If you ever decide to learn Japanese, and if you then decide to talk to someone online in Japanese, you'll probably get told something along the lines of nihongo jouzu desu ne, which basically means "your Japanese is really good." However, people will say this regardless of whether your Japanese is actually good or not, making getting "nihongo jozu'd" a bit of a running joke among people studying Japanese on the internet. It's pretty much a rite of passage at this point. It has happened to me personally countless times online. It even happened to Jared Leto once when he said "arigato" during an interview with a vtuber about his role in the movie "Morbius" (yes, that is a real event that actually happened). So, naturally, I thought it would happen all the time when I came to Japan for real.
Funnily enough, however, that doesn't seem to be the case. If I speak to someone in Japanese, they'll either just respond to me in Japanese like a normal person, or they'll remain unconvinced and attempt to gesticulate while using as much English loan words as possible to make things easy to understand. But in the 3-ish weeks I've been here so far, I only got nihongo jozu'd twice. The first time was at kappa-bashi street while talking to the cashier when purchasing a measuring cup (see my last blog). The second time was during the Nikko trip.
The Nikko trip
On our second week in Japan, after we finished our orientation and got settled in, we all went on a field trip to a place called Nikko in the Japanese countryside for a two-day trip on Thursday and Friday. It was a good 3 hours away by tour bus. There isn't much going on in Nikko, to be honest, but the place is known for its famous toshogu shrine that was built during the Tokugawa shogunate.
However, being a religious Jew, I cannot step foot into any active church, shrine, or temple (mosques are okay). So while everyone was exploring the shrine, I decided to walk around the town instead.
I didn't feel like I was missing out on much, though, because Nikko is truly a beautiful area.
I even managed to get this cool picture of a photogenic dragonfly that was kind enough to sit still even when I approached it.
After we explored Nikko, we got back into the bus and went to the hotel. However, the hotel we were staying at wasn't like a western hotel. It was a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style hotel, complete with an onsen and Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats and futons. I forgot to take a real picture, so for now just bear with this screenshot from my Instagram story.
It was really cool.
For dinner, we all went downstairs and ate together in a large hall. They served us a set meal featuring all kinds of food, including yuba—a local dish made from tofu skin. I had coordinated ahead of time with the IES Abroad faculty and the hotel to make sure that the meals I was provided fit my dietary needs, and they were both very willing to accommodate. It was still delicious.
After we ate, I took a dip in the onsen with some friends. They had huge rooms with all kinds of pools, both large and small, and even a little sauna. No clothes at all were allowed in the onsen, so I was a little self-conscious at first, but being buck naked in front of all of your friends takes less time to get used to than you might think.
At first, I was a little disappointed in the onsen, to be honest. It kind of just felt like a normal hot tub. But the real experience was in the outside onsen. They had a couple pools that were outside. Being outside at night, sitting on the stones in the warm water, was exactly the satisfying feeling I was looking for.
On Friday, I had to leave a little earlier than the rest of the group in order to get back to my apartment before Shabbat started. But I stuck around during the morning.
During the morning, we went to a place called the Tobu World Square. It was basically a park that had tons of miniature scale replicas of famous landmarks around the world, each with a plaque explaining their history. Some of them even had moving parts, such as little cars that moved on the street, or boats that moved in the water, or even little window washers moving up and down the Empire State Building.
Although it was called the World Square, it seemed like the majority of the landmarks were from Japan and a few other asian countries. Africa was only granted a small section dedicated to ancient Egypt, and I can't even remember if South America was there at all.
After the World Square, we went to get lunch, and the bus driver was kind enough to drop me off at the train station on the way to take everyone else to the final activity, which was some sort of wood-carving thing. I considered staying and just taking my chances that we'd get back before Shabbat started, and in the end, I only ended up getting back about half an hour earlier than everyone else. But a small typhoon was on the way to hit Tokyo, and I wanted to be safe in case any of the trains got delayed.
But I digress. The second time I got "nihongo jozu'd" was not on Friday, but actually on Thursday night at the ryokan.
The hotel, again
At the hotel, a couple friends and I saw a sign mentioning something about a karaoke room, so we went to go look for it. The hotel had a somewhat confusing layout consisting of two towers, and we ended up spending a good amount of time just searching for the place. At the end of the day, we figured out that you had to reserve it, and it actually cost money, much more than a regular karaoke place. So we ended up just giving up.
But as we were searching, I asked someone who was working at the hotel if she knew where it was. She was kind enough to give us some directions, which I translated for my friends, and we started to go on our way. But then—
Wait, she said. "Nihongo wa totemo jouzu desu ne." Your Japanese is very good.
She went on to explain how she was actually from Thailand, and she understood how hard it could be to learn the language.
I was taken aback, unsure how to respond. As an American, I enjoy the privilege of being a native English speaker. English is the language of the world. We expect everyone in our country to speak it. We expect everyone who visits our country to speak it. We expect everyone on the internet to speak it. We even expect people in the countries we visit to speak it.
But here, that's not the case. Outside of the airport and tourist traps, very few people in Japan speak English. In the middle of nowhere, in the Japanese town called Nikko, English is just another language. Like Thai. Or Chinese. Or Hebrew. Or anything.
She was a worker, and I was a student. She was an immigrant, and I was just visiting. She was Thai, and I was American. But in that moment, we were just two people on the same end of the language stick. Just two people whose nihongo was jouzu.
After a brief moment, I smiled. "Otagaini ganbarimashou." Let's both do our best.
Then we both went on with the rest of our day.
More Blogs From This Author
Hey, my name is Zev. I'm a current senior at Brandeis University from Oakland, California. This fall, I'll be spending a semester in Japan! I love drawing, playing games, web development, skiing, singing, and learning languages.