Everything I ever heard about travelling in Japan indicated that most of the population wouldn’t speak English. Any why should they? This is a nation that invented the Tamagotchi – a toy that dies if you don’t look after it. A children’s toy designed to die! They’re hardly going to worry about lactose intolerant foreigners eating the wrong type of cheese.
I like a challenge. I like not knowing what is going on around me, trying to pick the mystery ingredient in the soup, and guessing what people are trying to tell me (unless they have a rifle and are shouting angrily in my face). There is one potential scenario which terrifies me though – accidentally being served seafood, especially in an island nation famous for its willingness to eat anything without lungs. Am I allergic to crustaceans? Will my head explode if a red snapper touches my lips? Well, no. The reason I don’t want to eat seafood is that I don’t like the taste, and I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to ascertain the fishiness of any given meal that I sought out the classic picture dictionary – Point it, by Dieter Graf.
I’m pretty good with languages. I remember enough school French to survive; I learnt passable Spanish on the road in Latin America; I have enjoyed impressing the locals with my quick-build Swahili vocabulary, and my Afrikaans is rusty, but functional. I estimate that I could tolerably converse with just under 25% of the world’s population, but learning Japanese for a two-week visit seemed an inefficient use of my time, so I bought the book instead.
With sales of around 2,000,000 copies, Point it is an idea. A brilliant idea, by a German. Never again will anyone have to learn the Tagalog word for ‘grapefruit’ (except probably Filipino fruiterers); simply find the picture on page 5 and Point it! No need to mime roller blading or draw a bull’s spleen – just Point it! You can still mime arterial spray though, as that’s lots of fun and there is no relevant picture. Food, transport, emergency services – shots of every conceivable travel necessity are included, and plenty that are inconceivable.
And so, in the fullness of time, I journeyed to Japan with my amazing little book, ready to point my way across Honshu watching eager little Japanese eyes light up with understanding on production of a picture of a chicken. The rumours were true – English speakers were few and far between, and the food was mysterious and hard to reverse engineer. And yet, as I always have done, I got by. I mimed, I tasted, I pointed and mispronounced. The people are kind and patient, and so comprehensive is the unobtrusive signage, in Japanese and English, that it’s hard to get lost. Like flower arranging, they have the positioning of street furniture down to an art.
I neglected my book until I virtually forgot its presence. The slim volume fits well into most pockets yet when I did need it, I couldn’t find it. It was usually lying back in my room. The one occasion I recall opening it, trying to buy a packet of tissues in Kyoto, I couldn’t for the life of me find the appropriate image (page 48, bottom right) and swiftly gave up in embarrassment.
I must conclude that, like in any other country, I am able to get by without the book. My trip remained seafood-free, except on one occasion when my okonomiyaki was sprinkled with tuna flakes and I nearly vomited all over the chef’s hotplate. However, I still believe Point it to be a great idea, and I will save my volume for when I journey across China one day. I am determined to use the picture of a white girl showering in a g-string in the correct context.