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How a fine sensei began my journey with language

by Mark Schreiber

You’ve probably heard the famous saying, 千里の道も一歩から (senri no michi mo ippo kara, a journey
of a thousand miles begins with a single step), attributed to both 老子, Roshi, Laozi) and 孔子 (Kōshi, Confucius).

The Rosetta Stone that enabled me to take my personal thousand-mile journey, while also supplementing my Japanese language studies, was the old 国鉄時刻表 (Kokutetsu Jikoku-hyō, Japan National Railways timetable). And I was fortunate to have a very good 先生 (sensei, teacher) to help me decipher it. His name was Mr. Nagatoshi Maki.

When I arrived in Tokyo as an 18-year-old university sophomore in the autumn of 1966, the Maki family graciously hosted my home stay.

Mr. Maki, who came from a distinguished family from Saga Prefecture, was a second-generation engineer whose father had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in the Meiji Era.

His thorough grasp of 物理化学 (butsuri kagaku, physical chemistry) enabled him to tackle complicated problems and come up with simple solutions. Being an engineer with a thorough knowledge of physics, I guess he viewed me as just another problem that could be solved through application of the proper scientific method.

At some point, Maki-sensei decided I had learned enough Japanese to make his effort worthwhile, so he beckoned me to sit down and dangle my legs in his home’s 堀ごたつ (hori-gotatsu, a low table over a sunken well with a foot warmer at the bottom) and began teaching me how to read the train schedule.

“Hmmm,” I suppose he thought, “Here’s a brash American kid, fresh off the boat, who reads kanji at about third-grade level, but who wants to travel to the hinterlands.”

The timetable published by JTB listed every line operated by the 日本国有鉄道 (Nihon Kokuyū Tetsudō, Japan National Railways), and in the 1960s posted some 500 pages of updated train schedules every month. Figuring it out was not as complicated as deciphering エジプトの象形文字 (ejiputo no shōkei moji, Egyptian hieroglyphics), but it still required careful perusal.

As a prerequisite, I had already acquired a working vocabulary of rail terminology. I understood when the conductor announced「次は新宿、終点です」(“tsugi wa Shinjuku, shūten desu,” “next is Shinjuku, the last stop”), along with such terms as 乗り換え (norikae, to change trains), 出発時間 (shuppatsu jikan, departure time), 到着時間 (tochaku jikan, arrival time), 一番ホーム (ichiban hōmu, platform No. 1), 指定席 (shiteiseki, reserved seat), 自由席 (jiyūseki, unreserved seat), 特急 (tokkyū, limited express), 急行 (kyukō, express), 各駅停車 (kakueki teisha, local), 寝台車 (shindaisha, overnight sleeper) and so on.

But the timetable was full of symbols, abbreviations and specialized terms. For example, 東京方面 (Tōkyō hōmen, bound for Tokyo) became 上り (nobori), and away from Tokyo became 下り (kudari).These words are used as an indicator of direction, in relation to Tokyo, even for trains that don’t go to or from there.

“Okay,” sensei suggested. “First we’ll try something easy. How about a trip to Matsumoto City in Nagano, via the Chuo Honsen from Shinjuku?

“That train’s called the Alps No. 1,” he said. “If you leave from Shinjuku on number so-and-so at (pointing to the table), you’ll arrive around noon. That will give you time to see the famous castle, 松本城 (Matsumoto-jō, Matsumoto Castle), and the old primary school, which is now a museum. And from there you can take a bus to 浅間温泉 (Asama Onsen, Asama Hot Springs).”

As お返し (okaeshi, quid pro quo), I usually rewarded my host family with お土産 (omiyage, souvenirs) in the form of 名物 (meibutsu, famous local goods) I had brought back from the many destinations I visited.

But getting there was only half the fun. In those days, before cell phones, hand-held games and laptop computers, people on long rail trips were much more likely to pass the time conversing with total strangers. I have many fond memories of conversations with fellow travelers, such as the businessman en route from Tokyo to Sendai, who showed gracious hospitality by pulling out an extra cup and inviting me to share his flask of Suntory whiskey.

Combining patience with scientific logic, Maki-sensei drilled me in the use of a valuable tool that became my springboard to learning all kinds of things about Japan, including the language — although strong rural accents often challenged my comprehension to the extreme.

When he passed away last December at age 92, I was reminded of how fortunate I had been to have known such an excellent teacher and a fine gentleman.