The Way

Every now and then, someone asks me for directions. Admittedly, in a town where many people are amazed that any foreigner can make it from home to work and back again, this doesn’t happen very often. When it does, I’m usually so taken aback that my practical Japanese skills desert me and I end up waving my arms and gesturing like a fool until the questioner visibly regrets asking me and hastily retreats. Invariably, it’s someone not from here who asks me: Osakans are too proud to ask directions in their own city, even if they’ve never been to that neighbourhood (or it’s been bombed or redeveloped out of all recognition). On the other hand, they’re not so dumb – the times I’ve asked a local for directions here, I’ve wound up, more often than not, even more lost than before I asked. It seems to be more face-saving to give any old directions and high-tail it out of there than to just say, “I don’t know. Sorry.” But I can’t seem to do that, even when given the chance.

Two Saturdays ago, while sitting outside the McDonald’s under the Nankai Line tracks in Namba (hotcakes and hash browns), listening to a podcast (Start the Week, Radio 4), I was nudged from my reveries by an older woman’s voice: sumimasen, anoo…, kono atari ni, katolikku-no-kyoukai wa arimasuka (“Excuse me, um, is there a Catholic church in this area?”)? She was simply dressed, and was accompanied by an even older woman . They looked religious enough, but did not seem to be hunting for converts (my first fear when I heard the word “church”). She showed me a Namba address, but God knows (literally!) how old it was. The only places of worship in Namba are the huge pachinko parlours like the one directly across the street from where I was sitting (I knew it was ten o’clock because the long line of devotees had disappeared – instantly dashing in to get the best seats, whatever those might be). They were obviously not from around here, these ladies.

I’m sorry, I don’t know of any Catholic church around here, I told them. They hesitated: that was not the answer they required. (well, what do you expect, I thought – coming to Osaka to tour the churches is a bit like going to the Vatican to admire the mosques; I didn’t tell them that, though). I sighed to myself, and ploughed on, suddenly inspired: there’s a little one near Umeda, I said, about 12 minutes from here by subway. This resulted in a blank look from the first woman (the older woman nodded, all along holding that sort of tight half-smile we all use when we try to pretend we understand someone and really haven’t a clue. Where were they from?). Soo, desuka, she finally said. And where is the subway?

Many questions, none of which I could cast into Japanese, flooded my head, the foremost being: lady, how the hell did you get into downtown Osaka without taking the subway? Another question was, does she expect me to take them there? Unfortunately, I had to clock in at work in ten minutes, at a place nowhere near Namba station. Of course, all of this had the time to swim through my brain because I lacked the precise Japanese to just give them directions and send them on their way. Like colleagues who berate anal students for asking picky grammar questions they can’t answer, I sort of resented the women for inadvertently exposing my own ignorance. Like it was their fault I’ve lived here for years and still can’t give directions, which is usually about Unit 3 in any textbook I’ve ever taught or studied.

Luckily, though, I had a pencil in my pocket, and the lead pilgrim had a notebook, so I attempted to draw a map. She gave an involuntary squeak of “Ooh! Eigo (English!)!” when I wrote “hotel” in one square, so I slowly wrote the rest in hiragana (the phonetic Japanese script). After guiding her through the map and pointing them in the right direction for the subway, I saw them off, but not before finally asking them where they were from.

“This lady is from Korea and I’m from Nagasaki,” she replied. This explained a lot – Catholicism has been strong in Nagasaki since the 16th century, and Christianity in general is huge in Korea (it’s about 1% of the population in Japan). They trotted away happily, and I ran to my meeting, having done my good deed for the year. As I left, the man at the next table, who had obviously been listening (a foreigner giving directions, like a two-headed goat, must be a story you could dine out on for weeks here) nodded sheepishly and smiled, as if to say, “better you than me, mate!”

I wondered where the church they were looking for was supposed to be (the address they showed me was, as near as I can figure, in the middle of a shopping centre, which was the site of a baseball stadium for 40 years before that). I’ve asked several people, but got blank stares in reply. There is a cathedral in Morinomiya , which is nowhere near Namba and is hard to get to from Morinomiya Station (I’ve gotten lost going there three times – I wouldn’t have dared send them there). I figured the priest at the little church in Nakatsu (assuming they found it from my map) could get them anywhere Catholic they wanted to go.

I wonder if this absolves me of all the Lents and Easters I’ve been missing lately?

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