Lost in translation

Three examples of how ordinary things (such as buying groceries in a supermarket, finding a shower and flushing a toilet) can become ‘adventures’ when you don’t speak the language….

Next in line, please

Lost in translation

Even going to the supermarket is an adventure in Japan. Not only to see all different kinds of food displayed (most of the time I have no idea what it is), but especially the routine at the checkout:

I wait in line until a cashier is available. She calls me forward in her singsong voice. Then she starts her standard lines, determined to follow the protocol, even when she realizes I don’t speak a word of Japanese.

I have been to the same supermarket three times, with different cashiers assisting me and the ‘dialogue’ sounds the same each time. I image it must be something like this (Note this is just what I THINK they are saying. No idea. I am just standing there holding out my cash for the lady to finish her ‘singsong performance’):

“Welcome to our supermarket. My name is xxx and I am happy to assist you. How are you today?”

“Uh, hello?”

(Expertly hiding her surprise that I don’t seem to speak Japanese. Puts on her ‘the show must go on’ face) “… Ok, let’s see, that is one avocado and a bottle of water. Anything else for you?”


“The total is xxx. Do you have a loyalty card?”


“No loyalty card for the lady. Would you like to pay cash or credit card?”


Looking at the money in my hands: “Ok, the lady will be paying cash…”

She counts out the change to me really slowly, like I am a child (more or less how I feel most of the time here…)

“Would you like a plastic bag with that?”


“…Ok, I’ll put it in a bag for you anyway”

“Thank you!”

“…Have a nice day, hope to see you again soon. Next in line please. How may I help you?”

And the song continues…

Another possible version of this event – according to my Dutch friend, Harald Van Horn – would go down like:

“Oh nee, weer zo’n domme blonde toeristendoos met alleen een flesje water en een avocado… “Eet eens normaal joh, wilt u geen grote garnalen in olie gebakken?” “ehhhhhh” “Oh nee, ze verstaat er ook nog eens geen ruk van” “ehhhhhh” “Enfin, flesje water, halfrotte avocado… 231 yen” “ehhhhhhhh” “Geef me dat biljet van 3000 yen maar sufferd” “thank you” “hier heb je 690 yen terug. En bedankt. Fijne vakantie. Wilt u nog een honkbalpet met uw naam in japanse tekens geborduurd hebben voor 300 yen? Pau, breng eens een cap met ‘dombo’ erop hierheen, ik heb er weer eentje.” Jij: “thank you very much” (denkt: wat een aardige mensen toch die Japanners…)”

Where can I find the shower?

I went skiing for four days, staying in the small village of Yuzawa (Niigata). My hotel consisted of simple rooms, with washbasins and toilets in the hall. But I could not find a proper bathroom… After one day of traveling and two days of skiing I really needed a shower… I could not believe my inn would not have a bathroom, so I decided to ask again.

The old couple running the inn did not understand me when I made ‘bathing moves’. Oh, in fact they did, because they got me a towel! I took the towel and pointed in all directions: where do I go now? They both looked at me as if I was crazy. In Google translate I typed ‘shower or bath?’ and showed them the translation. They discussed this philosophical question for 5 minutes and then asked to see my phone again. I typed ‘Where can I have a shower or bath?’ and again showed them the Japanese translation. The guy got out his own phone. I thought he was going to reply me, but instead he took a picture of my screen (both the English question and Japanese translation) and sent that picture to someone?!? Then he recorded a voice memo on his phone with his back to me…I thought maybe that was another version of Google translate, but nothing happened afterwards.

Finally he tried calling someone on the hotel phone… Still no answer. My question wasn’t a difficult or world shocking one, was it? I decided to try another approach. I googled ‘bath shower symbol’ and showed the picture to the lady. She started laughing, apparently relieved, and took me down the stairs into the basement of the hotel. There she pointed out the traditional shared, hot bath. I cannot tell you how happy I was! I took a very long, very hot bath…Still don’t know what the old couple thought I was asking and why it was so difficult for them. Not a dull moment in Japan…

Lost in translation
Lost in translation

Toilet technology

The Japanese sure take their toilets seriously! Going to the bathroom is definitely a cultural experience and often an adventure. First of all: all toilets are super clean: at the airport, in the train stations, in cafes and restaurants and even public toilets in the streets are immaculate. The toilets at the airport even produce waterfall sounds, so nobody can hear you pee.

And the seats are heated, which is actually great in this cold weather. Can we please get this in all winter places? How I will miss this small luxury…

However, the toilets are also very high-tech. Too much for me actually. There are so many buttons! Some have images, most just have Japanese signs.  And no toilet seems the same. Sometimes I have no idea how to even flush!

Lost in translation
Lost in translation