I wanted to visit Japan for as long as I can remember. Every time I juggled the travel wish list, there it was near the top, beckoning me to book a trip.
But the appeal of wildlife safaris in Africa, meandering self-drives in France, and cruise expeditions to Antarctica were also strong. Japan’s time never seemed to come.
It wasn’t aided by my husband’s eating habits: whilst he’s not a fussy eater, his diet of choice didn’t extend to fish and seafood (cooked as much as raw), pork that wasn’t formed into bacon or sausages, miso soup or sweets filled with red bean paste or flavoured with green tea. The thought of being presented food he might not be able to identify was also a big turnoff. But after years of being married to a foodie, his palate has become more adventurous over time, and the last two years witnessed a sea change in the seafood stakes.
Buoyed by the more positive response to Japan as a holiday destination, I struck while the iron was hot and booked non-refundable flights!
We spent 17 wonderful days in Japan last autumn.
Japan was everything I’d imagined it to be and many things besides: the contrast between modern and traditional, between shiny new and revered old; a populace both friendly, welcoming, incredibly polite and yet with interests and behaviours that were, to our eyes, utterly (and compellingly) strange; the soothing rituals and etiquette of ryokan living with cypress wood baths and futons on tatami mat floors; all singing and dancing toilets with musical choices, pre-warmed seats and wash and dry functions; young girls crawling through a hole in a rock shrine, convinced it would bring them true love; the most efficient train system we’ve experienced; an incredibly rich and diverse food culture offering all the Japanese dishes we know here in the West and a hundred more we don’t; restaurants and cafés specialising in tempura, ramen, sushi, soba noodles, pickles, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki and yakitori, along with foods that are less well-known in the West, such as tonkatsu, wagashi, okonomiyaki, wagyu beef, and all things matcha to name just a few….
Of course, part of feeling at ease in a strange and foreign land is the ability to communicate, but Japanese seemed to be an inscrutable language. Whereas European languages, which use our familiar Roman alphabet, feel easier to get a handle on, Japanese, with its (three) unfamiliar character sets, not only sounds unintelligible to our ears, it’s impossible to read, too.
Oh I printed out a tiny list of phonetically represented useful words and phrases to carry around with me and was rewarded with warmth when I used them. But there were many times when we felt that a deeper understanding and more meaningful exchange of ideas would have been possible had we only known Japanese. Not to mention the ability to ask for (and follow) directions when we got lost, to work out which tickets to buy from station-ticket machines, and to order more confidently from restaurant menus.
Fast forward a few months, and the wonders of our first trip are still so strongly in our minds that we’ve booked a return trip for another three weeks later this year.
With a better feeling of how much more we will get from our trip if we have some language skills under our belt, we’ve decided to invest the next few months in learning Japanese. With its reputation for making learning feel natural and achievable, Rosetta Stone seemed the obvious solution. Not needing to attend physical classes also makes it easier to slot into daily life.
I am nervous. Learning new skills becomes harder with age, as I discovered when I studied for some professional certification recently—I passed with good marks, but it certainly didn’t come as easily to me as the exams I sailed through so comfortably back at school a few decades ago. I realise a few months is still not long enough to gain true fluency in a new language, especially one with as little in common with my native tongue as Japanese. But I’m fired up and ready to get started!
Over the next few months, I’ll keep you updated with my progress. And of course, I’ll share how it all went after our second trip to Japan.