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Japan. No problem.

Many people in Hawaii have been to Japan many times, know their way around. This story is not for them.


(page 1 of 5)


Sunday on Takeshita Street in Harajuku, where
thousands of Japanese teens come to buy their outfits.

Photo: John Heckathorn

It’s for the rest of us for whom Japan seems very far away, the language difficult, the culture, customs, even much of the food unfamiliar.

It’s enough to make you nervous. What if you get stuck and can’t communicate? What would happen?

Here’s my story: It was my second morning in Japan, ever. I’d never been to Japan before, never to Asia.

That second day, I awoke to torrential rain. Unknown to me, a typhoon was brewing off the Japanese coast.

To complicate matters, I was in Hakone-en, a mountain resort off the usual track even for Japanese sightseers. I was there to see Mount Fuji, which I couldn’t, because of the rain and overcast skies. Despite the weather, Hakone-en had an austere beauty, with the rain dripping down the tall pines, the mountain a dark mass against the mist and out on Lake Ashi, a solitary fisherman in a small boat. Still, as I stood drinking a cup of green tea on the lanai of my hotel room, the rain, implausibly, grew heavier.

“Get out of here now,” I thought. I wasn’t scheduled to go back to Tokyo until that evening, but it seemed dumb to hang around. Hakone-en was no place to get stuck in a storm.

I’d arrived here in the first place by local bus from the train station in Odawara—an hour-and-a-half journey up the mountain past tiny towns, steaming hot springs, the occasional resort. There was a kiosk where the bus stopped, Hakone-en being, literally, the end of the line.

I hurried to buy a ticket on the first bus out. “No basu.” The old man at the bus kiosk spoke hardly any English, but I got it finally: The road back to Odawara—winding, impossibly narrow in spots—was closed. “No basu, no Odawara.”

No one could be less prepared to deal with this than I. My Japanese was limited to four phrases: good morning, excuse me, thank you and I like my sake cold. I’d hardly had time to even open a guidebook until I got on the plane.

That was the whole point of this experiment. I had a rough itinerary, hotel reservations, a rail pass for the bullet train. But by myself and armed with virtually no knowledge of Japan, I was supposed to find my way around by public transportation, not spend much money, discover how easy it was for a foreigner to navigate. “It’ll be no problem,” I was told.

Oh yeah, I thought, as the rain poured down in sheets, “No basu, no Odawara” sure sounds like a problem to me.

I was wrong. If you’re going to get stuck somewhere with a typhoon on the way, somewhere far off the beaten track, where you can’t speak the language, where you can hardly recognize the place names, your best bet is Japan.

Here’s what happened …

Stuck in Hakone-en, I longed to be back in Tokyo. My first night in Japan was spent in Akasaka, a quite cosmopolitan district of the city. At the Akasaka Prince Hotel, where I’d stayed, I’d felt well-taken care of. The staff would, as a matter of course, speak English to foreign guests. Just as you were about say, “Ohaio gozaimasu,” to a waiter at breakfast, he’d say, “Good morning, sir.”

The English-speaking concierge in Akasaka made it possible for me to get into this mess in the first place. She’d patiently given me written instructions on how to catch the subway to Tokyo Station, the bullet train to Odawara, the bus to Hakone-en.

That trip turned out to be no problem at all. Everything in Japanese train and subway stations is color-coded and numbered, with directional signs in both kanji and English every 10 feet.

I was a little slow and tentative, it was my first day. However, by the time I got from the subway to my seat on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, I was embarrassed that I’d been worried in the least.

On the Shinkansen, a recording would announce upcoming stops in Japanese. Then a woman’s voice would repeat the information in English. No problem.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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