Japan: Lost in translation?

Does travelling through a country where you have no concept of the language intimidate you? Here's how you can get around without speaking a word

By Silke Pfersdorf

I can see the characters. 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 pot-luck. “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, halfhidden 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. 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’ve ordered. I’ve already started to understand that in Japan, happiness has no need of words.

Kimonos are traditional dress at Yasaka Pagoda, Kyoto

 

Japan without a word of Japanese. Lost in translation. 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 our Western alphabet. But all that changes as soon as you start traveling 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 for one of the paltry 26 letters that they’re familiar with. But all they find are shops that I will need to enter if I want to know whether what they are selling is something to eat, a pair of flip-flops, 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 before suddenly being gripped by panic: I CAN SEE THE CHARACTERS. 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 pot-luck. “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. how will we ever find our way back to the train station? Perhaps wandering around aimlessly wasn’t such a great idea, when all the while you feel like a child who has lost her mother 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 memorize the sequence of her gestures. Straight ahead, then right, then left. And I do get there in the end, albeit one hour later, after having the way explained to me by a further four people.

Crowds on the street at sunset in the Shinjuku district

 

Things are much easier in the city centre. Ten years ago, some Japanese people would run away in terror if a tourist asked them for directions in English, because they were frightened of the embarrassment that would be caused if they didn’t understand. But with just a little over 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 zebra crossings, the streets are engulfed by a flood of humanity. I’m standing there with my map and suddenly there’s a Japanese 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 half a mile 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.

"Much to his embarrassment, the man I ask doesn't know the way either but he still insists on showing me"

The 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 the bicycle hire. 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.

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

 

Hiring a bike for the day costs around £8. Kyoto is as flat as a pancake, the hills are all off in the distance. There are 1,600 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 koban 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’s giving me directions—in Japanese. In the end, he fetches a bicycle and rides ahead of me until we reach a crossroads from where all I have to do is go straight on.

You learn as you go along. 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’m forced to rely on local trains. I find directions online, stick rigidly to what the GPS on my phone tells me, and make it onto the train, where there is standing room only.

The Golden Pavilion

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 trying to guess what they’re selling. This must be what I 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 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 farther. I don’t even know the word for “station,” but here I am standing on yet another platform.

"Two toilet doors, two inscrutable symbols. Do I go for the cube on legs or the interlocking boomerangs"

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 platform. He bows and apologises as if he were personally responsible for the delay. You would never catch even a railway employee making such a display of contrition back home, not even if the service had been completely cancelled.

On the mountain of 117 temples, at least, my enforced silence is a wonderful thing. When I finally arrive after a tortuous two-hour train journey and cable car ascent, it’s 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 wooden geta sandals on tarmac, the monks chanting in the temples, wind whispering through the cedars. You can stay the night at most of the temples; they even do half board. I booked my lodgings at the Muryoko-in temple online.

This is the home of Genso, a native of Switzerland who came to the Kōya-san some 18 years ago. He’s only too happy to tell people what to see and do while they’re up here. And he does so in several languages including my own. Naturally, he accompanies me on my walk through the ancient Oku-no-in cemetery. A 100,000 stone lanterns and Buddha statues watch over the graves of religious leaders, feudal lords, and samurai, the centuries-old stone covered in moss.

Hundreds of Buddha statues guard the tranquil graveyard at Okuno-i

 

Then it's time for a coffee and a visit to the toilet. It’s a disaster waiting to happen: two 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, so I plump for the other. When I come out, a child is laughing and its mother giggling behind her hand. Did I 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 foreigners visiting Japan. 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 40 miles 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 rucksack. I want to walk to the top of Owakudani. It’s no great feat, just a hike of a couple of hours or so. I see an old lady coming toward me. “Owakudani?” I ask, simply to make sure I’m 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, an American shows up and explains that the path is closed because the sulphur vents are currently spewing out poisonous vapours. I’m learning that the Japanese are incredibly polite and 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 hot springs. I’ve prepared well and know what do to: first of all, I sit on a small wooden stool and pour buckets of water over myself, dutifully subjecting my body to a thorough scrubbing. Only once I’ve 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's 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 and point at words I can’t 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 managed to learn on my entire trip. A man at the bar claps and the cook congratulates me from behind the counter: “Good Japanese”, he laughs.