Japan. No problem.
Many people in Hawaii have been to Japan many times, know their way around. This story is not for them.
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.
At Odawara, I was concerned how I would find the buses at the East Exit. But the signs said, in English, East Exit. Even at the bus station, hardly a normal tourist route, a woman dispatcher took pains to get me on the right bus with the proper ticket.
Getting to Hakone-en had been a launch into the unknown—but apparently an entirely safe one. It would have been easy to retrace my steps. But with the road to Odawara closed in the storm, that was no longer an option.
There was no helpful concierge with perfect English in Hakone-en. I did my best to communicate my dilemma to the desk staff, politely and calmly as I could manage.
No, I couldn’t get to Odawara by taxi. I must have seemed retarded to them. The road was closed, period. No one knew when it would reopen. The clerks conferred among themselves, a clutch of black suits. Finally, one of them got stuck with the job of helping me.
After some back and forth, a lot of writing things down, I understood that there was a better road, to a place called Yumoto. It wasn’t on my map.
From Yumoto, the clerk patiently communicated, I could catch not the bullet train I wanted, but “different train.” That train didn’t go to Tokyo Station, but to Shinjuku.
OK, I thought, Shinjuku’s a district of Tokyo. From there, with a subway map, I can probably puzzle my way back to Akasaka.
Everyone in Japan is scrupulous about explaining what things cost. A taxi to Yumoto, apparently a long way, would run at least $60, said the clerk. In addition, I would probably have to pay for the ticket to Shinjuku. Damn, the bus would only have been $12 and the bullet train was already paid for.
However, considering the alternatives, would you please call me a taxi to Yumoto?
Not possible. But if I checked out and hung around in the lobby, a taxi might arrive with “check-in guest.” Really, I thought, who would be that crazy? The clerk gestured toward the lobby couches and said, “Wait.”
Yes, that I could manage.
Half-an-hour later, a little black taxi finally pulled up with an arrival. I told the bellman where I wanted to go, he blinked. Oops. I handed him my little slip of paper instead. OK, we’re off.
Oh Lord, this is the “good road?” It’s in good repair, but it has switchbacks so hairy that there are diagonal red slashes painted on the asphalt to slow drivers so they don’t go hurtling off the mountain.
Japanese taxi drivers, who even in Hakone-en wear blue uniforms, blue caps, white gloves, are usually taciturn. Mine, a grizzled old soul, is humming and chuckling to himself. When we get there, 40 minutes of winding road later, I pay him the $50 on the meter, less than I was warned, but Japanese taxis are on the up and up. As I get out, he’s warm and friendly, happy that he’s gotten me to the station. He points it out to me several times, despite the fact it’s right on the other side of the road.
I used to drive a cab. It dawns on me that he expected to deadhead back to the station without a fare. Since he’s had a fare both ways, he’s made $100 by 9:30 in the morning. He’s having a good day.
As Japanese train stations go, the little yellow-painted station at Yumoto is not much. Many of the Tokyo stations have hotels and department stores and underground passages that go as deep as 200 feet below sea level. Yumoto Station is all above ground, perched on the side of the mountain. On its two tracks, I can see small yellow trains.
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.
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.
It must be some storm. The trains run on time here. Even the subway has a schedule.
The rain stops beating on the windows of my 35th floor room, with its panoramic view of the Akasaka skyline. The wind howls. The building, designed to flex, creaks a little. I take refuge downstairs. Here, everyone seems entirely calm. The concierge does suggest that while I am, of course, allowed to go out, the hotel prefers I stay indoors. In the lobby bar, I pass the time over the world’s most elaborate $10 cup of coffee, in a porcelain cup with a silver spoon, little cookies on the side.
The typhoon obligingly veers out to sea. There’s been heavy rain over most of the area, some real damage south of Tokyo. In Akasaka, it’s actually nice out. All I’ve had to eat are two cookies and the package of green yatsuhatchi—the bell girl told me the name—given to me by the girls in the train station.
Here’s the happy ending: The first night in Akasaka, I’d found a little restaurant on one of the narrow streets not far from the hotel. A little shoebox of a place, full of Japanese businessmen eating, drinking, smoking, chattering, laughing.
Now, you could eat at Anna Miller’s not far from here, yes, the same one that’s at Pearlridge. Same menu, too: You could have a cheeseburger and apple pie. In fact, you could exist in Japanese cities on American food, especially American fast food, if you wanted. But why would you want to?
The Japanese are as fussy about their food as the French. They will not serve you anything that isn’t fresh and good to eat, even if you’re shaky on what it is. (In fact, the best preparation for a trip to Japan isn’t a Japanese phrase book; it’s trying as many different Japanese dishes as possible.)
People think eating in Japan is pricey. It can be. In the same way that New York is pricey if you eat at Alain Ducasse, or Chicago if you go to Charlie Trotter’s. However, you can tell a high-end restaurant from a reasonable one at home; you can do the same thing in Tokyo.
The little place I’d found was far from fancy. In fact, it had a display of plastic food outside and signs indicating that every item cost Y300, less than $3.
I’d tell you the name of place. Unfortunately, the only part of the sign I could read was the big red Y300. It’s on Misujidori Street, no sign there either, but I could find it because at its intersection with Aoyamadori, there’s a Kinko’s and a Starbucks.
After the storm and the escape from Hakone-en, the little restaurant felt like a refuge. On the way through the door, I deferred to an older Japanese businessman. Tokyo is so crowded, being as polite as possible is the only way to cope. We sat down next to each other and began to talk, in English.
His name was Haruhiko Utsumi (“Call me Harry”). He came to this place every night after work (he works hard, it was after 8 p.m. on a Saturday). “I come to eat and DRINK SAKE!” he said. That we proceeded to do, for hours.
Haruhiko’s English was less than conversational, but it was a thousand times better than my Japanese. We talked about our families, about Hawaii where he’d honeymooned more than 20 years before (“Ah, Princess Kaiulani,” he recalled). We discussed baseball, American movies, his trip to New York, his desire to go back and take flowers to Ground Zero.
We ate yakitori, the best I’ve ever had, four different preparations of chicken on skewers. We ate some raw tuna, and then something Haruhiko ordered that was deep-fried on a stick, that night’s special. He had me dip it in katsu sauce. Didn’t know what it was, but it was good.
Each time we ordered another glass of sake, the 20-something waiter in a T-shirt would fill our glasses so full the sake would overflow onto the saucers beneath.
Finally, Haruhiko jumped up to catch the last train home. When I got my check, I’d only managed to spend Y1300, a little more than $12. I’m guessing Haruhiko bought most of the sake.
I staggered a little on the way to my hotel. It was the accumulated fatigue of the day, I assured myself, not my attempt to match a Japanese businessman glass for glass. But here’s the magical thing: I felt right at home in Tokyo. After being in Japan all of 48 hours.
After that, traveling in Japan was a piece of cake. Without much trouble and for a few dollars, you can subway all around Tokyo. To the ancient and beautiful Meiji Shrine, a complex of wooden buildings surrounded by trees, where you see Japanese wedding parties, the bride, groom and priest in traditional dress.
For contrast, you can subway to Roppongi Hills, the brand-new and quite stunning glass and steel complex of shops, apartments, hotels, office buildings, theatres and restaurants, so big even the Japanese would stand studying the maps to find their way around. The maps, of course, were also marked in English.
You can walk along the Ginza, its vast video billboards, glittering department stores and luxury shops—Bulgari, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton—which just sort of ooze affluence. The crowds are startlingly well-dressed; there’s the occasional black limo pulled up against the curb.
And you might also walk the entertainment district of Shinjuku, where the definition of entertainment is pretty broad. Among the theatres and nightclubs and crowds of young people huddled on the street, smoking and playing with their cell phones, there are unabashed sex shops and little hotels that rent rooms by the hour or two, “For Rest,” with giggling young couples disappearing up the stairs.
Or to Harajuku on a Sunday, where thousands of teenagers throng down narrow Takeshita Street. From the shops there, they assemble their astounding variety of dress—from American jeans and T-shirts to a look I came to think of as “Little Bo Peep Gone Bad.” Girls would wear little petticoat dresses and matching caps, sometimes with fishnet stockings and high boots.
There’s more, of course. Tokyo is a city of 12 million, the first 21st-century city; it’s hard to even scratch the surface. I hated to leave, but I also wished to see Kyoto. Kyoto’s smaller, only 1.4 million people, and it’s more spread out than Tokyo. Full of ancient temples and cultural sights, it’s the kind of place the Japanese themselves travel to see.
I had barely more than 24 hours to see a city that is worth at least a week’s visit.
Since the Kyoto Prince Hotel was obliging enough to collect my bag at the train station, I went straight from the station by bus to one of the city’s main attractions, the Silver Pavilion. Guided to the right bus stop by a pair of young women from Nagoya, I trudged up the hill to the temple, regretting the coat that had seemed necessary that morning in Tokyo.
The street was filled with people, both ascending and descending, and was lined with souvenir shops and places selling soft-whip ice cream in green tea and vanilla flavors. Among the other things I didn’t know: It was Health Sports Day, a national holiday.
I braved the crowds and, that day and the next, saw the major temples: the Silver Pavilion, the even more stunning Golden Pavilion, two stories of which are actually covered with gold, and the famous Zen garden at Ryoanji. These are national treasures—religious, cultural and historical places. The Japanese visit them like Americans might visit the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.
However, the best moment came my first afternoon. To be honest, I was by that time hot and tired. I’d walked down the Philosopher’s Walk, a lane without cars along a stream, made famous by a Japanese sage who walked there every day.
That day, it was not conducive to deep thought. It was crowded with pedestrians, lined with souvenir shops, tea rooms and rickshaw drivers who offered short rides and pictures, a deliberate archaism like the horse-drawn carriage rides available to tourists in American cities. My only philosophical reflection was that tourists were tourists, the world over.
From Philosopher’s Walk, I negotiated a tangle of streets, thinking maybe I better knock off for the day. Then I stumbled upon Nanzenji, a once important Zen temple, and still a functioning temple complex. It was vast, lined with trees, cooler and far less crowded than anywhere I’d been in days.
There was a massive wooden emperor’s gate, perhaps 30 feet high, up on a stone platform. There, a few people bowed in reverence. But there was also a holiday spirit: Small children ran playing, young couples took each other’s pictures with their cell phones, a pair of women ate some packaged noodles, a few people seemed lost in contemplation or fatigue.
I wandered past the ancient brick aqueduct, a beautiful structure that seemed to blend in with the trees, and found the historic hojo, or abbot’s residence.
There, I took off my shoes, dropped off my superfluous coat and carry bag in a coin locker, and paid the nominal fee to enter. It was quiet. You walked along a dark corridor, and then suddenly found yourself on a narrow wooden porch, fronting a rock garden.
It’s not a large garden compared to its more famous cousin at Ryoanji. There’s a bed of gravel carefully raked in arcs and circles, a few strategically placed rocks and boulders, a handful of trees and shrubs and, above it, as a kind of borrowed scenery, the trees of the mountain that rises behind the wall.
The rocks of the garden are said by some to represent young tigers crossing a stream. I was unable to visualize that. But the rocks seemed to have a strange dynamism. They seem to move or at least quiver with suppressed life.
It was hushed here, a few people sat quietly. A gong resonated in the distance. It would take hours to deconstruct the cultural significance of this place, which is surrounded by rooms full of remarkable, historically and artistically significant paintings on shoji screens.
But too many words are not necessary. You can simply sit and feel the powerful aesthetic at work. A refined artwork like a Zen garden is, after all, meant to be experienced, not merely explained.
Nanzenji, as much as the narrow, crowded streets of Akasaka where I met Haruhiko, seemed like the place I came to Japan to see.
I stayed for hours, and then reluctantly tried to find my way to a subway station that my map showed was somewhere in the area. A young man hopped off a bicycle, said he was going home, but he would lead me there. No problem.
Getting to Japan:
There are six airlines who fly daily, or at least, weekly from Honolulu to Japan. All Nippon Airway’s (ANA) daily flight was the most comfortable airplane I’d been on in decades, reminding me of the way U.S. airlines used to be in the early ’60s. The seats, especially in business class, were spacious and comfortable. There was actual service. The flight attendants even gave little kids wings to pin on their shirts. The food was not just good for airline food; it was actually good, especially the Japanese meals. ANA offers some economy roundtrips as low as $540. (800) 235-9262, www.anaskyweb.com/us/e/
JR, the Japan Rail Group, has a train which leaves directly from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station. Of course, that means getting on and off a train with your luggage, then taking a taxi or subway to your hotel. Easier is AirportLimousine, which, for about $30, will take you to the door of most major hotels, www.limousinebus.co.jp/e/
Japan’s biggest bargain is reserved for temporary visitors to Japan. You can buy one-, two- or three-week passes good for unlimited travel on most trains, including bullet trains, and some buses and ferries. You must buy the pass before you go to Japan. You get a voucher here, exchange it for the pass at many JR stations, including the one in Narita Airport. Vouchers can be purchased from JTB Hawaii, 715 S. King St., 548-2001. For information: japanrailpass.net
In Japan, as a little nod toward home, I stayed at Prince Hotels—which in the Islands own the Hawaii, Maui and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotels and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. For information: www.princehotelsjapan.com
I cannot say enough about the Akasaka Prince in Tokyo, a stunning, 40-story, crescent-shaped hotel rising above one of Tokyo’s most enjoyable districts. The rooms are larger than those in many American business hotels and all enjoy a wall of plate glass windows overlooking the city. This is an excellent first stop for someone unfamiliar with Japan. The English-speaking staff will help you find your way anywhere.
The Hakone Prince offers an onsen, an open-air natural hot spring, and in good weather, a view of Mt. Fuji. The Kyoto Prince sits north of city, at the end of the subway line, next to an international conference center. It offers all sorts of services, including a welcome desk in the Kyoto train station. The hotel will transport your luggage between the station and hotel.
All of these Prince Hotels offer package deals that include an abundant Japanese and American breakfast buffet.
Akasaka Prince Hotel
1-2, Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8585
Hakone Prince Hotel
144 Moto-hakone Hakone-machi Ashigarashimo-gun,
Kanagawa Japan 250-0592
Kyoto Takaragaike Prince Hotel
Takaragaike Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 606-8505