Prefaced, most likely, by “sumimasen” (a cross between “excuse me” and “sorry”), this is a very important phrase for us foreigners to know when abroad in Japan. It simply means, “I do not understand Japanese.” If you’re visiting Tokyo, as I was in the first leg of my trip, you can most likely find a fairly competent English speaker in any given establishment. But once you’re outside the big urban centers, you will quickly be reduced to hand gestures and apologetic bowing, and having a few polite phrases to inform your unfortunate conversational partner that you didn’t understand a word of what they said in the past minute or so starts to feel necessary.
I’ve lived most of my life in Knoxville, Tennessee, and prior to this month I had traveled abroad all of once, when I wasn’t even ten years old. I am ashamed to admit that the only languages I have under my belt are English and a few key phrases of my maternal family’s Germanglish (“Keepen Sie off the grass!”). Despite my best efforts, to say I was not prepared to fly halfway across the world on my own is an understatement. Regardless, I was determined to make it work. I was finally getting to visit an old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen since the pandemic began — not to mention that I was getting a globe-trotting adventure of my own to boot.
I touched down in Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Saturday after a 13-and-a-half-hour flight from Detroit. I was grateful that Japan had given me QR codes to quickly get me through customs, instead of spending the next hour filling out forms. I met my friend in arrivals and we headed off to sample Tokyo’s extensive rail network on our way to our hotel in the Roppongi district. My room was small but cozy, and the bidet toilet kindly refrained from any unwelcome spraying (it has a toggle). The next few days were a blur of aching legs, singsong subway arrival chimes, and milling crowds as she gave me the grand tour.
The modern and the traditional coexist in remarkable harmony in Tokyo; you can find a towering skyscraper across the street from a centuries-old Buddhist temple. A few tastes of Tokyo cuisine reminded me that I’m not quite as bad with chopsticks as I think I am (which is not to say that I’m good with them, mind you), as well as sometimes a good matcha parfait is worth testing the limits of your lactose intolerance.
Tokyo, however, was only half the trip. My friend is an assistant English teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program in one of Japan’s southern prefectures, and I was eager to see life in small-town Japan. The domestic flight was thankfully much shorter than the international one that brought me to Tokyo, and I was ready to hit the ground running. The city where my friend teaches is less a city and more a handful of “towns in a trenchcoat,” as she puts it. Downtown consists of a few multi-story buildings flanking one-lane streets, and you can traverse the length of the city by car in under 15 minutes. It was here that I discovered just how jarring it is to make left-hand turns into traffic, as every instinct in my American driver’s brain screamed at me that we were about to have a head-on collision. Thankfully, my friend behind the wheel is much more acclimated to Japanese driving, and we did not experience any unfortunate automotive incidents.
Life in small-town Japan isn’t all that different than what you’d experience in small-town America. Everybody knows everybody, and southern hospitality is just as much a thing in Japan’s southern prefectures as it is in our own state. With my friend’s instruction (and the indulgence of the locals for my clunky pronunciation), I picked up enough rudimentary Japanese to go buy myself convenience store breakfasts, which consistently proved both tasty and cheap. What proved less cheap was shipping all my souvenirs back home, but hey, you win some, you lose some.
All in all, it was an awe-inspiring trip. The food, the sights, and the people all left an indelible impression on me, this energy that was at once lively and serene. Some might even call it the trip of a lifetime, but I’ll refrain from doing so, in the hope that I’ll get to make the trip again someday… though maybe next time with a bit more Japanese under my belt, so that “nihongo-ga wakarimasen” is no longer the most important phrase in my arsenal.