A Smile and a Bow Go a Long Way

When we booked tickets for our trip to Okinawa, it would be the first time I traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language or was with someone who did. In previous instances CH and I could cobble together enough words or traveled to places with a similar enough alphabet that we managed.


My main concern? How I would find a bathroom. I’m kind of skeeved out by public restrooms in general, and the thought of being somewhere and not even knowing how to ask for one was beyond me. And Miss Red is “potty training,” so the thought of managing her on a toilet that I didn’t even know how to ask for made me sweat a little. Thanks to Kyle for passing along some of my fears and questions to a friend of his, who sent me two awesome and lengthy emails with some basic phrases and a general course of what to do while in Naha.

I don't think I need to read Japanese to understand what this poster offers.

CH also decided that he was going to teach himself Japanese. He had been to Japan, to Sendai in fact, about 15 years ago with his family, and Grandma had been a number of times, so there were a few Japanese phrase books around Grandma’s house and Miss Red even has a set of Kanji magnetic letters on our refrigerator.


He selected the Pimsleur method, one he had had success with when learning French. And that, folks, is one of the many reasons I love CH, in addition to the great skill that you can ask him what was happening in pretty much any year, and he knows something of importance. To keep himself occupied on the treadmill he’ll run through Vice Presidents. Backwards.

Mind the gap.

It worked. He ended up being decent enough to know more than some basic phrases. Along with Grandma, we were actually OK during much of our travels. Having CH’s cousin there to translate the first two days was also amazing, and many people in Japan know a small amount of English. But knowing sumimasen (excuse me, or sorry) and arigato (thank you) helped tremendously. I also learned that a smile and a bow go a long way. When in doubt, I would repeat “sumimasen” and bow. When someone did something nice, I would bow and repeat “arigato.” And people were friendly and understanding.

Point to order

Most restaurants have menus with photos of the meal on them, so we could see what we wanted and point to the waiter. Signs we were able to understand, and we only really got lost once, when CH realized that maps are positioned differently than how we read them. And since I never even attempt to read maps, I let it go.

My favorite sign. I walked by it two separate days to work up the nerve to pantomime if I could purchase it and didn't have the guts.

And finding bathrooms? They were clearly marked everywhere we went with the standard image of a male or female icon or listed “toilet.” Were they clean? My friends, they were some of the cleanest, albeit tiniest spaces I have ever seen. Some seats were heated (!) and had helpful buttons such as “courtesy noise,” which sounded like flushing.

The most awesome thing ever. This holds your baby so you can use the bathroom.

Monday’s post? Cultural differences. I mean, there are differences even within a city, but I’ll recap the ones that we found most interesting.

– MD


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