Despite essentially being a long-term tourist in Japan I hate feeling like one of the shutterbug crowd, endlessly holding up people on the pavement taking photos of anything vaguely unfamiliar, which in Japan could mean pretty much anything.
It’s this desire to feel less foreign in a country where I am quite patently so, that often leads me to look for the quieter and the more local in cities teeming with tourists. Despite my rather limited Japanese these smaller places with significantly less English are often all the more friendly than their tourist centric counterparts.
In Kyoto especially, a beautiful city but always bursting with tourists both domestic and foreign, I found joy in escaping the bustle in such places. Not far from Kyoto train station, an enormous and impressive piece of architecture that climbs fifteen stories high (the tenth story being a floor of Ramen restaurants) and as much of a sight to see as the rest of the city, I found refuge and dinner in a small family place. A real hole in the wall in a part of town more populated with Starbucks and McDonald’s than mom and pop places. Finding only one customer but an entire family of chefs inside I perched myself at the bar. My seat was essentially the viewing area of the kitchen. Having worked in a kitchen in my teens as a lowly pot washer, I know that any kitchen willing to be open to the customer’s scrutiny is infinitely more professional as the usual temper tantrums and wannabe rock star egos tend to be reined in. However, whether such a culinary temperament exists in Japan I could not say, I only know that they put many of my former colleagues to shame on every level.
I ordered a bowl of steaming hot soba (buckwheat noodles) and a plate of tempura (deep fried vegetables and sea food). However, I had not counted on the immense generosity of their portions and I soon found myself attempting to eat equal amounts of each so as not to display favouritism to the creation of either chef, who were eyeing my greedy effort from inside the kitchen.
The matriarch of this clan of chefs pottered over towards me almost immediately upon my arrival, intent on a little natter. The usual questions were asked and as usual I answered as best I could. When asked where my hometown is I gave them the name and then so that they were not completely baffled I explained that it was near Manchester. The fate of most northerners abroad is to be from a village or town called NearLeeds or NearManchester.
This leads inevitably towards the question of Soccer (a word that makes my heart break a little every time I hear it) and Manchester Utd. So I explain that Man Utd are in the Premier League., to which they give strong nods to display their appreciation and avid devotion to, ‘English Premier League’, a slightly confused look at mentions of the Championship, and then complete shock that the third tier that is League One even exists; worse still that my team should reside within it. All is redeemed though when I reveal that my team’s mascot is a Yorkshire Terrier. Cuteness and little dogs, this is firm, sure ground in Japanese conversation.
I once revealed that little fact to a class and elicited a sharp gasp of surprise and perhaps terror as one student looked at me and asked, ‘My dog is English?!’
So having dispensed with all the usual questions and complimented their cooking as often as possible I was beginning to run out of Japanese and asked the question I hate to have to ask, ‘do you understand a little English?’ I feel dirty when I ask it because it is essentially an admission that you must rely on their greater understanding of a foreign language, in their own country no less. It feels rude on every level to me, but alas after half an hour of small talk I’m pretty much stuffed and so if they want to ask anything beyond the simple and polite I must rely on their high school English along with my little ipod Japanese dictionary going back and forth each time one of us forgets or doesn’t know a word. So having asked the question but not expecting an affirmative answer I was surprised when she gestured towards her son, the chef who had prepared my delicious tempura. He walked over and in flawless English said, ‘I speak a little English as I used to study English and American Literature in America, I’m particularly fond of William Faulkner.’ At that point, had I not already finished my bowl of soba my jaw would have dropped straight into it.
As much as it surprised me at the time (not that he understood a lot of English, that is quite common) that he spoke with such incredible fluency I can understand why he kept it to himself. In Kyoto I rarely heard a foreign tourist make any attempt at using even a little Japanese, not even something from a phrase book at the very least. No Konnichiwa (hello), no arigatou(thanks), no onegaishimas or o kudasai (please/may I have). I even met a perfectly nice American man who was intent on moving to Japan permanently, who had resided in Kyoto for three months already and had not learned a single word of Japanese. So when a tourist makes even a small attempt to speak Japanese they’ll engage more, talk more and generally be even friendlier than they already are. Yet, should a Japanese person reveal immediately that they understand every tourist perfectly, well that’s just an invitation for tourists to be more demanding and lazy. Not something I’d be keen to encourage either.
Aside from the fact it is simple politeness to do so, there are of course major benefits to speaking at least a little bit of the language, even if you only visit for a little while. Perched at the end of the bar at my hostel in Kyoto I noticed two Australian guys frantically gesturing for ten minutes trying to get one of the bar staff to notice them so they could order a beer. I took my time to finish my beer and then shouted, ‘sumimasen’ the bartender over in a flash, my drink immediately replaced and two stunned Aussies left asking, ‘what was that magic word you used?’