We were extremely lucky to be hosted by a lovely chap called Alex, who was originally from Stroud in Gloucestershire, but has been teaching English in Japan to children and adults for over 10 years. His apartment was lovely and it was great to have a bit more space to relax in and hear his insider stories about Japan. He was very kind and cooked us dinner the first night – we planned to return the favour the next day. We drank Asahi beer and plum wine and chatted about all sorts of things. He told us how the Japanese equivalent of the alphabet works. Basically, words can be broken up into a certain number of sounds, or syllables, which all end in a vowel – e.g. ba, ki, wa. These word parts are known as mora. The only consonant not followed by a vowel is ‘n’, so when he teaches English he finds they often add a vowel on the end of words where there isn’t one. They also don’t really have an ‘r’ or ‘l’ noise, but something in between, so they often get ‘r’ and ‘l’ mixed up in English. So his name is often pronounced ‘Arexuh,’ and we have found ourselves called Ruke and Rusyuh. The Chinese brought writing to Japan, so much of Japanese script is the same as Chinese – although the spoken languages are entirely different. This was possible because the written form of Chinese is not based on phonetics. However, this way of writing Japanese as Chinese (known as kanji script) was not entirely satisfactory and so there a phonetic form, known as kana script, where symbols represent the mora. There are two forms of kana – hiragana, which is used for Japanese words (where there is no kanji symbol available) and grammatical components, and katakana, which is used for foreign words and names. They will also occasionally use the Latin alphabet for commercial emphasis and for acronyms. When you consider that kanji and kana scripts are used alongside one another, with a smattering of the Latin alphabet, you have one very complex written language system!
All of this goes to show that it is perfectly reasonable for us not to have a clue when it comes to reading Japanese. However, speaking the words is much easier than speaking Chinese, so I had little excuse when, shortly after arriving in Japan, I was floundering for the word to say thank you in a shop (arigato), and instead mumbled, ‘Kawasaki’ – which was the first Japanese word that came to me! Never mind that it is a make of motorbike (and a town). No wonder he looked at me strangely!
The following day, we took a short train ride to Minoh, where Alex had recommended a walk up to a waterfall. We were hopeful we might see some Japanese macaques, and even ate our picnic before starting out in case they stole it, but none materialised. It was a lovely afternoon for a stroll; away from the city the air was cool and fresh and the maple leaves were beginning to turn a glorious red. We even ate some – there were stalls selling bags of maple leaves cooked in sweet batter. I don’t know if the leaves contributed much to the flavour, but the batter was tasty!
After our walk, we stopped for coffee in a small café. I suffer from a little documented condition that I am going to term ‘aperipheria’ (lack of peripheral vision – I often misjudge door frames) and as I was standing up to go to the toilet, I whacked the bone of my ankle really hard on the corner of the table. It was very funny, but sticking firmly to his marriage vows, Luke did not laugh at me (‘I promise to be sympathetic when you injure yourself doing something that makes me cry with laughter’) and fetched a bag of ice which I held on my ankle for the next half hour. What a good husband I have!