“Japan,” someone told me, a few days before I left, “can be an acquired taste.”

Well yes.

Sensory overload, to put it mildly. I do not speak Japanese (well, other than a mangled arigatou gozaimasu and the occasional konnichiwa, which, while rendering me unfailingly polite, somewhat severely limits my normally sparkling conversational skills), so I found myself suddenly, virtually illiterate upon my arrival in Fukuoka, some 550 mile southwest of Tokyo on the island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is the eighth largest city in Japan (metro population 2.5 million, which makes it roughly the size of Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.).  Perhaps as a result, the city is not really focused on the tourist trade, so helpful non-Japanese signage and speakers were not in the abundance they might be in Tokyo, for instance.  (Although the Convention and Visitors Bureau says Fukuoka is second only to Tokyo for convention business in Japan, so what do I know?) Still, the city was clean and attractive, and literally everyone I came into contact with was warmly polite and pleasantly patient with my hopelessly incompetent efforts to navigate my way around. Local residents happily participated in various spontaneous acts of international street mime (it’s astonishing how much information about local-versus-express trains can be communicated without words) and responded in a friendly and helpful way to my mute map-pointing and no doubt hysterically amusing pronunciations of place names.

The dominant language at my work-related functions was technically English. I say “technically” only because the subject matter was well outside my scope of comprehension—I was there in a staff capacity to support one of our sponsored techical conferences, not as a subject matter expert. The presenters, while obviously brilliant and eloquent, were talking about the theory, design and application of computer networks and distributed computing and information systems, referring to PowerPoint slides that that might as well have been in Kanji (and occasionally were) for all they made any sense to me.

Keynote Presentation with PowerPoint slide

Prof. Shoichi Noguchi presenting the Day 1 Keynote, "The Design Principle of the Robust Information and Communication System under the Great Natural Disaster" at AINA 2012, Fukuoka, Japan

But the conference was well-attended and smoothly-run; the banquets and dinners were delightful and collegial; the organizers and participants cordial and very interesting to talk with. I was able to do some operational good, solve a problem or two, hear some important concerns raised, and generally managed to not get in anyone’s way or unduly embarass myself, so I’d call it a rousing success.

But sensory overload, to say the least. I was very much a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by signs and announcements and graphics and flashing neon things and television broadcasts that made very little sense to my parochial mind. Where signage was in English, it was often in very random English, seemingly selected for how the words looked more than what their normally-intended meaning was. (The same presumably goes, perhaps, for all those Kanji tattoos that are so popular amongst the denizens of Southern California; oh sure the tattoo artist says 愚か means Luck and Prosperity, but you can’t run your bicep through Babelfish once it’s inked.)

I don’t like being illiterate. I really, really don’t. I’m not illiterate when I’m at home. It makes me nervous. I’m not xenophobic, but I am all about words, all about the ongoing narrating of my life that goes on somewhere in the back of my brain, so I suppose I’m naturally illiteracy-phobic. For a guy who loves photography, I’m still all about the words (those of you who bravely plow through these blogs know that by now).  If I’m all about words for the most part, then I’m pretty lost without them. In Europe and South America I may not speak the language but I at least recognize the letters as words, and the convenience of common Latin and Nordic and Romance roots makes the experience a little less like being on another planet. Combine the linguistic illiteracy with an accompanying cultural illiteracy (the book I read about Japanese history prior to my trip proved to be little help at all when, at dinner one evening, I was served a still-very-much-alive squid, its tentacles waving about as chopsticks descended) and I was very much adrift.

Like any other business trip, though, I made sure to make some time for me and the Nikon to wander about. And Fukuoka, while not necessarily a tourist magnet, has a lot of remarkable treats to offer the wandering photographer. And pictures, as we know, can be worth more than words—a comfort to the struggling foreign illiterate.

I also found that it helps, when feeling overwhelmed by a culture and language well beyond one’s comfort level, to go small. That’s often my tendency in photography, anyway: Look for patterns in the details, for pieces of the whole that make sense on their own, and focus on that. Vast landscapes, wide-angle street scenes—those don’t tend to be my interest or, particularly, my forté. Focusing more on the small stuff helped me feel more comfortable in a very large and confusing place. Looking for pattern and detail helped isolate the cacophony of image and sound around me, and eased me more gently into my environment.

Roof beams, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Door to Buddhist Cemetery in Fukuoka, Japan.

Incense sticks in a large bronze urn, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Green demon-mask at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

Conveniently, it was the beginning of cherry blossom time in Fukuoka, which provided the opportunity for different details. (Even more conveniently for the detail-minded, it was not yet full-blown cherry blossom time, so there were no breathtaking vistas of low-hanging pink and aromatic floral clouds lining park paths and creating landscape temptations.)

Cherry blossoms in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

Of course, that’s not to say that some things weren’t well worth the risk of standing back and taking in the whole picture. Sometimes, I suppose, one has to take a deep breath and be very brave and look beyond the micro to face the big, scary world outside the details. There’s a lot to be seen in bits and parts and pieces, in the close-in and carefully-framed; it would seem, though, that there’s also something to be said for sometimes standing up and taking a good look around.

Setting up a Shinto wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka, Japan

Orange pagoda tower at Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Samurai warriors in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan