Lost in totally no translation

Numata, Japan, 2008. Ross is a kind man and a fabulous guide but eventually Ross had to go back to work. That meant I was about to face Japan solo, armed with nothing but good disposition and a map. Before my trip, I had had time to take two Japanese lessons, just enough to learn how to say with aplomb: “Do you speak English?” and hope for the best. The best did not happen, but in a way, it did.


I picked a destination at random, the Tenkeiji Temple on Zaimokusho-Dori, and I have to say that based on the map, it looked ultra-simple. Ross had warned me that the map was really old but he had not mentioned that 75% of the streets were not represented nor that the name of the streets would not be written with the Latin alphabet. Roads with no subtitles.


Five minutes into my walk and I was already completely lost. I spotted what seemed to be a nice gentleman weeding his driveway, and I approached him with a smile and the absolute confidence that, within the next five minutes, a meaningful exchange of information would take place.

With my best Japanese accent (which, by that time, was infused with a bit of a Canadian flavor), I asked: “Do you speak English?” The man looked at me as if I had come from Mars. Maybe he was suffering from a hearing impediment. I repeated my well-rehearsed sentence more slowly and louder, taking great care in mouthing the words exaggeratedly so he could read my lips. No response. A blank stare.

Well, my valiant effort would not be in vain: I pointed at my camera and made eyes like interrogation points (that’s really big eyes with little nods) and he seemed to say okay. He immediately lowered his head so that I could take a really good picture of his hat.


I continued on my road to nowhere or God knows where. When I saw a real estate agency, I thought for sure they would speak my kind of Japanese. I went in. A man was in polite conversation with, I think, a lady client (I’m sure about the lady part.) Again, with a confidence only slightly dented, I asked: “do you speak Japanese?” They both looked at each other, then back at me. Boy! My two Japanese lessons really sucked. I pointed at the map. They began to speak Japanese to me and I realized I was really in trouble in this country. I made little respectful bows, sumi masen, sumi masen (you can say sumi masen for any occasions, really. One can never go wrong with sumi masen. Hello, good bye, sorry: all sumi masen!) and exited the building.

Five minutes later, a car slowed down next to me, and the driver, the lady client from the real estate agency, made gestures that I should get into her car. I hope that’s what she meant otherwise she must have been really surprised when I hopped in. She drove me to the temple in her mini-car 66-99.


Kazumi turned out to be very very cool in a non-communicative sort of way and she posed for me in the gardens of Tenkeiji. Having heard numerous tales of Japanese not liking foreigners (gaijin), I was amazed at the kindness of this woman.


When she was gone, I started exploring. The temple appeared closed (no shoes lined up in front of the door) but the surroundings were beautiful.


There were some very strange  Mizuko Jizo. It seemed someone had stuffed their mouth with fruit. A bit disturbing and not appetizing at all.


I then knew why their clothes always looked like bibs. I simply had never witnessed the results of feeding time. A little further, I found mini God statues.


I think the one on the left is a God and I think the one on the right is the butler, but this is pure conjecture on my part. I’ve probably committed sacrilege and insulted the God of cleanliness and purity.


Another God-looking statue in the middle of the spring flowers of September, and of course, the tour would not be complete without my favorite: the tombs!


Except they may not be tombs after all, but prayer stones. If these were tombstones, the people would have to be very small and skinny to fit. So probably, prayer stones… On the other side of the path, a small water way.


These mini-rivers run all around town. It’s very charming. Numata is the little Venice of Japan. Without the Gondolas.

The problem with being driven somewhere is that you generally do not pay attention to the road. There I was, at Tenkeiji Temple, with the mission to go back to the house, a little blue dot on an archaic map. I just needed to find another good soul to drive me home. I put on my pathetic face and headed out toward a road…

8 responses to “Lost in totally no translation

  1. You’re a lot braver than I would be. I was even afraid to go very far in India, and they speak English there.

  2. I love how CLEAN Japan looks in all your photos.

  3. That’s a great story….throwing yourself upon the mercy of the locals and hoping for the best.

    And I love the third from the bottom (annum_014)…..I think lots of folks try to avoid foreground bokeh items (like the flower that partially obstructs the statue’s head), but I love that sort of thing when it’s done well, like here.

  4. This is delightful! I love that the man understood you completely and showed you his hat in response. Very nice.

    The photos are lovely as ever. I especially like the second one. Something about it feels surreal and distant yet equally close at hand.

  5. As they say, it is not the goal itself but the road to it that matters 🙂
    There is probably a bunch of places where this would not happen to you, Turkey being one of them. They would always find one person that speaks English, even if the whole town has to go out looking for the guy. As you might imagine, this does not take the adventure away, it just makes it less solitary..
    But they would never “give you the hat” :))

  6. Tis very brave indeed. These kinds of experiences make it easier to understand what immigrants go through when they leave their life behind and alight in a foreign country and have little or no knowledge of language and culture.

    One of the benefits of travel, I think. We learn sympatico.

    Lovely photos, as always.

  7. I never knew of this temple until you described where it was. It’s just around the corner from where I work actually. Great place!
    I think Flat Tony jumped that little canal a few months ago.

    note: Japanese think foreigners like taking pictures of their gardening hats. hee hee!

  8. Thanks for all your comments!

    Davis: Japan is the absolute safest place I ever visited. Getting lost there was a bit fun. I got lost later that day too!

    Enna: Thanks for visiting! You are a crazy girl – I liked the mustache!

    Forkboy: Thanks! I generally refrain from obstructing my subject but the colors were so cool I just couldn’t resist!

    Jason: I’m not sure the man understood me completely. I think he understood absolutely nothing actually. 🙂

    Grasswire: I was told that there are people in that town who speak English (I hope Ross’ students do) but they are the white collars and you never see them on the street. They work all the time!

    Bonnie: right on the money! It feels very lonely to not be able to communicate with anyone. The simplest things turn out to be impossible missions (asking whether you can use someone’s bathroom? Forget about it! You need a large sized bladder when walking around over there.) Truly, venturing in Numata was not really being brave, but Tokyo would be a whole other matter!

    : I always discover “places around the corner” when I have a guest (which is never… but I imagine I totally would.) After a while, you grow uninquisitive about your own surroundings.
    note: Japanese think foreigners should have better things to do than take their picture. The man wanted me out of his driveway pronto!

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