If you hear of pirates in Japan, think twice.
We had a week away from home base (Masako’s home outside Tokyo). We did shows in Yamaguchi, hosted by the quietly delightful and affable Mr Yamamoto; then by the generous and indefatiguable Mrs Hitsumoto in Shimonoseki. After this whirlwind mini-tour, we spent a day in Kyoto, where we stayed in a 12th Century temple inn. We kept warm with lots of clothes. Lodgings were beautiful and basic, the guest rooms separated by thin sliding panels. It was a minor hike with many twists and turns through long corridors to get to and from the toilet and sink area. Every time Masako went, she got lost and had to be guided back by the very patient temple manager. When she ventured out for a midnight pee, she dressed for the journey through the night air, donning her over coat and hood, and wearing her scarf that masks half her face. She looked like some sort of elf, perhaps a terrorist elf, and scared the wits out of the quiet peaceful young woman traveler who was washing her hands at the sink when Masako appeared.
To make up for all the primitive settings I put Masako through, we spent a night in a hot springs resort hotel on the coast in Atami, south of Tokyo. It must have been quite an extravagant spot when it was new, about 50 years ago. I preferred our rustic onsen in the mountain village, but this setting gave me a glimpse of this side of Japanese culture, with its grand/gaudy (depending on your tastes) tacky/terrific chandeliers, muzak, “showtime” dinner entertainment, landscaped gardens, lit artificial waterfall, riotously noisy and colourful arcade games, and costume room where you can dress up for a photo shoot. But the onsen was lovely, with pools and tubs in open air overlooking the sea. Despite smoking throughout the building, our room was pleasant, with a beautiful view of ocean and cliff. Masako let me open the window, and we slept to the lulling wash of the sea.
On our return, Masako’s husband Yukio was excited to show us a story about me in the local paper, and noticed right away that my vocabulary had expanded significantly during our week away. As we ate supper that night at the izakaya (local pub), I was able to follow Masako:s narratives as she excitedly recounted our adventures. My night-time search for the onsen. My encounter the next day with a small boy who recognized me from the onsen, and complimented me on my English. The time Masako had to snap at me to sit down while showering, as I was inadvertently spraying my neighbour -very bad form! The time she had to reprimand me for rinsing my face in the onsen pool (Also bad form. Don’t bother asking why it’s not ok to wet the face in the shared pool when other, um, body areas are ok.) The beautiful home where we stayed in Shimonoseki and our lovely hosts. The flea market at the festival in Sanyo-Onada and the private tour of the museum, which was opened specially for us. The many kind and helpful people all along the way, who drove us, fed us, entertained us, housed us. It was thrilling to be able to follow the stories, even if only in broad strokes.
Some of my favourite language bits have to do with decoding Japanese versions of other languages. Our lodgings in Shimonoseki overlook the famous strait between Honshu and Kyushu islands. It is a home that was previously owned and inhabited by a pirate! Imagine my surprise as our host explained the importance of pirates in maintaining the safety of the 700 ships that go through the strait every day. It dawns on me gradually. Pilots. Marine pilots.
Or this: When we sit down for dinner at the resort hotel, Masako announces *these are all audible.* I listen. What I hear is an orchestral arrangement of Simon and Garfunkle’s greatest hits. The same recording that’s been playing since we entered, will play all evening, and will play during breakfast tomorrow as well. Masako gestures to the plates of food. *Audible,* she repeats with a smile. I’ve found that sometimes it advances the conversation if I just repeat what I hear. “Audible.” I echo. She cocks her head, uncertain. “Audible? Not?” she queries. I am stumped. It takes some unraveling, but finally we figure out that she means appetizers. They borrow the French “hors d’oeuvre” and yes, it’s pronounced pretty much like “audible.”
Yesterday and today we’ve stayed home, doing laundry, resting, catching up, preparing for the next little stint. I ventured out to the local department/grocery store where I bought a few small things. It becomes comfortable after a while,when I accept not being able to communicate except at a very primitive level. I look around me at signs, posters, books, and marvel at the fact that there is almost nothing I can read. When I recognize even one simple character, I am thrilled beyond measure.
Today I walked through the neighbourhood, in a mild rain, At a park, a young family was playing. I approached the mother, smiled a slight bow, and held out my camera. This language, all Japanese understand perfectly, and they are more than happy to comply. She took my picture, then I took hers, then she rounded up her husband and three-yr -old for a family shot, then there were photos of every combination of everyone present. All, artfully, set against the backdrop of the hillside in full fall colours. This is, indeed, Japan.