When all else fails, just flail your arms and grunt.
I often find myself wishing that English speakers like myself put in a greater effort to learn other languages. Maybe I would have learned Japanese by now. Even though I can get by in most day-to-day activities, any deviation from the norm makes me hilariously anxious. I went and got my hair cut yesterday, and wouldn’t you know, it felt like I’d just climbed Mt. Fuji. I said ten words, my hair didn’t look like shit, and I left with a shred of my dignity intact. Chalk that up as a colossal victory. A conquest, even.
Now not everything is as straightforward as showing a barber a photo of the hairstyle you want and sitting in a chair with your mouth shut for twenty minutes. In the early stages of my residence here I have had less success in navigating more complex issues.
One night, sometime after midnight, the unimpressed face of a policeman popped up at my doorstep as I was Netflixing and cooking myself a nice stir fry. Standing in my underwear as I was, I was a bit flustered when I opened the door and he began reprimanding me in Japanese for what I assumed to be no reason at all. I figured that my time in Japan had come to an end – that I would be deported the next day for an unexplained felony. In the end, after hearing the word “terebi” (TV) I realized that I had the volume cranked up on my TV – with the window open – at one in the morning. And also that I was a complete ass.
Long story short, he didn't deport me. This time.
For this next part of the story to make sense, you need to know a bit about NHK. NHK is Japan’s national broadcasting behemoth, and it is required by law that all residents pay a subscription fee if they own a TV. Now, it turns out that a lot people don’t really want to pay NHK for their service, and so they simply don’t pay, with seemingly no repercussions.
I had been forewarned of the door-to-door NHK harassers that come by to solicit subscription fees, and thought that my best bet would be to play the “dumb foreigner,” particularly as it’s a role that requires no acting to be convincing. I would just say I don’t speak Japanese and I don’t have a TV (in fairness, I can barely use my remote, let alone take advantage of NHK's programming). And yet, when I heard a knock at the door, standing in my apartment wearing nothing but a towel and with the TV yet again blaring, I had a much harder time remembering NHK and their solicitors than I did my previous police incident.
It wasn’t a police officer, but a seemingly normal man, and, having never met my downstairs neighbour, I had a sickening suspicion that this was him come to complain about my having done jumping jacks and burpees for a half hour, making lots of lovely thudding sounds for him to listen to. Standing on my porch at night in nothing but a towel with a chest tattoo in a country that frowns upon tattoos, I was feeling a bit flustered. I used my token phrase to alert him to the fact that my Japanese is crap, and proceeded to watch the pained expression on his face before he nodded and fired off some rapid Japanese anyways. I did manage to pick up a single word from his speech. You guessed it: “terebi.”
Shit, I thought. It’s too loud again. I pointed inside my apartment and said “terebi, hai, gomen nasai.” Yes, TV, I’m sorry.
That’s when I heard him say the letters N, H, and K. So much for my brilliant plan of lying about the TV. I spent the next thirty minutes rushing back and forth between my bedroom and my front door – which shuts if you don’t hold it open – to bring him my personal and banking information so that he could charge me for a service which I am too incompetent to use. Suffice it to say, I really could have used a bit more Japanese.
The most magical place on Earth
Incredibly long-winded introduction now over, I can get to the actual review of my trip(s) to Nikko, a mountain city north of Tokyo with some incredible scenery and cultural sights. Well, it’s not really a review so much as a stupid story about my terrible Japanese landing me in trouble once again. See, that intro really was necessary. Maybe.
I’d been to Nikko once before, to see the Toshogu Shrine dedicated to one of my favourite historical figures, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was excellent. Go see it. Leave early, and whatever you do don’t take the local train from Tokyo or it will take you five hours and four separate trains to get there.
On my second visit, I got to see the other attraction in Nikko that, thanks to the prior train mishap, I hadn’t had a chance to see the first time. It’s called Edo Wonderland, a theme park which mimics Japan during the Edo period (1600-1870 roughly). This is my idea of Disneyland (never been to Disneyland and honestly it sounds dreadful). Actors dress up as ninja and samurai, and you can watch them duel each other, or have a go yourself and challenge them in the streets. I drank soba tea, walked through a ninja maze and a lopsided ninja training house, and visited a lovely old building where they used to decapitate and torture criminals.
Like I said, heaven.
I then walked into a big theatre to enjoy a cultural feast for the eyes and ears. A comedy show with the head geisha employed at the park which came highly recommended by my Japanese friend. This friend, Seiko, had been kind enough to give me a lift to the park and join me for the day. The show started with a man in a topknot wig using a very flamboyant accent reminiscent of an anime voice actor. Seiko translated for me, telling me that he needed a participant from the audience for the show, and that the participant had to be male.
He scanned the audience of about sixty people where literally no hands shot up in volunteer.
He began walking through the crowd, peering down like a hawk.
I sat near the back of the theatre, and as he came to the halfway point I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, and I just knew…
He stood over me as I sat there in my terrible cross-legged posture.
I heard him say “oniisan,” or young man, and gesture for me to stand up. Chikusho...
Lacking the ability to refuse short of shaking my head at him, there was nothing left for me to do but stand up sheepishly and follow him, feeling rather stupid in my blue sports hoody and jeans as he lead me onto the stage.
He asked me some introductory questions, and though I didn’t translate the grammar quickly enough, I’ve become pretty good at picking out key words and making logical leaps from there.
“… Onamae …”
“…*no bloody idea*…”
“Mo ikai onegaishimasu.” Please repeat that.
Someone from the crowd shouted, “He asks if you live in Japan.”
“Hai, ummmmmm, Eigo no kyouin desu.” Yes, I’m an English teacher.
“Ah so desu ne?!?”
A bit more prodding, most of which I answered with “hai,” or “daijobu,” (the Japanese equivalent of, okay, it’s okay, it’s all good, no worries), and then he called out two beautiful women in kimono who looked at me expectantly, quite clearly in character. I returned the look awkwardly as they lead me back stage where they dressed me in my own kimono and topknot wig. A perpetual grin/chuckle of embarrassment was etched on my face. These weren’t the circumstances under which I would have liked to meet these two ladies.
They took me to a meal setting on the floor, looking like it had been prepared for a feudal lord, and asked me to sit down cross-legged. I have the flexibility of a rusty gate, so I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this made me more anxious than the language barrier. The food in front of me consisted of thick chunks of sashimi and a whole fish, eyes and all. Having the appearance of being dunked in formaldehyde, I honestly wasn’t sure whether the food was simply old and oxidized, or plastic, and I began to worry that I would be asked to eat it. I sat next to the two women in nervous silence before the curtain raised and the spotlight shone on my wigged head.
Lots of laughs.
Then the play really began, and I sat there, perplexed, trying not to look at the audience, and trying not to sweat under the stage light as the man with the interesting voice began the dialogue with the ladies. I figured he was supposed to be my manservant in the play. There was some irony in that, as so far he certainly hadn't done me any favours.
At this point I assumed that I would be somewhat of a living prop, and would just sit there. That’s when he walked over with a placard that had my first line of the show. I read it. More laughs. Was my pronunciation that bad or was it meant to be funny?
This continued for a bit before the lovely geisha was called out to wait on the honourable guest (me…). She moved gracefully towards me, and first mimed smoking from a prop pipe before offering it to me. I took a fake puff at the suggestion of my manservant. Then she picked up a sake flask, and began to pour into a bowl on my table setting. I figured that like the pipe, there would be nothing in there. You can imagine my surprise then, when she not only poured real sake into the bowl, but filled it to the brim as I watched in horror.
I like sake, I really do, but as she passed it to me with two hands, I didn’t much relish to idea of chugging a cereal bowl’s worth of wine on stage.
“Honto?!?” I asked my manservant, my eyes wide. (Really?!?)
He motioned for me to drink, and I took a couple of big messy swigs before putting it down on my platter. Wine dribbled down my chin. Very lord-like.
Then they brought out a curious object with a wire attached to it. They stood the object on its end. I watched, still confused, as the geisha picked up a folding fan and with great deft threw it like a paper airplane at the object, knocking it over.
Shit. They’re going to make me try, I realized.
They brought the fan over to me, smiles wide, obviously enjoying my suffering. How hard could it be? The object was maybe six feet away from me. Careful not to throw the fan too hard, I lobbed it.
The fan floated for half a second and half a foot before it dropped like a stone ten million miles from its intended target. Cackles from the audience. They laughed even louder when one of the ladies pulled the cord attached to the object and it toppled over, at which point all of the actors turned to me and congratulated me on my great skill.
Unsure whether my awful performance had been a part of the show, or whether the cord was simply there for my benefit, there was nothing I could do but laugh.
And then the geisha moved closer to me, not unlike how a hyena might approach a nice juicy corpse. My manservant moved behind me and grabbed me by the shoulders. They were going to make me kiss her, I thought. What had I gotten myself into?
She was beautiful, yes, but much like with the sake I certainly hadn’t woken up that morning thinking that my kissing prowess would be judged by a theatre full of strangers. The manservant actor pushed me towards her as she inched closer to my face.
Our eyes were locked, when, to my relief, he pulled me back, as she simultaneously pulled back. He cocked my head at an angle, and hers followed. We did this mirroring sequence several times, before finally he pushed our faces so close together that I had finally resigned myself to take whatever happened on the chin. Or more accurately, the lips. Then, he pulled me back, and it was over.
We kowtowed to the audience, who tossed rice paper filled with coins on the stage. At first I thought they were trying to pelt us before realizing they were tips. I did my best to mimic the other actors, but being essentially a giant in this country and I reiterate, as flexible as a stick insect, my efforts were evidently less successful than I thought.
Without a doubt, performing in the show was one of the most embarrassing, nerve-wracking, and downright awkward experiences I’ve ever had, and I would have been able to avoid it had I been fluent in Japanese. My friend Seiko complimented me on my bravery for going on stage. This made me laugh. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known I had the right of refusal. And yet, this is one instance where it paid off to be completely oblivious.
As difficult and horrifying as it was, my tacky acting performance has been one of the highlights of my trip so far, strange as it sounds. I would have unequivocally said no had I been asked in English to volunteer, or had my Japanese been up to snuff. And honestly, I would have missed out, and someone else would have had that great experience.
For those who actually read this far, stay tuned. I have a special guest joining me from Canada today, with many adventures to come.
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