“Um, ahem, Tsumetai miruku o kudasai.” As I read from my phrasebook, Aiko, the beautiful opthamologist, looked at me with big eyes.
“What? In bar?” She smiled and giggled.
“Hmm, no. Ok, then how about Watashi no hobakurafuto…,” she stared at me intently with a blank expression.
“…wa unagi de ippai desu.” I looked at her with an innocent smile. She continued to stare.
“That one’s not in the book!” Peter broke into hearty laughter.
“What, uh, you….?” Aiko offered.
The Buddhist priest just ignored us, taking another long drag on his cigarette, staring across the bar. We hadn’t gotten his name
“I meant to say ‘Watashi no hobakurafuto wa ungai de ippai desu.’ don’t you know? My hovercraft is full of eels. Is my pronunciation off?”
“Ah….” Aiko continued, beginning to smile, “that mean to say?”
“My hovercraft is full of eels, precisely. Isn’t yours?”
“Yes, I think so,” Aiko seemed to opine, then put her hand over her mouth and giggled. “But your book is so strange!”
“Yes!” I flipped the page and found another, pointing at the bottle of sake in front of her: “Kore o depato de kaimashita ka?”
“No, no!” Aiko shot back, “here in this bar, I buy it! Mot department store! So silly!”
“You understand me!” I exulted.
“I buy for her,” muttered the priest as he left the bar, heading for the toire, apparently.
Peter and I had wandered into a very local, very non-touristy bar in Kyoto. They had nearly asked us to leave, but Peter spoke Japanese just well enough for the owner to smile and let us sit, and I had my trusty phrasebook, Instant Japanese, in hand. We chatted up a pretty ophthalmologist and her priest friend, and somehow, even across the uncertain cultural barriers, we detected that she was delighted with our existence, while he was annoyed with it.
“Kaimono ni ikimasho!” I shouted, reading from the book and pointing out the door.
“It is middle night!” Aiko laughed “No store is open!”
Peter grabbed the phrasebook, flipped a few pages and read through his laughter “Kono mizu wa tsumetai desu. How is that a useful phrase? So what if the water is cold? What use is this thing?”
The priest came back to the bar with another man, gesticulating flamboyantly with their cigarettes, ignoring us.
Aiko, Peter and I entertained ourselves with readings from the phrasebook well into the small hours before the priest and his boyfriend left in a huff, taking Aiko with them.
It was my first trip in Japan, and I can’t tell you how useful that little phrasebook was. Now don’t get me wrong: I quickly learned that there was nary a single practically useful sentence in it except Wakarimasen (I don’t understand). It appears on page 63. It prioritizes Tomarimashita (I stopped) on page 45. While I used wakarimasen on a few occasions, I never found an opportunity to use tomarimashita, as the phrasebook does not offer a context for its use -- best if caught stroking a fur coat in a department store? or for an interview with your alcoholics anonymous sponsor? perhaps for urinating on a police box?
I bought it for the overpromising title: Instant Japanese: How to Express 1,000 Different Ideas With Just 100 Key Words and Phrases! At the time, I should have considered that there is no mention about understanding the replies you might receive. What use is knowing how to ask in perfect Japanese “Where the hell is the bathroom, I need it now,” if you have no clue how to understand directions offered in reply? I ask you. it's a problem of all phrasebooks.
Others stress the importance of apologizing:
And while apologizing is an enjoyable pastime, I find it's lower on my list that "Which way is the train?" when I'm late, or "I'm dying of thirst and need water." And "sorry" seems to work reasonably well in Japan, a universal much like "OK" and "fuck you."
So if I'm going to have any chance to appear on a Japanese game show, I need to learn the language beyond giggly phrases to bandy about.