In many ways, our first week of full-time travel was a lot harder than I predicted. I’ve mentioned it before, but the thing that I perhaps struggled with the most during this time was the food & dining element of travel, which was really surprising to me. We’ve established that neither Tony nor I are afraid of taking chances with our meals or of trying something new and unusual, so this was the last area where I expected to short circuit.
Yet there’s no denying that the act of choosing a place to grab some grub caused my anxiety levels to skyrocket, nearly reducing me to tears on several occasions. Unfortunately, despite a lovely day spent exploring Matsumoto, our hunt for a place to eat dinner was no exception.
Our first stop was the local beerfest, which many locals were enjoying, despite the gloomy skies and persistent fall of rain. Following a quick jaunt around the various food stalls that had been erected for the event, we decided that nothing was really tempting us. Most of the stalls focused on selling international fare, particularly those with German or Italian roots, which we just weren’t interested in. Crazy as it may sound to some, we came to Japan to explore Japanese food! Add in the fact that it really was raining rather heavily (making al fresco dining unattractive) and that the beers on offer were insanely expensive (2600Y for 1L of beer!), and we knew we needed to keep looking.
Happily, there was a PARCO department store right across the street. Although our guidebooks had touted the wonders of the food floors in Japanese department stores, we had yet to venture into one (shame on us!), so we figured this was the perfect chance to finally give it a go. Given that this PARCO was the crown jewel of downtown Matsumoto, we were certain it would have tons of tantalizing tid bits on offer. Alas, after checking all eight of its floors, we had to conclude we had somehow picked a dud, because save for one Italian cafe, this PARCO decidedly had no food.
Feeling desperation starting to creep in (and hunger growling angrily in our bellies), we began to make our way back to our hotel, twisting our way through several of the tiny food alleys as we made our way back, keeping our eyes peeled for anything that looked good. Unfortunately, we encountered many of the same issues that had confronted us in other Japanese cities when it came to selecting a place to dine: the restaurants with pictures in the menus either had odd smatterings of food suggesting a repeat of our Cheesecake Factory dining experience (which was fine as a one-time thing, but not as an every night thing) or were Italian restaurants, which we ruled out on the basis that we really didn’t come all this way to eat odd renditions of food we could make or get at home. These two types of restaurants made up about 65% of the restaurants we encountered, and the remaining ones had no pictures and no English whatsoever (and often no prices we could read either, to top it all off), which had the effect of making me feel far too intimidated to venture inside. Not only did I fear we would have no idea what kind of food was on offer, but I worried we would have no way of ordering or communicating, which would earn us the ire of the proprietor.
Having struck out three times, we went back to our hotel to regroup. A quick online search found us a place that supposedly does amazing soba, had experience dealing with clueless tourists, and was open until 9 pm. Perfect!
Whether all of those things are true, we’ll never know, because the most critical one about their closing time turned out to be a lie. We reached what we believe was the correct restaurant (in Japan, we can never be certain, but this place had English outside and served soba that looked delicious) at 7:50 pm, only to be told that they were closing up for the night. Apparently the curse of early restaurant closures that we experienced in Nikko was going to haunt us…
I know many find baseball to be a boring sport, but I think it’s a rather merciful one: there you only get 3 strikes before being cut loose, whereas here we had struck out 4 times within a single hour. When you’re wet and hungry, it doesn’t get much more disheartening than that and I had the tears to prove it. And so that is how we wound up ordering Japanese katsu & curry bowls in an Italian restaurant with a French vibe; it was one of the only places open at this point and had a smattering of English on the sign, so it was going to have to suffice. We slunk in there feeling pretty defeated, but truth be told, it wasn’t so bad in the end. Our waiter was really sweet and really did his best to make us feel comfortable and spoke English with confidence and grace. The food was hot and delicious (though somewhat incongruous with the restaurant’s admittedly mixed theme) and most of it was eaten in silence as we were both so famished there simply was no time for talking between bites.
After this most recent melt-down, with my belly finally full, I took the time to do some soul-searching to try to pinpoint what had been triggering my moments of distress over the past week. I didn’t walk around in a constant state of anxiety, so what was it that was prompting me to go nuclear?
It was clear that the times of greatest stress happened when we were looking for restaurants. I don’t always do well when I’m hungry and tired and have spent the day on my feet, but this was clearly more than that. I realized that dining out was really stressful for me because it forced me to display my ignorance to the world. Recently, Liz over at L’Appel Du Vide wrote this great post about how being in Russia made her understand what it is like to be illiterate; for all the lightheartedness of the post, being in Japan has been similar in many respects (though not so extreme because there is certainly more English signage here, which is to say that there is English signage at all!) and I know that at least for me personally, being completely incapable of reading and understanding has been very difficult and, at times, distressing. I realized that although I had traveled prior to this trip, and even would have considered myself fairly well-traveled at that, I had never really been in a situation where I was utterly incapable of understanding the written form of a language when it mattered. In Western Europe (which forms the bulk of my international travel experiences), although I don’t speak German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese, there was either enough English for me to get by or the words were similar enough to French/English/Latin that I could at least hazzard a guess. I could sound out the words and actually try to say them when ordering. I knew how much my haphazard choices would cost me. None of this is true in Japan. If there’s no English, I am completely lost. Kanji, Katakana, Hirigana… they all are meaningless to me and I can’t even begin to try to express myself with them. And that has been really hard. I love languages and I love words, so to be devoid of them is hard. And to come face to face with the reality of being illiterate? That’s even harder still. Add to this all the fact that A LOT of Japanese restaurants put prices in Kanji rather than arabic numerals and the fact that things in this country tend to be really expensive, and perhaps it’s not so surprising that restaurants were evoking fear responses from me.
But it’s not just dealing with the bubbles of terror that rise within you when you are handed a menu that’s covered in little pictures that to most people in this country are words but to you just cause your face to cloud over in confusion. No, it’s also dealing with the frustration of constantly feeling as though you are settling for restaurants where you can eat rather than necessarily picking places where you’d like to eat. We were limiting ourselves to places that had some glimmer of English about them, and then would choose items off the English menu or from pictures, and these were not always as comprehensive as the menu available in Japanese. Ordering from pictures, you can’t always be certain about what you’re going to get, and we’d frequently see meals come of of the kitchen headed for other diners that looked spectacular but that we hadn’t even known were available. To put it plainly, it gets tiring at times to find yourself eating meals that while good, weren’t what you really wanted. Constantly battling feelings of diner’s remorse and saying things like “I didn’t know this place offered soba!” wears you down after a while.
Looking back, I can see that much of the stress I was experiencing had to do with the fact that I was just being too hard on myself. I have struggled with dealing with unrealistic personal expectations in the past, and I was doing the same thing here. As much as I would love to be able to read and speak Japanese, the simple fact is that I can’t. I think I was so worried about possibly making someone uncomfortable with this truth and coming across as an ignorant and brash tourist who thinks English is what everyone should speak, that I worked myself into a headspace where if English wasn’t freely offered OR if I could not say it myself in Japanese, then I couldn’t communicate with anyone at all. I have since learned on multiple occasions that this is not true at all, and that operating under such a principle is a recipe for disaster. While it is all well and good for me to try to learn some simple phrases everywhere we travel, it’s not realistic to expect that I will be able to communicate in anything other than English & French with anything resembling fluency. I just need to hope that people will appreciate any effort I make to speak to them in their own language, and to never take it for granted or forget how lucky I am that so many do in fact speak some English.
While I really wish that I had handled the language barriers we encountered our first week in Japan with a little more aplomb, I am happy to report that this was the last food freak-out that I had. As I gradually became a bit more comfortable with traveling and the Japanese culture, I loosened up and started to be a little less hesitant. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons we learned is that a lot more places have English menus than you would think; many places we ate at for the rest of our trip had nothing outside to indicate that they had English menus, and we would go in thinking we would be relying on photos or the plastic food models outside, only to find they had an English menu. And even on the few occasions where English was lacking, we always encountered owners, cooks, and waitstaff who, far from scorning us for our lack of Japanese-speaking abilities, were pleased by the few phrases we did know and were more than happy to get us fed and make us feel at home. By throwing ourselves on the mercy of the Japanese people, we discovered just how kind and gracious they really can be.
Of course, for me, one of the things I hoped to gain from this year spent traveling the world was a sense of personal mastery. I wanted to hurl myself into the world and out of my own comfort zone so that I could prove to myself over and over again that no matter where I am, I will not only survive, but I will also thrive. Back at home, we think nothing of heading out to eat at a restaurant for a meal and then making our way home again, but when you do it in a strange city, successfully making it to your destination and back as well as ordering your dinner (bonus points if you do it in a foreign language!) is a huge boon to your self-esteem. I wanted this trip to be a daily reminder to myself that even without a set-routine and a fool-proof plan that cleaves tightly to a well-trod path, I have the resources and tools inside me to ensure that I will be ok. Our first week in Japan, and indeed, our evening in Matsumoto was an assault on my self-confidence, but sometimes we have to crumble in order to build ourselves up better and stronger than we were before. Tony & I set out on this trip in order to move away from a life that had become mundane and unfulfilling. As we cast away the bowlines that kept us tethered to our safe harbor, it is only natural that at times we would encounter rough waters that would force us well outside our comfort zone. Maybe this first week was rough, but I survived and am a better person for it. Even this melt-down in Matsumoto wasn’t so bad in the end: after all, it was the last night I wandered the streets wailing “But I don’t know how much any of this costs!” The next day, Tony & I sat down and taught ourselves the Kanji and Japanese words for the numbers 1 – 10 and figured out how to read and understand nearly any Japanese number we might encounter. And as easy as you can count ichi, ni, san, (1, 2, 3!) my fear of Japanese restaurants was cured!