(* For the previous posts in the “Japan the Untranslatable Series”, read: “Kimochii“, “Otsukare“, and “Shippai“.)
Kotoya-san and I met near the tail end of winter in an old tea house by Lake Ashi under awkward circumstances. She stood on one end of a wooden platform raised a foot from the ground, cleaning supplies in one hand, face mask hiding her expression. On the other side, separated by an unlit fire place with a worn kettle and a ring of rocks, were four Australians girls alternating between trying to explain to Kotoya-san in increasingly louder, slower, and broken English that me taking their picture would take far less time than for them to first remove their shoes as they were being asked to. I stood on the dirt floor below, shoes also caked in mud, shivering after trekking through an ancient highway slick with rain, annoyed at having to choose between the logically expedient request of my fellow travelers of whose camera I held, or respecting the traditions of the storied establishment.
Not having tasted the food yet and fearing culinary retribution, even if small, I smiled sheepishly and asked the group to remove their boots. They grumbled as they unlaced bulky boots, struggling to bend over backpacks and winter-ready coats as Kotoya-san stood, apron-clad and wrapped in warm clothes. The Tea House was mostly dark save for a few lamps and a glowing heater in the middle, casting a dim glow around the room and making the picture-taking endeavor that much longer as they tried to manipulate themselves into angles around the unforgiving shadows. Satisfied but extremely apologetic, “I’m sorry. This is just our culture here,” Kotoya-san bowed slightly and shuffled off the platform to attend to the other guests nursing hot cups of tea and quietly munching on snacks.
Safe in the company of another foreigner, the girls thanked me and began tying their boots back on. I can hardly remember their features. One, a blonde, had a blue Canada Goose puffer jacket. Or was it a turquoise REI one? She may have been a redhead. On second thought, were they actually British? Lengthy reflection times and writing months after a memory has aged does horrors to the vivid details I’m “supposed” to write. But I do remember feeling some sort of embarrassment that the warm cup of Amazake (drink made from the fermented rice used to make sake) couldn’t rid. How did us tourists seem when we travelled? Especially in a country famous for strict social codes and the bumbling gaijin trope, I secretly wished they’d lower their voices as they complained about the cold, of how they rode a bus to the Tea House to sip on tea they didn’t seem to like, because it was probably the “thing to do”.
They asked why I looked so miserable, huddled over my steaming cup and looked perplexed when I replied: “Because I hiked for two hours and the almost two miles over an old trail that was nothing more than giant slippery boulders and sloppy mud to get here”. “You know there’s a bus right? It’s a fifteen minute ride”. My embarrassment turned into a mix of righteous indignation, petulance, and equal perplexity. Here was a trail hundreds of years old that used to connect the important cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. On this very trail, officials would stop travelers to search them for weapons and women (feudal lords’ wives had to reside in Tokyo as hostages). Imagine hiking through this storied path, nervous of being labeled a spy, and being awarded near the end with a steaming cup of Amazake laced with ginger and sticky, filling Chikara-mochi (pounded glutinous rice cakes toasted over charcoal). How could you NOT hike the trail? All that came out of my petty self was a pretentious: “Amazake tastes sweeter that harder you work for it”. Watashi wa gaijin desu…just less than you. Pettiness is a garnish I haven’t quite kicked yet.
They left, taking most of the sound out with them and as a platter of three Chikara-Mochi was set in front of me, Kotoya-san returned with a rag to wipe the mud off the platform. She bowed slightly and asked how the food was. “Amai! Oishii desu! Sweet! It’s delicious”. She spoke in practiced English and apologized profusely again for the inconvenience of the Japanese culture. “Was I being mean? I hope I didn’t embarrass them. It’s just the way we do things in Japan. I’m sorry if it bothered you”. I assured her that as a traveller, the burden of adjustment falls on us. She asked where I was from and why I was able to order in Nihongo, in the process also assuring me that as a traveller, my Japanese – stumbling and incomprehensible in my own head – was definitely appreciated. “Terrace House” I replied, referencing a popular Japanese TV Show akin to Big Brother minus the over-the-top drama. “Eeeehh?!”, she exclaimed, breaking her measured politeness as she beckoned her niece over and in amusement recounted my story. The three of us laughed at the thought of me trying to imitate the probably informal speech used on the show and agreed it was still better than trying to learn it from usually vulgar anime. Kotoya-san continued to absent-mindedly wipe the floor though the wood was now spotless as we continued to chat, sharing our foibles with learning a language so completely different from our own.
“My English is terrible now,” she said mournfully in English that would have put many advanced level students to shame, “I studied in Seattle over 10 years ago (or was it Washington more than 15?) but I just haven’t practiced anymore”. If she thought her English was bad, I would be terrified to hear what she considered perfect. We spoke of the commitment required to learn a language and the even more impossible task of translating cultural nuance into ill-equipped translations. I remember her teaching me the word “Ganko”, “stubborness”, though I no longer remember the context in which she used it. Again she complained that her English was still inadequate, that she still couldn’t grasp the differences between the sounds of the letters “L” and “R” and that the stereotypical jokes around the Japanese accent were reaI. “Funny you mention that,” I commented as I bit into the last of the Chikara-mochi, chewing slowly savoring the Kinako (powdery sweet soybean powder). I shared with her a piece of research I read on how it wasn’t so much that the Japanese mixed Ls and Rs but rather they used and heard a third letter – a combo “LR” – that Americans couldn’t hear. Feeling the same bitterness I felt as a kid who was constantly measured against some culture’s definition of being “enough” (too dark for the Chinese, too frail for the Filipinos, to FOB for the whites…), I insisted that her English was in no way inadequate…just different. I told her of the ramen shop in Astoria where I learned a few more words and the streets of Queens where everyone spoke a different version of English, where there were no spectrums to grade the quality of English but rather “flavors” that colored the otherwise vanilla lingua franca.
I guess it’s still a chip on my shoulder from my younger days when my Filipino aunts, hardened by days on the farm, would laugh when I got sick: “That’s because you’re Chinese! You’re too pale and not used to the air! Your mom protects you from the dirt too much”. Or how the other side would whisper in my ear: “Remember you have the blood of the Chinese in you. Don’t be lazy like the Filipinos”. I still remember when my high school peers, raised in the greatest country in all of human history, would laugh at how I pronounced the letter H (“hetch”…like the Australians) or express the type of horror reserved for acts of heinous crimes when discovering I’ve never watched a particularly American show: “You’ve never seen Fresh Prince?! Where have you been? Too busy blowing bombs up in Saudi?”. All those memories didn’t help as I blurted out: “Who gave someone the right to tell you whether your way of speaking was right or wrong?”. I guess that took her by surprise as she thought in silence for a second, hand no longer wiping the floor. “Thank you for that,” was all I remember her saying. Embarrassed – hazukashii – for yet another time with what probably looked like an outburst from a complete stranger to a still faceless woman, I downed the last thick drops of Amazake and ordered another one. “You really like this tea huh? It’s not too sweet is it?” Kotoya-san said as she waved her niece over. “Amazake tastes sweeter the harder you work for it,” I replied as we both chuckled.
“Let me teach you a word from here that I think you’d like,” Kotoya-san said picking up my pen and pronouncing slowly as she wrote four characters, “I…sshõ…ken…mei. Isshōkenmei”. “It means, ‘one lifetime to accomplish’ and is used to describe the desperate effort you need to put into your work because you’ve only got one life to do it. I have a feeling you’re going to like this one.” I did like it. A lot actually. Learning a word that perfectly encapsulated a feeling I couldn’t describe previously with my limited vocabulary filled me with joy. It felt like wearing glasses for the first time, or tasting a piece of food that contained a flavor someone had been trying to explain for the longest time but couldn’t do so in English. “Why one life though?” I asked. “Why is this idea equated with hard work?”. Kotoya-san shrugged, placing a hand on her knee to steady herself as she stood up, “Because that’s what we believe in”. How poetic.
I slowly finished the second cup of Amazake, slurping the bits of rice that reminded me of Mexican Horchata. I sat quietly savoring this new word while she disappeared into the kitchen for a bit. She returned and we spoke a little while longer of things the months have now blurred into the canyons of my memory. I rose to pay. “The bus will soon be here” Kotoya-san said, checking her flip phone. As I walked to entrance with her, she grabbed a pack of Kinako Mochi from a shelf and handed it to me with both hands, “Do take this. Something to remember me by. Oishii desu!” I laughed saying I didn’t have anything to leave but we both agreed that at the very least, we left a good story and words from our own languages.
We walked outside as the rain turned to snow, making the scene look like some ending from a sappy anime. “Let’s take a photo!” I said as the bus appeared down the road. We took several, Kotoya-san saying we should do it properly without her face mask. I realized that the whole time, we conversed with only her eyes visible, the power of her words breaking through the blank whiteness of her mask and being as beautiful as the face she self-deprecatingly called “ugly”. As the bus drove the short ride back to the starting point, zooming past the trail of cedars, roots, mud, and boulders, I let a contented, sugar-laced sigh out, now warm and slightly drunk from the well-earned drinks. It was just the first quarter of the year and I thought about the days I still had in Japan, the assuredly awkward gaijin moments I would have, the trips I still needed to take in the year, the people I needed to reconcile with, the uncertainties of a difficult day job, the things I still wanted to do. I flipped my notebook open to the last page and ran my finger over the blue ink: “Isshōkenmei”.
* An Errant Tip:
The Tea House is called “Amazake Cha-ya” and is located on 〒250-0314 Kanagawa Prefecture, Ashigarashimo District, Hakone, 畑宿二子山395−1.
The space is large, atmospheric and can fit groups. I spotted outdoor seating areas that must have been perfect for summer months though I assume you’d have to contend with more visitors. Definitely get their house specialities though be warned they are quite filling so either come with friends…or do the hike.
If Kotoya-san still happens to be there, tell her Paolo from New York says “Hi!”.