The man in blue-gray uniform with white gloves and sash directing vehicle traffic from the centre of the crosswalk is not busy at the moment. I’m the only pedestrian braving the rain in this direction and don’t want to walk too far before checking whether I’m on the right track.
Sumimasen. Pointing in the direction I think is the correct one I say: Byodo-in asoko desu ka? (Excuse me. Is Byodo-in over there?)
Byōdō-in? he repeats as a question.
Hai. Byodo-in. Doko desu ka? (Yes. Byodo-in. Where is it?)
Byōdō-in. Byōdō-in. Babble-babble-babble.
I’ve lost him. Of course I’m not going to understand. I know this before starting, but am determined to get as far as I am able with the limited Japanese I have before resorting to English, pantomime or drawings.
Haltingly I proceed. Gomenasai. Nihongo ga jozuni hanashi masen. Yoku wakari masen. Ego ga hanashi masu ka? (I’m sorry I don’t speak Japanese very well. I don’t understand well. Do you speak English?)
No, he doesn’t speak English. A car approaches and he waves it through. I pull out my map and invite him to point: Byodo-in doko desu ka?
He turns to me and looks directly into my eyes. Byōdō-in. Byōdō-in. Babble-babble-babble. It suddenly occurs to me that he is not only a traffic cop, but also a member of the self-appointed diction police. He is correcting my pronunciation. I’m mangling the name of the temple—two long o vowels, not short. We are standing in the middle of the street in the pelting rain and I’m getting a language lesson before he will offer directions.
Give me a break. He knew what I meant. So it’s not perfect. At least I’m trying! I want to kick his shins in angry frustration like bad-tempered child. I want encouragement for my effort, not censure for my mistake. Does anyone deny toddlers water when they ask for wa-wa? I’m an adult language learner in the toddler speaking-phase and need as much encouragement—if not more on account of the adult awareness and embarrassment.
Ah! So desu ne. Byōdō-in. I pronounce it correctly this time. His eyes light up and he bursts into a torrent of Japanese and large arm-waving gestures. I catch the word eki (station), and he seems to be pointing to the other side. Got it! Apparently, for all my attention I’ve used the incorrect exit after all. I bow and thank him profusely in Japanese.
I head back to the sidewalk, turn and wave. We grin at each other. Still miffed, knowing it’s childish, and relishing a sense of superiority because I’m sure he won’t know the difference, I wave and call out: Sank you berry match!
Still, as much as it bugged me in that moment, I know I owe him big time. He calibrated my ear at a critical stage. I’ve never forgotten. I remember his smiling, nut-brown, bespectacled face more clearly than I do Byōdō-in.