Yesterday I went to Himeji castle and sat and had a read. Several small groups of Japanese people came and went from the bench I was perched on; when I finally got up to go myself, it was occupied by an elderly woman, her daughter (or daughter-in-law) and an elderly man. The elderly lady said something as I got up. I looked blank then said, apologetically, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Japanese".
(As a momentary aside; I hate not being able to speak the language of the place I'm in. It just feels so pig ignorant and a remnant of Empire. Generally I can pick bits up – and I am able to spatter formal conversations in restaurants, shops and banks with the odd word or phrase – but for the main Japanese is such a scattergun language that it leaves me feeling stunned. I also have residual guilt because I don't actually like learning languages, so I tend not to apply myself as much as I should; and also, it's so easy for me, being English. Even here in Japan, there's enough English written down and enough English spoken for me to not have to know a word of Japanese if I didn't want to. That's kind of the bit I hate; it would be so easy not to bother, to (hello, vile self-justification) say 'I'm only here for two weeks', that my failures to learn are rather easy to associate with rah-rah English dominance rather than pure laziness. I'm not sure which is worse.)
But enough with the self-loathing – we were with me and a Japanese woman in a castle keep in Himeji (no, we were. It was just a long time ago). The old lady switches to English (and I die a little inside). "Where are you from?"
"London," I say. "Ingirisu," (which is Japanese for England. Here's another reason for having difficulty with the Japanese language – it sounds like we're taking the piss. The Japanese for lemon? 'Remon'. Traveller's cheque? 'Toraberazu chekku'. Cheesecake? 'Chizu keki'. I keep thinking of the bit in Lost in Translation, where Charlotte asks 'why do they switch the r's and the l's here?' and Bob replies 'for yuks. You know? Just to mix it up. They have to amuse themselves, 'cos we're not making them laugh'. Jesus. I am queen of tangents today).
"You are alone?" she says.
"Yes," I say (in Japanese. Oh yeah).
She looks startled. "No husband? No friend?"
I shake my head. "No husband, no friend."
"Oh!" she exclaims. "You very brave."
I laugh. "No, no," I say.
She is looking at me with awe, or with the kind of faux-awe the Japanese reserve for foreigners when they think we're being a little bit stupid. "Very, very brave."
(Today, a stall owner at Nishiki market asked me where I was from and was similarly taken aback to hear England. I am, apparently, very far from home. (I am also, apparently, blooming like the cherry blossoms. Heh.) It's true that there aren't many Western faces here, when you compare how many foreign languages you'd hear on any normal tube journey. But still; think how many Brits go to Thailand or Australia. Why aren't there more of us in Japan? Oh, I've gone off one again, haven't I?)
You'd think, after all this waffle, that I'd have a point, wouldn't you? Well I don't. Only this: I don't get what's supposedly so massive about going away on your own. It's taken six years to get the money together to do this trip; how long would I have had to wait for someone else to scrape up the money to come with me? I suppose it shows an abominable sort of conceited independence (thank you, Miss Bingley), but I'm OK with that.