Courtship in Japan. A Backpacker's tale

Japan: huge, bustling cities, and a snow-capped Mount Fuji. That's all, right? Drastically insufficient and inaccurate notions of the first-time backpacker. Two weeks into the trip and Japan had left a permanent impression on me.

All of my senses were bombarded with wonder. White-faced geisha in Kyoto, the sounds, lights, and pace of life that is Tokyo, and the distinct delicacies of Japanese gastronomy. All the while I had been travelling in between cities at tremendous speeds on the enormously efficient Shinkansen , the Japanese bullet train.

It was at one of these stations, wading through a sea of floating Japanese suits, that I first met Keiko. In obvious confusion, I was decoding the intricately designed route map when Keiko's presence blurred from intervening obstacle to central focus, metamorphosing from the myriad black suits into a delicate, smiling assistant.

I was in Osaka, and on the recommendation of fellow backpackers, was heading to Koya-san, a remote, hilltop monastic complex. Craig, an insightful backpacking veteran, had informed me of the pleasures of this mountainous experience. Wandering through Koya-san was like being transported to a land of tranquillity. Nothing to disturb the peace except the faint murmurs of the monk's prayers, reverberating through the ancient cypress forests. This seemed the perfect retreat after pounding the hectic city streets.

It was with some surprise that Keiko offered to accompany me on my journey. We realised, mostly through hand movements during our first brief interaction, that Keiko could tell I was lost (blue eyes and blonde hair just didn't fit in!). After escorting me to the correct ticket booth, and ushering us in the direction of the waiting train, I was envisaging a fantastic conversation of discovery.

I could learn all about my new travelling companion. Where was Keiko from? What was she doing in Osaka? And did she live in Koya-san? I opened the conversation with one of these questions, only to be met with that same glazed confusion I had been wearing only moments earlier - it appeared that Keiko's English was as strong as my Japanese. In other words, arukanakika , non-existent.

Still, we had a two-hour train ride ahead so I re-introduced the hand pointing that had proved so successful in our first exchange. It soon developed into an amusing, international game of charades. Despite our efforts and wobbly performances, charades did little to broaden our knowledge. Nevertheless, we were able to discern two key facts: yes, I do like sports; and no, she doesn't live in Koya-san.

The mist was beginning to settle in, and the sun had just set by the time the train dropped us off in Koya-san. Koya-san appeared even more magical than Craig's reports. In the darkness, semi-lit by the rare streetlight, I could discern a one-street collection of huts and houses. Interspersed further afield from the street were a number of temples, hiding amongst the mist and massive cypress trees.

By now I had become slightly curious as to Keiko's motivations for accompanying me on my journey. So far in my travels I had experienced countless episodes of friendly Japanese hospitality. Strangers would stop me in the street to offer directions from my scarcely discernible guidebook map, and private-room karaoke dinners were organised with new hostel roommates. So I gave little thought to Keiko's unabashed kindness.

Keiko helped me check in at the only hostel in town, a beautiful tatami-matted residence containing it's own Zen garden. A quick meal was then suggested before Keiko began the long journey back to Osaka. On first impression, I could see nothing open, no lights beaming, and very little sign of activity. Had I been alone I would simply have retreated to my room, my appetite forced to be content with another vending-machine meal.

However, with Keiko by my side we entered another world. Through a distinctly unremarkable door we entered a tiny dining hall, full with it's current clientele of eight customers, a buzz of Japanese flying through the air. Literally. The menu's hung from the ceiling, each one twisting and turning amongst the smoke haze. Unintelligible sounds were passed between the owner and Keiko, and plates were swept aside to make room for us. Keiko ordered for us both - more sounds added to the hive of activity in our tiny new world. I loved it here already!

It was only after the sake that Keiko's English gained more confidence. I had begun to glance at my watch, curious as to when the last train left town. Keiko was indeed a wonderful host, but if things went further, I'm not sure my partner back home would agree.

Keiko: " stay in youth hostel."

Now suddenly it was my English that was evidently lacking.

Me: "Umm...ahhh...I don't know if...that would be a good idea...I'm sorry."

Keiko: "No? OK. Well - you, you're room, me, my room."

I had definitely taken a liking to Keiko, but I now realised she may have mistaken this as indication for more than the simple dinner I had in mind. I didn't have the heart, or more precisely the required knowledge of Japanese vocabulary, to advise Keiko of my "I'm not single" status.

And so as we re-enter the hostel, instead of heading to her agreed separate room, she settles comfortably on the tatami mat in mine.

Me: "Um, look, I'm really tired" I motioned with my hands clasped to my head, the universally understood concept of sleep, nothing but glorious sleep. "I'm going to bed now. Goodnight"

But all she did was nod and smile.

Now finally fully comprehending the situation, I pretended to visit the bathroom but instead quickly dashed to her empty room. For fear of unbalancing the refined peacefulness of Koya-san (and also for alerting Keiko to what I was up to), I quietly slid the door into place behind me. With no locks to speak of, I think it was the sound of me shifting the coffee table into a temporary barricade that sent the message through our communication hurdle.

The next morning proved a little awkward, but with a few shy nods and smiles, we enacted our farewells. As we went to hug, and then hesitate, and then to hug again, Keiko subtly slipped a note in my hand.

And what did the note say?

The ways of life in Koya-san are a mystery to many who visit. It is therefore fitting that the content of this note remains true to its origin. A mystery.

Check out the Solo Travel Guide to Japan

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