December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Lost in translation

By |2018-03-21T20:00:22+01:00May 22nd, 2016|"Lost In Translation"|
Kyoto's working class neighborhood of East Higashiyama.

#8220;Soy milk… soy milk. Could this be soy milk?” I asked myself the question as I pulled a small carton of what looked to be a “biological” product off a shop shelf.

Nearby, clerks were busy stocking shelves. They continued their grunting and chattering from isle to isle, section to section, rhythmically. Far from home, I felt as if I was among monks working in a garden, meditating and chanting. Never once did the clerks look up or change inflection. I had no idea what they were saying to each other. In fact, I had no what anyone was saying. I don’t speak or read a lick of Japanese and not a soul in this little neighborhood grocery speaks a word of English.

I took the “milk,” some fruits, vegetables and eggs to the checkout counter where the women work. It’s up front that I’m treated with smiles and friendly chitchat. It doesn’t matter that I reply in English. The young woman before me is talking just to talk. Like the men filling the shelves, she has her own chant, her own rhythm. She smiles and lists each item I’m buying aloud (at least that’s what I think she’s doing), scans them, and then shows me the register screen for the total. Cash only of course, which is the case with most of the shops and restaurants in my neighborhood.

As she takes my money she thanks me and bows. I do the same because I feel I should. When she hands me my change she thanks me, smiles, and bows again. Again, I do the same.

I found this grocery store quite by accident a few days ago. It’s in the working class neighborhood of East Higashiyama, in Kyoto, Japan, which I am calling home for the short term. Just beyond the hillside is the artsy, posh, international district of Okazaki, where most clerks speak English and the neighborhoods are lined with museums, galleries, retail stores, coffee shops and expensive hostels and hotels. Walking through Okazaki, I see people like me — American, German or Dutch, most of them tourists entering and leaving hotels and establishments.

But in my neighborhood, children play on the streets. Little girls wear shades of pink with ribbons in their hair, while the boys are dressed in blue, neat as a pin. Wild cats lounge on porches and in the alleys. Around the corner, during the day, the man who makes tatami mats leaves the doors of his small workshop open to get fresh air. Zen gardens fill small porches while others have mini shrines. Bikes rest in covered but unlocked garages. Recycling bags are placed neatly on the sidewalk under a net to keep the birds out.

Walking, I pass the vending machine full of juices and waters and an unassuming storefront I believe to be a bar (it has a Guinness sign by the door). I pass the bicycle shop that seems always closed, before arriving at my retirement center.

I’ve dubbed the place a “retirement center” because I’ve never seen or met anyone here that isn’t elderly. The building itself sits on a hillside filled with bamboo, plumeria, ginkgo and pine trees. To get to the fifth floor, where I “live,” I walk up what seem like 1,000 steep steps. Every day when I come home tired from walking and exploring I wonder how my geriatric neighbors manage.

Just this morning, when I left for the train to visit the craft market at the Chion-ji Temple, I saw two old women resting on a bench outside my door. One was my neighbor. They were laughing and chatting but bowed their heads when they noticed me, said hello. My neighbor, who I’ve noticed is awake even before I am is usually sweeping the walkway or tending to her potted plants. She also likes to talk. And like the young woman behind the checkout stand, she doesn’t care that I can’t understand or reply. She just points at plants and other things, smiles, talks and talks and talks and bows. I’ve wondered if she’s trying to tell me where I should visit or walk, but realize I’ll never know. It’s all so lost in the translations of smiles, finger pointing and bows.

Steps, steepness and all, I like it here. It’s not cool, posh or even remotely hip. Tucked away in the trees, it’s both peaceful and quiet. The quiet is something I relish. Much as I like exploring cities, towns and the like, I’m increasingly fond of silence and stillness. In the evening, lying in bed, all I hear outside my little retirement center is the sound of the wind rustling the leaves of the trees outside my balcony. And it lulls me to sleep.

About the Author:

Jennifer Allison wrote the "lost in Translation" column from 2014 to mid-2018.