Japan, 1985

I was quite confused when the gaijin with the beard appeared at my front door. He had a piece of paper in his hand with Japanese characters on it and was comparing them to the illuminated sign above the door.

旅館

'Ryokan?’ he asked. I confirmed, with a nod, that this was an inn so he started doing sign language. Now, we hardly ever see foreigners in Hagi, our town, though many Japanese people visit it for the old-style barns and the castle compound by the sea. Yukiko told me later that she’d met him in the park and had flirted with him; giggling was as far as she got for he spoke no Japanese. And I didn’t know anyone who could help translate for me.

Anyway I kept saying no and he became more and more agitated. Looking at it from his point of view I could understand: he didn’t know whether there wasn’t a room available, or whether I wasn’t understanding his signed questions.

After a short while, he put down his backpack, took off his boots and offered to follow me – into my own house! Perhaps he too was pretending not to understand. Of course I had to show him all the rooms, all empty, and he gave me a sad look: can’t I sleep here, or here, or here?

So I let him in, unwillingly. I’d heard about the beds with legs they have where he comes from, about forks and about beefsteak for breakfast. And all he was going to get here was a thin futon on tatami mats, and chopsticks to eat his rice with raw eggs. I hadn’t wanted him to be disappointed or uncomfortable.