I had my own language troubles living in Japan. One evening after work, I was having drinks with the ever so sexy Sumiko, who we met back in Girl(friend)s. Japanese has a similar distinction between “many” and “much” as English with the words “ikutsu” and “ikura”. However, the division of things and ideas between the two is different. Two concepts that fall under “ikutsu” in Japanese might be in English be divided between “many” and “much”. As I was chatting up my lovely companion, I tried to ask her “How many” she was, shorthand for “How old are you?” I got my words muddled and instead asked her “How much?” Which means pretty much what it sounds like.
Fortunately she laughed.
Unfortunately she then said “More than you can afford.”
With the end of my funds in sight, I stopped travelling and started to look for work. I found living quarters in what was then the north edge of Kyoto in an old building run as a flophouse for foreigners. Around thirty of us lived there: Africans, Arabs, North Americans, South Asians. There were no East Asians other than the landlady and her brother. Odd, now that I look back on it. The landlady’s brother was an aspiring fabric designer. I think she found him more of a burden than her varied clientele. The building was long and narrow. Traditional Japanese construction, I think it had begun life long before as a farm building of some sort. Working farms still existed just across the road. The rooms were floored with tatami, and all the doors were sliding shoji screens. Each sleeping room had two or four bunks and space for private belongings. The ceilings were high and the windows small. At night you could hear other tenants walking along the hardwood floors to the common toilet facilities; the squat toilet—which I had now mastered. Occasional unintelligible arguments drifted through the corridor until stopped by the landlady’s arrival and sharp words. She could scold and demand rent in many languages.
The other common spaces were a shared, Japanese style bath and a long room that served as our dining room and recreation area. Our landlady provided a simple breakfast and dinner, which were eaten at the determined time. No earlier. No later. In the evenings the air was humid and thick with coarse cigarette smoke as the rough, poor crowd of tenants smoked harsh cigarettes, drank cheap booze, and played card and board games until lights out. Disputes over rules were complicated by our lack of a common language. Heat came from a kerosene space heater in the corner, the daily ration of kerosene placed beside it each day.
A small TV that may or may not have seen better days provided more entertainment. Every once in awhile the picture would slowly roll. One evening as we set in to the usual after supper carouse, the man flicking through the channels stumbled upon the opening of Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). None of us knew the movie. None of us spoke Japanese well enough to understand it. But we were all captivated from the first. Thirty rough characters from around the world spent the evening glued to the small image on the TV; cheering, laughing, maybe even sniffling a little.
Great movie. Watch it.
I was staying at Burakujiyakushi-do near the center of Shikoku on the Yoshino River. The temple is home to the Smiling Jizo and the youth hostel was known as the Smiling Jizo Republic. The temple had a series of trials for guests of the hostel to undertake. One of these was to climb Mt Kajigamori across the Yoshino River. One morning, my feet still massive blisters from Yo-San-Kyu, I set off to conquer the trial. The kitchen provided me with rice balls for lunch and I crossed the river via the foot bridge.
The path laid out for the trial quickly left the main road and wound through the terraces of Higashiionotani. Soon enough the farmland ran out and I was hiking through woodland up steep scree slopes that often approached 45˚. At the top of one slope, the designated path ended in a sheer rock face at least 10 meters high. A huge crack ran through this cliff about 15˚ off the vertical. I scrambled up this chimney to find gentler slopes and sparser trees. A band of woodland ahead blocked any view of the summit which was so clearly visible when back on the other side of the river.
I entered the thick woods. After a no more than a dozen steps, I came out into the open again, into a field of bamboo, on the summit of Kajigamori. As I walked through the waist high bamboo, lost in the views of the valleys spread below me, heavy snow began to fall.
I ate my lunch of rice balls before hiking back to the temple.