Tokyo or not Tokyo, that is the question

By Ernie Witham   |   January 11, 2018

“Hi, Siri.”

“What can I help you with?”

“How do you say, ‘My name is Ernie…?’”

“I don’t. My name is Siri.”

“You didn’t let me finish, Siri.”

“What can I help you with?”

“I need to know how to say my name…”

“I found this website with names.”

“…In Japanese. We are going to Japan.”

“I found Japanese restaurants near you.”

“I don’t want Japanese food.”

“Then why are you going to Japan?”

“To see the gardens.”

“I found this website with gardens near you.”

At this point, I threw my iPhone over the patio wall. “I found… iPhone repair shops… near you,” I heard in the distance.

I never imagined wanting to go to Japan when I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire. Heck, I didn’t even want to go down south because it seemed too foreign. But about 10 years ago, I took a class in the Art of the Bonsai and began shaping little trees. I starting learning some Japanese terms such as “jin,” which means you created a dead branch. And “shari,” which means you created a dead area on the trunk. Unfortunately, a couple times I completely “jin’d” and “shari’d” a tree all the way down to its “nabari” (roots). But, I got better at it and now I have about 50 healthy, albeit nervous, bonsais.

And most recently, I’ve started volunteering in the Japanese Garden at Lotusland trimming the in-ground, bonsai-like “niwakis.”

“Why do the Japanese Maples shake every time you take out your pruners, Ernie?”

“No idea.”

My wife, who has been a docent at Lotusland for more than 15 years, also loves Japanese gardens. So, we thought we should take a trip to Japan. Pat looked for a home exchange. She only found one. She contacted the exchange site to see where the heck all the other listings were. In all of Japan, that was the only one. “Guess that’s out,” I said. But Pat emailed them and they said: “We’d love to exchange!” So now we are going to… Kamakura.

“The heck is that?”

“South of Tokyo. We’ll have to take the train.”

That’s when it hit us. We didn’t know how to speak Japanese.

“Except for jin and shari,” I reminded Pat.

“Great, if we need to find some dead trees, we’re in.”

The good news is that Japan has high-speed rail, and it’s so efficient that you don’t really even need to own a car. You just jump on the train and whoosh – you end up somewhere. “What’s that sign say?”

“富士を取付ける歓迎, which either means Welcome to Mount Fuji or No Overnight Camping.”

We decided to ask people who had been to Japan how they did it. “We went on a tour.” “We went with a group.” “We never left the hotel.” 

We tried some braver folks.

“What can we expect when we get there?”

“Well, you’ll be larger than most of the locals.”

“Speaking of food, how do we know what to order?”

“All the restaurants have plastic food displays outside of what they serve inside. You just point at it.”

“What if we don’t want plastic food?” Turns out, they’re just models and there is an entire industry of plastic food making in Japan. I put that on my must-see list! 

“You could just order unagi.”

“That sounds great, what is it?”

“Fresh-water eels. They chop them up and boil them in a spiced stock that is allowed to cool and set into a jelly. You eat it cold.” 

 Pat and I looked at each other and wondered how much thinner we would be when we got home. 

We found out that many people speak English in Japan, especially in the larger cities. And that many signs are in both languages.  

“What if we end up in the countryside?”

“The best thing you can do,” they told us, “is to make sure you have a translation app on your phone.”

That’s when I went to find my iPhone. Siri was not talking to me, but on the screen it said: 私の名前はアーニーですWatashinonamaeha ānīdesu, which was “My name is Ernie” in Japanese. 

Wish us luck. 


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