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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 3 of 5)


Japan's biggest bargain is reserved for temporary visitors to Japan - rail passes, good
for unlimited travel on bullet trains like this one, and more.

Photo: John Heckathorn

However, like everywhere else in Japan except Hakone-en, it’s packed with people. Everyone else seems to know where they’re going.

As I stand looking for some clue as to how to proceed, a woman in a yellow blazer, perhaps the senior staffer in charge of disoriented foreigners, suddenly materializes at my elbow.

I want to go to Shinjuku, I say. Taking a chance, I show her my Japanese rail pass. I can’t use the rail pass for the train to Shinjuku, she says. What I really want to do is take the train to Odawara.

Odawara, while it may seem an exotic collection of syllables to you, is music to my ears. I’ve been there, I’m back on the map.

Better yet, the train to Odawara costs only Y300, less than $3. Briskly, she leads me to the ticket machine. I could probably manage this on my own. But just in case, she points to the slot where I put my coins, waving my hands away as I hesitate above the touch screen. She punches the screen instead, out comes a tiny cardboard ticket. Marching me to the stairs, she points to the right track, so I don’t foul things up by heading off in the wrong direction.

The local train is old and shabby compared to the bullet train, compared even to some Tokyo subways. There are no recorded station announcements in polite English.

A man in a pinstriped suit sits down next to me. I spell out the word ODAWARA in big block letters on a notebook page and show it to him. “Me, too,” he says. When we get to the station, the signs say Odawara in big blue letters. I feel like an idiot. A child could do this.

Changing my Shinkansen ticket is apparently no problem either, accomplished simply by pointing at an earlier train on the timetable. In a while, I’m rocketing back to Tokyo at 200 miles an hour.

 
Prayer tiles in many languages at the Meiji Shrine.

Photo: Floyd K. Takeuchi

At Tokyo Station, I am momentarily overwhelmed. More people than I’ve seen in one place in my life, Manhattan is nothing compared to this, the incessant noise, the bright lights bouncing off the white plastic ceiling. Among the other things I don’t know: This is the start of a three-day weekend, the trains are packed.

There’s an old man perched on the steps. I sit down, too, and just breathe, make a list of what to do next. I am learning to be patient, both with circumstances and with myself. After two tries, I find the right line for train reservations to Kyoto, where I will head in a couple of days.

Up on the streets, the storm is dropping some 30 inches of rain. Ignorance is bliss. Snug underground, I wander corridors, turn a corner: An entire shopping mall, filled with shops and restaurants. Among the dozens of choices is a restaurant where sushi rides by on a conveyor belt, so all you have to do is take what you want. There’s explicit signage about how much things cost. Sushi on a yellow plate is Y140, on a blue plate Y320 and so forth.

Everything’s clear and organized, even to a foreigner. I realize there’s also a conveyor for tea and teacups. You make your own tea with a hot water tap at your place.

As the plates pile up, the miniskirted girls next to me strike up a conversation, in English. I must go to Kyoto, they say, I agree. I give them a small bag of coffee from Hawaii. In return, they give me a package of startlingly green rice flour confections from Kyoto.

I get so wet in the half block between my subway station and the hotel that a bell girl runs and gets me a towel. There’s a TV in the lobby now, with a Japanese anchorwoman saying something I can’t understand, the graphic reads Typhoon 22. I watch a video of people on the streets, umbrellas blown inside out, pelted with driving rain.

How worried should I be? From my room, I Google up news of the storm in English. Oops, I got to Tokyo barely an hour before the Shinkansen stopped running.

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,March

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