Diving into the Japanese Language
It had been around three months since I first arrived at APU, and I couldn’t help but wonder if all the Japanese I had learned in class thus far would be enough to get by in the “real world.” By this point in time, I had completed Japanese Foundation I and progressed to learning everyday vocabulary and conversational grammar patterns in Foundation II. The more I was learning, the more eager I was to venture out into the Beppu streets and experience the language firsthand.
With winter vacation just around the corner, I would have around two weeks off from classes—perfect timing to practice my newly learned Japanese by escaping the cold and trying onsen (natural hot springs) for the first time. So at 10 a.m. on a cold December day, I decided to take the literal plunge into Japanese culture and got on a bus departing from campus.
As I had only been living in Japan for three months, I was still a bit unfamiliar with the bus system. I was living on-campus in AP House, and any previous bus usage was strictly limited to grocery runs. To make things more complicated, the bus line for today’s excursion was one I had only ridden twice previously and never on my own.
But this was my chance to put practice into action. So, when I got on the bus, I made sure to speak directly with the driver to check that I was on the right line for my intended destination. I had prepared two sentences (very short ones I might add) in my attempt at being as detailed as possible. After what seemed like a good five minutes, the driver nodded. I had successfully overcome the first hurdle.
As the bus took off, I hurried to a seat by the window to look out for my stop. Twenty minutes passed, and I found myself entranced by the natural scenery and puffs of rising steam. A voice over the speakers broke through—the bus had stopped and the driver was calling me through the microphone. Out of everyone on the bus, why was he calling me?
Then the realization hit me—despite all my efforts, I had completely forgotten to press the stop button that lets the driver know someone is getting off. Luckily, despite not pressing the button, my five minutes’ explanation had paid off and the driver was letting me know that the bus had reached my intended destination: Kannawa.
From there on, it was just a matter of choosing an onsen. Considering Kannawa is one of the most well-known and abundant onsen districts in Beppu, the choice was hard to make. I walked around for a bit and finally settled on a cozy, traditional onsen because I wanted my first experience to be as authentic as possible. My online research on bathing customs in Japan gave me a pretty clear idea of the process, so I walked into the changing area with full confidence. However, upon putting my belongings into a locker, an elderly woman with a determined look on her face started in my direction.
In her hands were various pamphlets, which I soon came to learn were the ins and outs of using an onsen—printed in various languages. And assuming I was a first-timer (I guess rightly so), she thoroughly went through each one of the ten rules and common mistakes to be avoided in public bath spaces. After each sentence, she would look at me expecting a positive sign of reassurance, which understandably, I was ready to give considering we were both sans-clothing.
To this day, I still feel a sense of pride for being able to understand even a small portion of what was said. “Not bad for just three months of Japanese classes,” I thought to myself. Nonetheless, that didn’t lessen my embarrassment or make me wish the conversation would’ve happened in the lobby. But for her, it was probably just like any other day of helping a non-Japanese visitor at the onsen. Or perhaps she was just trying to help a fellow Beppu resident get familiar with the best practices of hot spring culture.
With the explanation out of the way, I was finally free to make my way to the warm, inviting waters, where I sat marinating in the relaxing onsen until I was completely warmed through. Using that time, I reflected on the day—I had tackled riding the bus, and now the onsen. What’s next on my list?
Feeling confident at my success, my explorer self was now ready to take on the gastronomic side of Kannawa. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far. As I stepped out of the onsen, right on the same road was a family-owned restaurant that specialized in okonomiyaki (pan-fried savory pancake).
As a vegetarian, and considering my Japanese level at the time, I knew this would be another chance to challenge myself. The server came to my table, where I boldly explained all the ingredients that I do not eat. Suffice to say the list was very long, and I probably looked quite comical using arm motions to recite it all. But when I got a nod of confirmation followed by the question, “Are you okay with eating eggs?” and “Can we replace the meat with vegetables?” I knew I had succeeded. I responded was a beaming “yes,” fully convinced that I had mastered Beppu and the Japanese language.
Feeling relaxed and with a warm meal in my stomach, I called it a day and returned to AP House.
The process of learning a new language may feel slow at times, and adjusting to the culture and everyday habits of the locals can result in confusion.
But, I believe, these situations that require you to use all that you have learned—even if it’s just a little—is where growth takes place. In my opinion, all of these mishaps, including the ones I still encounter to this day, make my time here in Japan that much more enjoyable and enriching. Every time I overcome a language hurdle, it is a sign that I am grasping the linguistic and cultural nuances of Japan. And who knows, they may also make great stories to look back at and have a laugh with family and friends.
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