I walked in to the arrivals terminal of Kansai airport completely overdressed, when three disparate thoughts crossed my mind:
1. Why didn’t anyone tell me that mid-Autumn in Japan is swelteringly hot?
2. I haven’t eaten in 17 hours.
3. Oh shit, I don’t remember how to speak Japanese.
After some bumbling around with maps and yen I managed to free myself from the four layers of jackets and jumpers my mother had insisted I wear because “Japan is cold”, and barged my way into an airport limousine (which I soon learned was a Japanese euphemism for “bus that goes to the airport”).
Fast forward 2 hours, including a 30min debate with a talking ticket machine about which train ticket I needed, and I was at my dorm at 2-9 Satsukigaoka-kita, Suita, Osaka, Japan. Room 108b. Osaka Daigaku Suita Ryuugakusei Kaikan. I had arrived.
In my year-long jaunt I met many people, saw many things and went on many adventures, although there is one story in particular that I would like to recount here. In my second day in Osaka, I ventured by train into to the biggest city I had ever seen. I had one mission for the day: to find the local municipal offices for my city so I could sign my student visa forms.
Armed with a small nondescript map, I stood in the centre of Minami-senri train station with a confused look on my face. The combination of a foreigner, a confused face and a map must be some sort of homing beacon for the Japanese, because I was immediately swamped by 5 elderly women – none of whom seemed to know each other – who had taken the map from my hands and were trying to relate to me where exactly I needed to go.
They collectively grabbed each of my hands, and walked me to the ticket machine. In a flourish that embarrassed my complete inability to use the very same machine a day earlier, one of the women had bought me a ticket and sent me on my merry way, repeatedly refusing my lame attempt at saying “Please pay you? Please pay you?” in Japanese.
I sat on the empty train watching the city whiz by in the sweltering heat outside, thanking the Shinto Gods for the luxurious air conditioning that was placating my body’s apparent desire to expel every last droplet of moisture from my skin.
After departing the train, I returned to my trusty map, only to realise that my Japanese map reading skills were just as poor as they had been not 10 minutes earlier. I don’t know why this surprised me. Regardless, a confused look crossed my face…
*DING DING DING*
The homing beacon had been raised. All units, attend to the young white boy with the map! As if from nowhere, two more elderly women suddenly appeared by my side and came to my rescue. Without so much as a word, one of them gently put a hand on my back and led me slowly in the opposite direction to which I was facing. She had a reassuring smile and smelled like pancakes. As she led me down the road, her friend appeared on my right. She had bought me an ice cream.
Needs for orientation and ice cream satiated, I filled in my visa forms, shook the hand of a very friendly gentleman in a suit that was 2 sizes to big for him and walked out of the municipal offices with a spring in my step. “Japan is great!” I thought. “The old people here are lovely! I don’t miss Australia at all!”
I threw away my nondescript map in a fit of triumph. Nothing could have spoiled my mood at this point; I was on my first ever trip overseas, 20 years old, spending a year studying in a country whose language I couldn’t help but butcher at every opportunity. And I had navigated the train system and found my destination. Without a map. I felt like some sort of foreign-travel wunderkind.
These initial feelings of comfort and affinity for my new home were somewhat diminished when I had returned to the train station and completely forgotten where I lived.
I knew that it was 4 or 5 stops from where I was, but I couldn’t remember from which direction my train had come. I knew that there were 3 kanji characters in the name of the station, but I couldn’t remember which 3 out of the 2,000 basic kanji they were. The confused look came over my face…
*DING DING DING*
A middle-aged man, with a rolled-up white shirt, big blue tie and glasses sidled up to me and asked me where I was trying to go. In broken Japanese, I told him that I couldn’t remember the train station I needed to go to, but I knew that it was right near a Baskin Robbins and there was a McDonald’s across the road from my dorm.
“Saati Wann Aisukuriimu? Ah, wakarumasu. Kitekudasai.”
(“Thirty-One Ice-Cream? Ah, understood. Please come.”)
A short train ride and another ice cream later, I was home.
After news of the Sendai Earthquake arrived, I didn’t think of the thousand-year-old temples or the irreplaceable cultural artefacts; I thought of the people who helped me when I first arrived there. There is no strong reason why I was driven to share this story here. Nor will I attempt to turn this into a pithy Japanophilic story about how the country will survive because the people naturally tend to help each other.
What I will say, however, is that the next time I see a foreigner holding a map with a confused look on his face, I’m buying him an ice cream.