Bowl of shio ramen

After landing and settling into our hotel, Sam, my friends Eric and Jack and I went looking for dinner. Beneath this part of Kyoto, there’s an extensive underground mall that connects with the subway station, and also has exits leading to the lower floors of nearby hotels and pachinko parlors. Within this mall there are numerous clothing stores, but we finally found the restaurants.

Of course, all of the menu items were in Japanese.

There are, as you probably know, three character sets in Japanese. There’s hiragana, which could be considered the “basic” alphabet; there’s katakana, which is primarily used for spelling loanwords; and there’s kanji, the adapted Chinese characters that are used almost everywhere. If you can write hiragana and katakana, you can be understood by anyone who can read Japanese, but knowledge of kanji is really the mark of the sophistication of your Japanese knowledge. Kanji are used everywhere.

So when it came time to look in the display cases of the restaurants and try to figure out what we wanted to eat, we were faced with a dilemma. Most of the restaurants only had their items listed in kanji, which we could not read fluently. And while we could have spoken to the waitstaff, asked what was what, and decided based on that, it was our first night in an entirely different country at the end of a very long day, and we wanted to avoid as much hassle as was possible. Our dining decision was as much determined by what looked good as it was by the presence of a sign saying “English menu available” in the display case.

I knew before leaving home that we’d have to order food in Japanese when we arrived, so I copied some relevant notes out of my textbook so I could study on the plane ride. Naturally, despite the ten hours spent over the Pacific, I didn’t study them once, so when it came time to order and interact with the restaurant staff, I was as much a bumbling 外人 (gaijin — “foreign person”) as any tourist could be. As the meal went on, we noticed that the restaurant staff was seating incoming guests in the corner opposite us–probably because, without realizing it, we had been fulfilling the “loud Americans” stereotype. Oops.

When it was all said and done, though, we got ourselves fed on ramen–the real stuff, not the ten-cent kind you get at Safeway–and explored the Kyoto Station underground a little. We made embarrassing Japanese mistakes, were awkwardly loud, and had “The Star-Spangled Banner” hummed at us (possibly sarcastically) as we made our way back to the surface.

As first adventures go, it could have been far worse.