Surviving Japan Without Nihongo

 Author Marites Vitug in Kamo (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Author Marites Vitug in Kamo (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

My first haircut in Kyoto was an easy success. I thought it was going to test my sign language acumen to the fullest, to include facial gestures like lifting of the eyebrows to indicate puzzlement, or putting on a slight frown for disapproval. But between the hair-stylist, who didn’t speak English, and me knowing only a handful of Japanese words, we got by. He showed me magazines filled with photographs of various haircuts, a paradise of choices!

Suddenly, I was hard pressed to make a decision. The Japanese ladies were all young, looking gorgeous in their fine make up, their hair lush and coiffed. My choice was aspirational, I guess, as I pointed to a dainty face with cropped hair, ears showing, and uneven but lively bangs. I’ve been back to this salon since then.

Multiply this experience many times over—opening a bank account, paying rent in a bank, getting a cell phone, going to the grocery store, ordering in restaurants without English menus, looking for stuff at the 100-yen shop, asking for directions, calling offices—and you get the picture of how it is to be a gaijin (foreigner/outsider who doesn’t speak the language) in Japan.

When my colleague’s wife, a Singaporean, asked for bubble wrap from a 100-yen shop, she got blank stares. She then took out pen and paper and drew it but, somehow, her illustration wasn’t clear enough. Next, as if in a game, she acted out the use of the bubble wrap, carefully packing an imaginary object. Voila! Yes, they had what she needed.

When a Malaysian friend and I tried to book, by phone, a day package of onsen (public bath) and lunch in a many-star hotel in Toba, an idyllic city facing the Pacific Ocean, we couldn’t get past moshi-moshi (hello). Mercifully, an Indonesian friend, who has been living in Japan for ten years and speaks Nihongo fluently, came to our rescue. That visit to Toba turned out to be dream-like: soaking in an outdoor bath under a blue sky embossed with clouds and overlooking a tranquil bay, followed by a delightfully presented light seafood lunch in the hotel restaurant with a similar sweeping view.

Communicating can be a struggle and, for me, the only struggle in my short stay in Japan. I’ve been living here for five months and, by early October, I head home to the Philippines. Based at the Kyoto University, I’ve been blessed with time and space to write, thanks to a research fellowship granted by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. During this time, however, it is simply impossible to learn to speak Nihongo, much less read all the signs.

 The entrance to an onsen (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

The entrance to an onsen (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Fortunately, in some places, there could be one or two persons who speak English. Like in a department store where I had to look for a very specific type of cooking pan for the induction stove in my apartment. Or in a grocery store that has products for expats, where I needed to know whether the salad dressing, sesame paste, or walnut bread had sugar. Almost all of the Japanese products have no English labels.

Sometimes, by a happy chance, I meet a Japanese in the train station or in a restaurant who speaks English; it’s like finding a cold-water spring in a desert.

There are a few handy tips and, here, technology can be of tremendous help.

  • When taking a cab, the standard thing to do is to show the driver the Google map, in Japanese, of the place you’re going to. Or have someone write down the address in Japanese characters.
  • If looking for a product, show a picture to the salesperson, using your smart phone. An Indian friend found a spice she missed using this technique.
  • Download an app on your iPad that translates Japanese to English. My nephew found this useful.

The biggest thing that will stay with me is the generally kind and polite manner of the Japanese.

All other things in Japan work for a gaijin like me—and I know I will miss these the moment I land in Manila. The perfect, bullet-shaped shinkansen (high-speed train) has shrunk distances, making travel stress-free, with its on-time schedule, comfortable seats, spotless floors and clean toilets. There are no little plastic bags or styrofoam cups left by passengers. The same goes for the regular trains, subways and buses.

Toilets are everywhere and they are equipped with all kinds of extras like push- buttons for gurgling sounds (if you want to mask an indelicate sound), shower and bidet. Equally ubiquitous are the vending machines that never allow you to have your thirst unquenched.

24/7 convenience stores offer delectable meals at reasonable prices, 500 yen and below. I have never enjoyed 7-11 take-out food until my stay in Japan. My stomach is always content after a sushi or pasta dinner from our neighborhood 7-11 or a sashimi and salad take-out from the 24-hour grocery store nearby.

But the biggest thing that will stay with me is the generally kind and polite manner of the Japanese. The taxi driver who saw to it that my husband, who was gripped by a sudden high fever while shopping in a heavily air-conditioned store, was brought to the right hospital where doctors spoke English, is someone I will always associate with Japan. Finding care for a sick person in a country where English is almost alien can be fraught with tension. But Higashihira helped me through this, my longest night in Kyoto.


Enjoying Kyoto

Here are some recommendations to make the most out of a short trip (three days, perhaps) to Kyoto:

1. Take a stroll by the Kamogawa river, popularly called Kamo. It is right in the center of the city, with rows of restaurants on one side that extend their dining areas into balconies overlooking Kamo during late spring, summer and early autumn. Residents have picnics on the riverbanks, others practice their saxophone or drums, many just read and listen to music. After a day of writing, I find my walks by the Kamo clarifying.   

 Kamo (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Kamo (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

2. Walk in the Gion district, where geisha-watching is common among tourists. The streets are lined with old wooden houses that have been converted into restaurants, teahouses and shops. One rainy night, my husband and I went to a 10-seater bar tucked in one corner in the area. The two waiters spoke some English and served us unforgettable sake.   

 Gion (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Gion (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

3. Visit the lush bamboo forest in Arashiyama, on the outskirts of the city. I’ve never seen such towering bamboo trees before. In early spring, the sakura are in full bloom, making this district even more exhilarating.   

 Arashiyama (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Arashiyama (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

4. Choose only a few temples to tour; there are just too many. I particularly like Kyomizu-dera, a UNESCO world heritage site, located on a hillside with a commanding view of the city. On the street leading to the temple are interesting ceramic shops and restaurants. Every weekend, a hop-on, hop-off bus dedicated to world heritage shrines and temples takes off from the Kyoto station. This is an easy way to discover these gems.

5. Discover tofu cooked in different ways. Along Pontocho, the narrowest street in Kyoto, you can find restaurants that serve this healthy specialty.

 Pontocho Street (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

Pontocho Street (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

6. A ryokan (Japanese inn) in Kurama, on the northern side of Kyoto, offers indoor and outdoor onsen. I prefer the outdoor bath, where you can commune with the surrounding mountains and trees.

7. Experience sake-tasting in Fushimi after which visit the Inari shrine, located at the base of a mountain, with thousands of torii (decorative gateway commonly found in Shinto temples) gates, an eye-catching wonder.   

 The torii gates (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)

The torii gates (Photo courtesy of Marites Vitug)


 Marites Danguilan Vitug

Marites Danguilan Vitug

Marites Danguilan Vitug is an author and editor-at-large of http://www.rappler.com/ (on leave). She is currently a visiting research fellow at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies. 


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