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Lost in Translation

Words/images: Jered Gruber | From issue 35

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Words/images: Jered Gruber

I feel good about that for a second, but then I find myself looking back through the long lost, unedited images from our trip to Japan last year. There are tons. There’s nothing earth shattering, not in the slightest. But I find myself wishing we were going back. I feel this pang of possibility.

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In terms of what we had in our mind when we flew to Japan, the trip was a disappointment. At least, it felt that way at the time. We went there to ride bikes and take pictures. We ended up getting hit by three typhoons, driving endlessly, and doing a grand total of three bike rides.

This was supposed to be a big-deal trip for us— I had it in my head that we were going to write something special about a special place. We were going to do it up right.

IT DIDN’T WORK OUT LIKE THAT. NOT EVEN CLOSE.

SO, WHEN IT DIDN’T WORK OUT THE WAY I HOPED, I KIND OF LEFT IT ALONE AND SAID: NO ARTICLE HERE, NO IMAGES EITHER, MOVE ALONG. WE WILL GO BACK SOME OTHER DAY. MAYBE THEN WE WILL HAVE SOMETHING WORTH WRITING ABOUT.

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It took me almost a year and one fitful night’s sleep for it to hit me—that trip was special. It was important. No, there were no huge, epic, story-laden bike rides; there wasn’t all that much bike riding in general. There were no booming images and there was very little that went right on the first try.

So our failure made something more. We normally take pictures of pretty places and tell stories of great rides. It’s like a damn fairy tale…. This is the story of what happens when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and then one day, you realize, it didn’t really go wrong, did it? It kind of went right.

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We hit the road with four bikes, four people, too many bags, a medium-sized van, and not a terribly clear idea of what we were going to do. The original plan was for us to head south, but then we headed north. So, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, right? Yeah, well, the crappy plans go bad even quicker. They go worse still when you get hit by three typhoons in the span of about a week and most all of the crazy back roads you want to take end up blocked off by large chunks of mountain that, when sufficiently soaked, slide down mountains and onto the road.

Our group didn’t officially come together until moments before departure, and we were not super excited about the final addition: a man called Christoph. Like most people, we were irked by a change in the plan: the PLAN was set in stone, you can’t change the PLAN. The PLAN was ripped apart by the addition of another person to what we already thought was a solid, working trio. Why did we need this extra guy? Who was he? Why was he riding a 1980s-inspired multi-colored steel bike? I immediately decided that I didn’t like him. Ashley agreed. We stood close to each other, far from him, and shot menacing glares whenever he wasn’t looking.

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We suck at standoffish though, and we’re even worse at not liking people, though I was extremely pleased to recently find out that Christoph didn’t like us either. That means he must have felt our hateful vibes in those first few minutes. We might still have a career in the unhappy people business….

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Our unhappy vibes lasted a whole hour or so; then we couldn’t help ourselves. Christoph couldn’t help himself. The commentary began quietly at first, but his take on Japan was interesting and often dipped into the realm of hysterical. It was the view of a man married to a Japanese woman—so at once extremely connected and in the know—but also of a man who realizes that no matter what he says or does, he’s never going to fit in. He’s an outlier, and his German sensibilities turned this fact into an endless stream of hilarity, a deadpan explanation for why everything that happened to us made perfect sense.

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A bike ride: we found an amazing toll road north of Kyoto. It would form the basis for a perfect second day of a weeklong trip that would start in Kyoto and head north. This toll road was going to be an important section. We rode up to it, laughing and joking, but the man at the tollbooth walked out, all scowls and business. His hands swung wide and formed an “X”— the terrible “X” of no. This road, which I doubt saw a single car on it the entire day and begged for us to play on it, was off-limits to bikes. No exceptions.

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This didn’t make sense. I couldn’t grasp this concept. Why can’t we ride our bikes on this road? We were happy to pay the toll, happy to pay double the toll; we just wanted a chance to frolic in this playground.

No. Not possible.

We grew more and more flustered, as did Brad. Christoph shrugged and laughed. You can’t ask why. It’s unthinkable to ask why.

And so began the long saga of unthinkable. Many things are unthinkable in Japan. Unfortunately, as a foreigner, you’re not going to know they’re unthinkable unless a friend tells you because no one else is going to tell you. It’s unthinkable to ask why.

Here are a few other unthinkables, just for the sake of western amusement: dropping a business card; not showering before a bath; walking on a tatami mat with house shoes (Outside shoes? Even beyond unthinkable.); wearing bathroom shoes outside of the bathroom; eating while walking; laughing loudly; showing teeth while laughing; leaving chopsticks in food; drumming with chopsticks; and, one of my favorites, tying your robe incorrectly—that’s how they dress dead people.

Still annoyed far beyond what we should have been, we left and started looking for an illicit way onto the toll road. There were some possibilities. We tried them, but they all ended in typhoon blockades. The secondary roads were a mess, so imagine what the little forgotten paths looked like. In the end, we conceded and, instead, headed for an out-and-back section of road along the coast.

The toll road ended in defeat, but Plan B jumped up to save the day. Along a 20-kilometer section of road, we rolled by fishing villages, under blue skies, and above bluer water. There are so many times that we pass through cities, towns and villages, and I wonder: What do people do here? How do they make a living? I didn’t wonder that day as we stretched our legs and enjoyed the afternoon sun along the Wakasa Bay. Everyone here was involved in the fishing industry. The men puttered out to deeper waters in the morning, brought home a catch in the afternoon, and the women worked on the other end, turning the caught fish into food. It was simple.

It was pretty much the exact opposite of finding a place to stay each night. It’s here that Christoph’s wife, Nazuki, earned legendary status and earned herself a title that will last forever: the travel agent. Generally, hotels are booked well in advance in Japan—months even. Walking into a hotel late in the evening and hoping to find a room as a gaijin (foreigner) with very little knowledge of Japanese? Next to impossible. That’s where “the travel agent” stepped in.

Night after night, she saved our gaijin butts from a night in the van. On one special night, we arrived particularly late—even by our standards. The hotel was closed but, with a phone call, the travel agent was able to spin a web of sweetness that melted the hotelier’s heart. We were given a room, but Nazuki had words of warning: “Say thank you to the hotel manager and be veeeeeeery polite.”

Of course, that meant: Be quiet. But we were a boisterous group, happy to be out of the car, excitedly sharing in the day’s adventures. We thought we were keeping the noise levels down to a very, very dull roar, but we learned otherwise—through a phone call. The hotel manager had called Nazuki back and asked her to call us and tell us to be quiet. And become horizontal!

In the times when Nazuki wasn’t available and was off doing something like her normal job, we were left to our own devices. Hotel people would tell us with straight faces that the hotel was completely booked. We’d look back at the parking lot and see tumbleweed blowing across the grass-cracked pavement. They wouldn’t say no though. They never said no.

A bike ride: After a long, mostly fruitless day of scouting, up from a busy valley to an abandoned go-kart track, we snuck in through the locked gate and commenced racing around the track until we couldn’t see the ground anymore. We rode only an hour that day, and close to half of it was doing hot laps around the track. And it was priceless.

A few days later came the ride of rides that was actually a drive and should have been a ride. When I look back at the images, one day in particular kills me. We went over a number of mountain passes that day, but it was Nara Pass that knocked us all over. The fall colors were out of control, just like the weather. The rain poured, the temperatures neared freezing at the higher elevations, and all we could do was mournfully look out of the window and curse the typhoons.

Of course, we have tales of hilarious translations gone bad on both sides. We have appetizing food options like “stamina noodles” and “Jew’s ear,” and images of Leonardo DiCaprio sipping whiskey on a bright yellow poster and looking sad to be following in Bill Murray’s footsteps.

We have tales upon tales of the food saga—the contrast between unbelievably delicious food and a moment that resulted in three people agreeing: “It tastes like peanut butter and fish dumplings.” Ashley, Brad and Christoph all try it and confirm that the dish does indeed taste terrible. They nod to each other, then turn to me.

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It’s hard to try something when everyone before you gasps in horror at what they just ate. So, of course, I tried it, if only as a show of solidarity.

It was delicious.

Just kidding.

It’s all entertaining, no question, but the romance lay not in the differences, but in those connections that happened at the unlikeliest of times. Cliché alert! The tiny little moments in the midst of a whole lot of not exactly what you want make it all okay. Ten minutes of smiling until my cheeks hurt, 10 minutes of laughing and having no idea what anyone is saying, save for the fact that their smiles and laughter are contagious. That makes it all better. I guess our life of traveling—probably most everyone’s life—is like that. I have a friend who has a phrase for it. It’s simple and precise and hits home: 99-percent bullshit, 1-percent magic.

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We will do anything for that 1-percent. We do everything we can in hopes of finding that magic. It’s not a chance happening though, and it doesn’t happen by just going through the motions. It’s putting ourselves out there, opening the doors to anyone and everyone—and, inevitably, good times find their way home, and we rejoice.

A bike ride: a temple. Ashley spotted the temple from afar. I’m not sure how she saw it. It was an almost sixth sense for her—temple dar! She eagerly parked her bike, walked up—clack, clack—clacking up the wooden stairs. A giant room of grandmothers saw her, swooped her up, and we followed in the current of their collective hug. They had been eating lunch, but they stopped and began pushing all manner of calories in our direction—some delicious, some great, some meh, some disturbing. They smiled, we smiled, and it made the countless hours of driving feel like a trip around the block. It made the fatigue go away. It made me happy.

A long day of travel and a need for junk food brought us to a Family Mart. We picked up armfuls of sugary delights with strange letters that assured us of momentary happiness followed by self-loathing. At least that’s what I imagined. The small lady at the checkout counter probably thought we were an odd quartet to be let loose in Japan: Ashley and me; Christoph, a German architect, and Brad, a tall, barrel-chested American.

She smiled and commenced talking to us in the most wondrous sing-song tone. She sang/talked for a couple of minutes, without pause, smiling all the while, and we stared back at her, mouths agape. We didn’t understand a word but the translation scrolled by on the lower part of the screen of my mind’s eye: “Oh, yes, a sugary beverage. Oh, another one! And some sugary pastries too. And some more sugary sweets! Real Americans. The stories are true! I hope you know the emergency number for Japan.”

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We smiled. How could we not? She was so nice, and the titanic gap in understanding between the two parties was irrelevant. Everyone was happier as we left the shop than we were five minutes before that.

I remember the first time I saw “Lost in Translation” starring Bill Murray. I thought it was a good movie, but it didn’t really strike a deep chord in me. I watched it again after visiting Japan, and I felt like I watched our own story. It’s not like going to Italy or Germany or France or Mexico. Going to Japan was like taking a spaceship to a different world. I felt like an alien in a galaxy far, far away. I loved it, but there was no mistaking the fact—we were cast adrift in a sea of different. The main question was how to deal with that. I guess that’s not exactly rocket science though.

And, finally, we returned to Kyoto. We met the travel agent—Nazuki emerged from the ninja shadows into the light, and she was pretty much the biggest sweetheart ever. With her, the four of us ate one last dinner together. We ate, we drank, we told stories of our trip around Japan—and it was all okay. It was better than okay. It was all worth it.

So as I submit this story, upload the images and cross my fingers that you won’t hate it—we just booked our tickets back to Japan. Ashley found some cheap tickets and a cheap place to stay in Kyoto. We’re going to spend 10 days in one spot, hanging out with Christoph and Nazuki, riding bikes, playing tourist, and doing it a bit differently than last time. I won’t say right, because I’m not really sure what right looks like anymore.

From issue 35. Buy it here.