Every trip to Japan we take, I always try to give Aya some time with just her parents where she doesn’t have to worry about translating things to me. Where they can all speak openly and freely without me dragging the conversation down to a third grade level. “What is that? How do you spell that? Where does that come from? What’s your favorite Japanese fruit?” So after a few trips to Japan I felt confident to go out to dinner by myself to give them some space. Each trip, I try to push the boundaries of my comfort level and that’s how I met my friends. My friends from Kuki, Japan.
Two years ago, my in-laws lived in a little town called Kuki. While Aya went out to dinner with her parents, I was going to go to a different place in a different area. I was given the name of three places as options to choose from. All three were in town and about a 15 or 20 minute walk away so there was no worries of taking the train or anything. I went to the first place and the menu was only in Japanese. The Kanji kind, that looks like hieroglyphics to me, so I went to the second place. The second place was closed, and then the third was filled up because it only sat 12 people. Oh no. After sitting on a bench by the station for a good twenty minutes deciding what to do, I decided to go back to the first place.
I confidently ordered a draft beer, “Nama chu, kudasai.” And then I began to look at the menu as if I knew how to read Japanese. I had a digital translator on my lap under the table as to maybe help me out, but I didn’t know how to work that thing either. So I randomly pointed at two things on the menu and ordered. They seemed concerned and asked again, but I confidently said yes. “Hai.” The first thing that came out was tuna sashimi and was really good, but the second, I still have no idea what it was. I don’t even know if it was a living creature or a vegetable. I really didn’t like it, but I ate all of it because I wanted them to think I ordered it on purpose. And I didn’t want to be that American. And then I left.
Not realizing I had spent at least an hour deciding where to eat, I felt like the night was still young, so I went back to the third place to see if a seat was open, and sure enough there was. The place literally seats about 12 people around a small bar. I ordered a beer and sat there thinking, now what? When I went out I had this fantasy that I would sit at a bar and make friends with the bar tender. I don’t even do that at home, but here’s wishing. I imagined he’d speak broken English to me, and I’d say the few Japanese words I know to him and we’d just laugh. But not knowing how to get a conversation started and being too shy, I just sat there and politely smiled to anybody that looked in my direction.
After a little while, the couple next to me asked where I was from and we started talking. When I said America, they offered to buy me a drink and we started “talking.” I put it in quotes because we couldn’t really have a real conversation with each other. We each knew very little of the other person’s language. But with a napkin and a pen we knew enough to get through it and have some good laughs. Enough that kept me there until after 11pm. (Keep in mind I left the house at the same time as Aya and her parents did at 6pm.)
I finally managed to get away, but not before exchanging e-mail addresses and taking a few cellphone pics. As I walked down the street smiling, you could say I was proud of myself and was happy I got the adventure I was looking for. And then in the distance walking towards me, I saw someone that looked familar. Hey! That almost looks like Aya’s parents! Why would they be…uh ooh. That is Aya’s parents, and they don’t look happy. Feeling embarrassed and wanting to keep things light and cool, I said, “Hey guys, what are you doing out this way?” with a sheepish smile on my face.
Her dad said, “We were looking for you. You had us very worried. We called you many times.”
I looked at the phone they had given me and it said 15 missed calls. Oops. I had the phone in my jacket that was hanging on the back of my chair. Oops. Still thrilled with how my evening went, I said, “I’m really sorry I had you worried… … but I had an awesome time!”
It was the night before we were returning home and Aya was six months pregnant back at the house packing. Oops. I had a lot of apologizing to do. Aya’s dad had gotten in trouble with Aya’s mom just the night before and was still in the dog house so I think he was just happy that the focus had shifted off of him and on to me. Good thing it was the last night.
And that’s how I met my friends.
And after two years of exchanging occasional e-mails, we made plans to meet again at the same bar in Kuki.
to continue reading to part two, click here.