Speechless in Japan, or sketching my way through a year's visit

Once I lived and worked in northern Japan for a year. On weekends, I loved to travel in my little red car - mostly looking at things, smiling at people, and silently buying souvenirs. I spent time with English-speaking friends, and over time I learned some basic Japanese. But for my trips alone, drawing was another way to communicate, and I soon learned always to carry a pen and my sketchbook.

Some of my car trips took me to rural areas of Aomori prefecture, where no one was expecting foreign tourists. This could have caused problems when I wanted to eat, because menus were printed in Japanese kanji (characters) only, unintelligible to me.

Fortunately, Japanese restaurants have display cases that face the street and show realistic wax replicas of the food that's for sale. Madame Tussaud's couldn't do any better. Next to each is a small card with a price and a name.

I could read the price per entree, but I couldn't read the name of the dish. Instead, I carefully chose something that looked good, got out my pen and sketchbook, and painstakingly copied the kanji name line by line.

When I entered a restaurant, there was always a moment of panic as the staff wondered how they would be able to help me. That's when I showed my drawing and said, "This, please" (in Japanese). It was dreadful calligraphy, but it must have been legible because they always served me what I thought I'd ordered.

After one of these meals, I stopped for a bath at a tiny hot spring in the country. This communal experience, segregated by gender, is a tradition throughout Japan. The spa provides lockers, towels, robes, and even a bowl so you can dump water over your head.

I emerged from my hour-long visit clean, relaxed, and ready to continue sightseeing - only to discover that I had locked my keys in my car. Now what? How would I resolve this with my vocabulary of "yes," "no," "please," and "thank you"? I decided that I was going to have to call a friend from work and ask him to send out a mechanic to retrieve my keys. I could only imagine what it would cost for someone to come to this remote area and rescue me.

Resigned, I went back into the spa. I greeted the two women at the front desk and mimed using a phone, indicating that I had car trouble by turning an imaginary steering wheel and shaking my head. The women were concerned, and before having me call anyone, they wanted to see my car. One of them walked outside with me. We stood beside the car, and then I moved the door handle up and down. But my charades didn't work.

Flustered, I never thought of walking to the other side of the car to show her the keys hanging from the ignition. The woman grew troubled - my problem had become her responsibility, and she would spare no effort to help me - if only she could understand what I was trying to say.

Then I remembered my sketchbook. I drew a recognizable car, a large key next to it, and an arrow from the key to inside the car. At once the woman smiled. I followed her back to the front desk, where she explained the problem to the other woman, who also smiled and laughed, and then bent down and reappeared with a handful of tools to open locked cars. The woman with me chose one and we went outside, where she quickly unlocked my car like an expert.

I said "thank you" over and over as we bowed to each other before waving goodbye.

As the year progressed and my language skills developed from zero to rudimentary, I still continued to rely on my sketchbook. I used it one last time right before I left Japan.

In the Tokyo subway, two tourists had stopped a commuter and were asking her, in persistent English, "Where is the west exit? West. Exit." They didn't understand the burden they were placing on her. She was in a bind - honor-bound to be on time to wherever she was going and honor-bound to help them find their way. I knew she would choose to stay with them even if it meant missing her train. But she didn't understand what they were saying.

People had been helping me all year, and here was my chance to reciprocate by helping this woman. I knew the Japanese for "west" from highway signs and for "exit" from subway signs. They're both very simple. I drew them in my sketchbook, showed her, and then said "where?" in Japanese.

She pointed to an exit and then darted away. The tourists thanked me and strolled on.

I was so happy. I had been feeling regretful that I hadn't learned to speak more Japanese during that year. This encounter on my final day in the country lifted my spirits. Apparently I had learned something about the people and the language, even though I didn't speak much.

But this satisfied feeling proved hard to explain. When I got back home, people asked me if I'd learned much Japanese. I just smiled and replied, "No, not really. I spent most of my time there sketching."

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