusting the thermostat in hotels, resigning ourselves to the fact that our room for the night was either a water-less onsen or an igloo.
By the second week, our language skills improved enough to say thank you: arigatou gozaimasu, and yes: hi. Most of the hotels had staff that could understand us fairly well, so long as we didn’t ask for anything more complex than our room key.
At one hotel in Tokyo, Sebastien asked the clerk where the gym was. The man scrunched his face to indicate confusion so we pantomimed pumping iron and I showed off my meager muscles. We were relieved once we saw the glimmer of recognition on his face. He started typing on the computer and then retrieved a binder underneath the desk.
When he returned to the computer and started printing things out, I became suspicious. “I don’t think he’s giving us information about the hotel gym,” I said. I was very confident about this.
A few minutes later the clerk walked back towards us with a stack of papers in his hand. It turned out that there wasn’t a gym in the building, so he gave us information on the nearest fitness center. Again, this information was in Japanese.
“Arigatou gozaimas,” Sebastien and I said in unison, making use of our only learned phrase. As we were leaving I grabbed the stack of papers and turned to Sebastien, “If nothing else we could burn the paper for heat if it gets too cold in the room tonight.”