In most countries of the world it helps to know the language a little before you arrive; in Japan
, it can only be an impediment. Words tend to get in the way, and the ideal conversation for most of the Japanese I've lived among for 22 years is one in which as few words as possible are exchanged. The country fashions itself more as a family than a free-for-all, and as in any close setting, if you really know someone, you listen less to her words than to her pauses, her hesitations, her tone of voice, everything she leaves out. The main language to learn when you come to Japan is silence.
I got a crash-course in this elusive tongue, harder to translate than Hungarian, when I went with my Japanese sweetheart to the templed island of Miyajima
not so long ago. I knew that the place would be packed with Japanese visitors -- we were going on a holiday weekend in early November -- eager to enjoy its celebrated maple trees, its strolling deer and "white raccoons," the Itsukushima shrine set out on the sea, as shrines had been set here for fifteen hundred years. So I found a list of traditional Japanese inns on the island and made some calls several weeks in advance. At one of the numbers, remarkably, the phone was answered by the sweetest and most mellifluous voice I'd heard in years, switching within a syllable to perfect English.
I asked if she had a room available for the first weekend in November.
"Of course," came the trilling answer. "Would you like a Western room or a Japanese?"
"Western," I said, remembering too many nights sneezing on tatami mats.
"Okay. I'll be waiting for you!"
Was that all, I wondered? Was something wrong? I queried her some more, and she said, in the most lilting and almost hypnotic English I'd heard in months, "Our rooms are very small, I'm afraid, but our food is good. I'll be waiting for you."