It's late Tuesday night, and, as usual, we're on a train. We make sleepy jokes to each other about how the only Japanese we have heard so far is the dialect that is spoken only on trains.1 We're exhausted, dehydrated, and have no idea how food and drink are supposed to work, and we also have no cash on hand, excepting the useless US$15 that I still have in my wallet, but Alex goes off down the train in search of beverages.
He returns a few minutes later, saying, "Lindsey, an amazing thing just happened to me." It turns out that the dining car is closed, but a young woman working on the train has lent him 2,000 yen ($20, more or less) so that he can get water and orange juice from the vending machine. He shows me the business card she's given us, which has her name in romaji but is otherwise covered with characters we can't read. It's mindblowing: a stranger giving us money, even though we barely know how to communicate. We gratefully drink our juice and water and curl up on our tiny train-compartment bed, vowing to return the money, and then some, as soon as we can.
The next morning, we're much refreshed, and as the sea rushes by on one side of the train and rural Hokkaido rushes by on the other, we sway down to the dining car to use the remains of Nakemura-san's $20 to get coffee and rolls. To our undying embarrassment, she's there again, working. And then, after we've "paid", she and a co-worker actually give us some rice-and-bean-paste balls for free, because they figure we must be hungry! (Which is true.) So kind, so hospitable. I already have an amazing Japan story, and we haven't even been outside yet.
Around noon, Roy royhuggins and Electra eliciel meet us on the train platform in Sapporo, which is attached to a huge mall. In between showering us with hugs and gifts, they whisk us off the platform and through the sensory overload that is a massive urban shopping center filled with Japanese teenagers on spring break. There's extreme Engrish everywhere, everyone we see looks young and achingly hip, and don't even get me started on the sock/footwear situation. We go into an udon restaurant, where Electra expertly orders for everyone, taking into account our vegetarianism, which is something of a curiosity here. I'm amazed by her skill. She studied Japanese before she got here, but she's improved by leaps and bounds over the last ten months and is approaching fluency. Meanwhile, Roy has gone from zero to fairly conversant in the same amount of time. I pick up a intricately lathed toothpick from the dispenser at our table and comment to Roy about how cool it is. Roy says, "Wow, I forgot those things were cool!"
Roy and Electra are both consummate teachers. They patiently answer all the questions we ask, and some we don't ask, about Japanese. For me, the first cognitive leap is the realization that there just isn't a clean one-to-one correspondence between things you can express in English and things you can express in Japanese. You can't just substitute phrases! I'm not sure I can describe how, but the whole environment is different; the set of relationships are different. Once I manage to make that cognitive leap, I can start to learn. Meanwhile, it's terrifying how fast Alex, with his knowledge of statistical machine translation, is picking things up -- he's all, "Roy, I don't understand the pun, but I understand that you're making a pun," and Roy is all "Yes! Holy crap!"
We head back to Roy and Electra's apartment on the crazy-awesome-clean-efficient-fast Sapporo subway. Walk outside, and whoa, finally we're in a place that is neither a train nor a train station! Whoa, our cards work in Japanese ATMs ("Sumimasen; 'ah-tchi-em-oo' wa?"), and we finally have yen to pay for things! At their place, a quick wash-off in the shower room (in Japan there are shower rooms, you guys), and then we're off to their Japanese teacher's apartment bearing the coffee I've brought all the way from home. Portlanders, I have never been so proud of our city as when Sagara-sensei buries her nose in the bag of Stumptown House Blend beans, inhales deeply, and then actually gasps with pleasure. I am a coffee ambassador! We grind it by hand, there at her table, and Roy demonstrates what to do with it ("'French press' desu") while Electra tries to translate "Stumptown" (she has to look up "stump"). Roy and Electra laugh so hard at Sagara-sensei's reaction: "What an unflattering nickname." After coffee and conversation and a great deal of thanking and bowing, we all traipse back downtown for dinner and karaoke. Roy and our waitress have an amazing exchange which Roy translates for us later as having gone something like:
Young, immaculate Japanese waitress in a white shirt and tie: *using deferential server-speaking-to-customer dialect* Would the honorable customer like to try some humble strawberry pudding?
Roy: *thinking about it* ...Sure, okay.
Waitress: *amazed at having upsold Roy, immediately flipping to familiar dialect* You want it?!
Waitress: *doing a little dance* Woohoo!
Roy: *just as stoked about having participated in this amazing exchange* Woohoo!
And -- oh, mans -- purikura and subway and grocery store and finally back to the apartment, where we sleep like the dead.
You guys. Roy and Electra have been dorking out about this country for years and years, and to be entirely honest, I always just kind of tolerated it, occasionally saying, "Oh, that's great" or "That's cool" but never really grokking what was so great or cool. Now, I finally understand. Now I am going to be That Person. You know, that person who yells "Sugoi!" a lot and sprinkles my LiveJournal posts with kana you can't read. I apologize in advance.
- Roy says, "Give it thirty to fifty years -- that will exist."