The coin passed straight through the chute and rattled in the coin catch. My laundry mission had hit a snag.
I was in a Japanese Laundromat where everything seemed to be unattended and entirely automatic. LED lights spiralled the doors of the washing machines, bringing to mind Las Vegas and slot machines. Large cartoonish instruction charts hung on the wall, with professional-looking English translations. Those translations still managed to omit important details like which buttons to actually push and when.
Thankfully, being able to read some Chinese characters is helpful in Japan, since they use a very similar character set. So a combination of sparse instructions, smatterings of Chinese, and little applied logic, I thought I had the basics down: it was 800 yen for a 40 min wash and dry cycle for a small-ish load. So it’d be about 8 USD, and I’d have our clothes washed.
I started putting money in. Standard vending machine protocol: put your money in, press what you want. I put in a one-hundred yen coin and it registered it.
Every coin thereafter, the machine rejected with a spiteful rattle. I tried a few more times. No dice.
Maybe I’m missing something. I pull out my iPhone and open the Google Translate app. The app’s near magical real-time translations of Japanese text had been a great bar trick. Maybe it can actually help me when I really need it.
I scan the machine, taking in its flashing lights and soft-press buttons. I see a button that looks like it might be useful. It’s white and bordered in red, and I can’t make head nor tail of it.
I train the camera on the text and watch the text go through its flickering permutations of English words, replacing the Japanese text no the screen
It finally lands on a translation.
“For those who do not need soft drugs please push first.”
I push the button.
The machine chattered happily in Japanese. I don’t know what it’s saying. I wonder if it’s congratulating me on an ascetic lifestyle, one free from dependence of soft drugs. Good on you. Gambate.
I waited for it to stop, then tried another coin. The coin shoots back out and rattles in the coin catch. No dice.
I suddenly felt lost and alone in a foreign laundromat.
I look around the beige-tiled room, scanning it’s various front-loaded laundry machines embedded in most of the walls. They all look like video games, with different color neon LEDs circling their front-loading doors. encircle the rim of the washing drums, chasing different colours in bright circles. At the front of the store, seated on a bench beside a wheeled carry case, there’s a middle aged man sat near a specialised sneaker washing machine.
A scene from my favourite anime flashed in my mind. The protagonists is almost dying, reaching out his hand and asking for help from a friend. I can almost remember the words he used… “help me, Asuka” I consider imitating the scene, reaching out my hand, and groaning in pain.
But I don’t want to be overly dramatic. I just want to wash some clothes.
He seems to sense my internal cry for help and comes over to help, saying something in Japanese. I tried to look as hapless as possible, and I show him what happens when I put more coins and he tries himself.
He then shoots off around the room, looking for something, muttering to himself. I was overjoyed that someone was taking action and so I copied him, walking around and looking at the walls. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I stopped.
Finally he points triumphantly at a phone number, emblazoned neatly on a sticker.
I pull out my phone, and immediately realise this won’t work. First, my data-only SIM card only lets me do internet things, not make phone calls. Second, anyone I call is unlikely to speak English.
I start explaining this to him in English, waving my hands but it’s clear it doesn’t translate, and then he pulled out his own phone, smiled and dialled the number.
I wanted to hug him.
Someone apparently picks up on the other end, because he starts chatting animatedly. I get the sense he’s explaining the situation. I have no idea what is going to happen and no idea what is being said. I imagine some sort of remote unlocking, a central control room where they can turn all the laundry machines in the country on and off at will. Or maybe a man on a scooter will arrive in thirty minutes, like a roadside assistance thing.
The conversation took quite some time. I marvelled at his patience and determination to help a stupid foreigner.
After sometime, he erupts in victory.
He leans forward and jabs a button with his finger, then he waves his hand, miming putting coins in the machine.
I put a coin in. It accepts it. I put another in. Also works.
A genuine smile of joy spreads across his face and mine.
You just had to press the button first, then add the coins.
We laugh together. Bonded by the trial of laundry.
I thank him with one of my few phrases of Japanese: “Arigato Gozaimasu”
This phrase is said all the time in japan, and somehow doesn’t convey how thankful and appreciative of all this effort I am. I want to tell him how really thankful I really am for his efforts, so I go off piste and start putting words together.
“Hontlou Hontou Arigato, hontou hontou.” Really really thank you, really really.
He smiles at my three year old’s japanese diction.
His machine beeps. His sneakers are clean. He takes them out of the rectangular red microwave-looking machine and puts them in a bag before walking out the laundromat. He steps out the door, then turns around, gives me a little wave and a bow. My heart expands and fills as I look at him and wonder if I’d do the same for a man who could only speak a smattering of English, who stood there shrugging and miming while I was just trying to wash my shoes. I hope so.
“Hontou Hontou Arigato Sayonara” I call as he leaves, and he chuckles and smiles.
Really really thank you bye.