Lack of a common language was the hardest part of our every day life in Japan and you couldn’t begin to guess what a word meant, even if you saw it written down. It really was pot luck what food would arrive when ordering in a restaurant – adding to the fun and our sense of adventure.
Supermarket shopping was also challenging and took a lot longer than shopping in the UK, especially when trying to find a specific ingredient – in one case, sesame oil. Regularly I had to approach fellow shoppers to ask if they spoke any English, most people just shook their heads apologetically but occasionally I struck lucky and I soon learned that the younger, better dressed shopper was more likely to be able to help.
Supermarkets were very well stocked and had the freshest array of produce. Staff tried to be helpful even when they didn’t understand what you wanted. They would listen to your question, bow politely and trot off using a small running shuffle to find a colleague to help. That colleague would bow and trot off to find someone else. Ten minutes later you realised that they had no idea what you were asking for and, in order to release them from their search, you had to physically face them and thank them for their efforts. Then they would then bow in a sorrowful manner and you would nod back to be polite and then they would bow again . . .
One item I had great difficulty in sourcing was wholemeal bread. Most breads we bought in the supermarket were much too soft and sweet. As there was a bread maker at the Lake House I thought I would solve the problem by buying wholemeal flour but it seemed the Japanese just did not do “wholemeal” at all. Some of the breads we bought at the small bakers in the village looked quite promising, lovely and nutty or seedy on the outside but when you cut into the loaf it turned out to be plain white inside. We asked by showing them the Japanese word for wholemeal flour and they eventually produced some kind of wheat meal flour that produced a disappointing but edible loaf.
All the Japanese we met were kind and friendly and always ready to practise their English with you. The lady who owned the coffee shop was telling me she had been to England and had visited Rye, Hastings and Battle. Then she went on to say what sounded like “We need a poo”. She repeated it several times hoping I would understand her meaning – “poo, poo, poo” she insisted and I could only nod understandingly assuming she had encountered some kind of dreadful toilet problem. Then it finally dawned, she had visited the Ashdown Forest and was saying Winnie The Pooh!