“Welcome to Oharanosato,” said the Japanese Guest Houses website, “Located far north of central Kyoto, this modern ryokan is a little old and run-down”. But the website was being modest; the white pagoda-style building I’m standing in front of is anything but derelict. “Old and run-down” to the Japanese must be brand-spanking new to everyone else.
Lost in translation: learning Japanese
The solid wood door glides open and a middle-aged Japanese couple with kindly faces appear and greet me with warm ‘good afternoons’. But that’s where mutual understanding ends. As they begin to reel off long streams of Japanese my heart pounds in terror. I assumed they would speak a little more English and it appears they thought I would speak Japanese. I just smile and nod profusely as though I understand and it seems to do the trick.
Japanese etiquette: room for error
Before I settle in my hosts give me some lessons on footwear. In Japan there are shoes for outdoors and slippers for indoors. Simple enough. Yet there are times to wear the slippers and times not to wear the slippers. They must be put on as soon as entering the ryokan, yet should not be worn in the bedroom or the breakfast room on the tatami mats. There are a separate set of slippers to be worn in the toilet. Gulp.
Japanese cuisine: cooking off the cuff
Soon it’s time for dinner and I kneel on cushions or ‘zabuton’ in the dining room. Tonight we’re having Miso Nabe. I’m not certain of the exact protocol to cooking Miso Nabe so I pop raw chicken, cabbage, mushrooms, onion, tofu, sprouts, spring onion and last but not least, a potato, into an earthenware pot of bubbling miso soup. Then after a few minutes I add the gelatinous brown udon noodles and give it all a stir for good measure.It’s only after I’ve successfully managed to retrieve every noodle and floating vegetable that I’m presented with a set of instructions entitled “Delicious How to Make Miso Nabe”. I’ll keep it for next time.
Boiled alive in the Japanese onsen
After dinner I head to the outdoor hot spring bath or ‘onsen’. Traditional bathing in Japan means crouching naked on a low stool while sluicing oneself with warm water from a bucket. I keep one eye warily on the door, my hands poised ready to cover my privates faster than a samurai wielding his sword.
Once I’m all clean I head outdoors to soak in the hot water, and I mean hot water. I’m worried about being boiled alive as I lower my naked body gingerly into the pool of scalding mineral water.
Eventually when my puckered skin turns an unbecoming shade of lobster pink I head back to my room.
Japanese beds: piling up the futons
Time to construct my bed. Praising my kiwi ingenuity I jack up the entire four futons on top of each other like the Princess and the Pea and settle down for the night to read a couple of chapters of my bedside ‘bible’, the Teachings of Buddha. At 2am I’m still awake. Turns out ‘the pea’ is my pillow and should have been nick-named the ‘the brick’.
Japanese transport: ordering a taxi
In the morning I try ordering a taxi for 10am to Kokusaikaikan tube station which I can’t even pronounce. Luckily I know the Japanese for ten is ‘ju’, as it becomes embarrassingly apparent my stick figure drawings aren’t crossing the communication divide. So when the wife says “Taxi ju-ji hai!”, I breathe a sigh of relief, I think we’re on the right track. By this time breakfast is ready.
Breakfast faux pas on the tatami mats
I nonchalantly walk into the breakfast room on the tatami mats still wearing my slippers. The wife makes a strangled sound and ushers me back to the door so I can take them off.
Order restored, though with my pride slightly dented, I sit cross-legged to: salmon, tofu, seaweed, mushrooms, rice and a soft-poached egg.
Slippers aside even I know I’m getting somewhere when I manage to successfully manoeuvre parts of the floppy poached egg to my mouth using chopsticks. Yet I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pour hot water from the kettle which has six different buttons, all indecipherable.
Leaving Oharanosato in rural Kyoto
The wife reminds me my taxi is due soon. “Taxi ju-ji, taxi ju-ji” she says nodding knowingly as if I’ve shared some intimate secret about my transportation desires. It’s a small gesture but ultimately it does make me feel as if all my cultural faux pas have been overlooked and, just for one night, I’ve been seen as a regular Japanese guest at ryokan Oharanosato.
Note: The intention of this article is not to make fun of the Japanese culture, but to highlight my own bumbling attempts to adjust to a lifestyle so different to my own.