Sunday, May 9, 2010


As I stepped off the ferry onto Rebun Island I found myself in need of two things. The first was liquid, so I bought a bottle of cold green tea from a nearby vending machine. My second requirement was for information. I’d read about a legendary hiking trail that ran 30km along the length of the island.

I walked toward the ferry terminal’s information desk, where sat Mitsuyo, a smartly dressed woman smiling at the Japanese tourists she was helping. Her smile faded though, when she saw me walking toward her.

I don’t often have this effect on women, so I pondered the cause of the fear spreading across her face. I decided it wasn’t me she was afraid of, it was my Caucasian-ness – in particular, the likelihood that I’d speak to her in English. As I approached the desk she bowed and tried to recompose her customer-service-smile, but her widening eyes betrayed obvious concern. Will he speak Japanese? What if he doesn’t??

I guess a bit of background is necessary here. As a Canadian, if a person speaks to me in a foreign language I will shrug my shoulders and simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” In Japan though, the response to an English question is nearly always some combination of heartfelt concern and wide-eyed terror – usually more of the latter.

Mitsuyo looked at me. Please let him be fluent in my language.

I should have spoken Japanese. I was at least capable of asking the question, if not understanding the whole response. But I didn’t. Call it a mean streak if you like. Fully expecting to incite a panicked response, I fired off my question in my native tongue.

“Hi, I’d like some information on this island’s famous 30-kilometre hike.”

She blinked. I was certain she’d only understood “Hi.”

She looked around for help but she was all alone. Her mind was racing, reaching for those long-forgotten English words jumbled in a little, seldom used pocket of her brain. Could years of subtitled Hollywood movies and vague memories of high school grammar lessons somehow result in a comprehensible sentence? She doubted it and so did I.

“I … I … no … English … speaking,” she said, making a big X with her hands while bowing deeply.

She saw it as a failure, but to me the exchange was a success. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations once in a while. For me, not understanding most of what was said to me had even become normal – a daily occurrence. Anyway, Mitsuyo’s panic was short lived; her pulse returned to normal when I asked about the hike again, this time in (broken) Japanese. Her response was disheartening, though.

“I’m sorry, we don’t give out information on that hike. It’s too dangerous.”

“A man from my book did it!” I protested.

“Please don’t do the 30-km hike. There are lots of other nice, shorter, safer hikes on this island.”

“Thank you, I understand,” I said, and left the counter, inclined to try anyway. How dangerous could a hike be?

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