Somewhere in between China and sailing across the Pacific, we made a five-day stop in Japan. It was rainy, and we had booked a room in Kyoto, so the first order of business was taking the train there from Kobe. Easier said than done—particularly if you’d just offloaded from a ship and didn’t have any Japanese yen on you. You see, it’s ridiculously hard to find banks that accept American bank cards, and no one told us that in advance.
I wandered the streets of Kobe aimlessly in the rain, bumping into handfuls of Semester at Sea students and staff here and there, as we each tried to take out currency, every one of us failing time and again. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m one who usually uses her credit card before ever carrying cash, but the catch is that none of the machines at the train stations would take U.S. cards either. A conundrum, truly.
Japan tip #1: Take out yen before you leave your home country, or else make straight for the post office if there’s one nearby. Once we figured out this little nugget of information—er, on day four—taking out cash was a breeze.
The next barrier we ran into was language. As native English speakers, we take it for granted that in most countries we visit, we can find someone who speaks our language if we’re in a bind. This proved difficult in Japan—something that shocked me, given how educated and progressive the country is. While I didn’t expect to find English speakers in China—and I was not wrong there—I only assumed everyone in Japan would be bilingual. (You know what assume does? Yeah, yeah, you know where this is going…it makes an ass out of you and me.)
The difference with China and Japan is that in Shanghai, non-English speakers who we approached in the streets for assistance would ignore us or walk away. In Japan, they didn’t care that they couldn’t communicate with you verbally; by God, they were going to help you at any expense. We had men gesticulating wildly to get their point across or draw us a map of where we were trying to go or even escort us there personally. The Japanese people are some of the kindest, most helpful and accommodating people I have met anywhere.
Japan tip #2: If you can’t find an English speaker to talk to directly, try gestures instead. You’d be surprised how far that can get you.
From Kyoto, we took the famous bullet train to Tokyo. We had been told by a handful of people that we didn’t need to book tickets in advance, as they depart so frequently. This was not our experience.
We arrived at the Kyoto train station at 10am on a Saturday morning and proceeded to the ticket office to book our seats. When I reached the front of the line, I found a cute little Japanese girl who didn’t speak English (again…this was a theme) but, boy, she was going to do her best. I asked for the next Shinkansen leaving the station, and she wrote 11:05 down before writing “TROUBLE” beside it, crossing it out with conviction, then rewriting 13:45 beside it. (Cute, right?) I asked for the next time and the time after that, and in each incident, there was “trouble” on the train; all seemed to be running two to three hours behind. Funny, I didn’t think the Japanese were ever tardy.
There were two or three open seats on earlier trains, but inevitably, they were all middle seats in the smoking car. There’s little I can tolerate less than smoke. We decided to hold out for one of the TROUBLE trains and booked our seats for
11:05 13:45. As it happened, we got to our track a little early, around 11:45, as the 9:45 train was just rolling in. The whole thing was empty—the Japanese are also extremely rule-abiding citizens, so they wouldn’t dare and use a ticket for a train time they hadn’t booked—and I asked the ticket collector if we could use our 13:45 tickets to take the earlier one; he just waved us on. From there, it was smooth—and fast, bone-rattling fast—sailing.
Japan tip #3: Don’t listen to your friends; you do want to book your bullet train seat in advance!
Then, we arrived in Tokyo, and the rest of the trip was a breeze. We stayed with my childhood best friend Tracy, a foreign service worker, and she and her boyfriend led us around the city blindly, ordering all of our meals for us and translating whenever we needed them to, which was often.
I have never had better food in my life on a consistent basis, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have a full Japanese spread at one restaurant, only to head to a ramen house after dinner for a noodle nightcap. As luck would have it, one of my San Francisco friends Miles happened to overlap with us in Tokyo for a couple days, so he shared a meal with us, too.
We also spent a glorious afternoon with Fidel—who lives on the U.S. Navy base nearby and whose darling girlfriend is native to Japan and tagged along to show us her country—and the pair took us all over the city by metro, to Shibuya, Harajuku and beyond, something I would have never attempted had we been flying solo.
Japan tip #4: Have local friends who speak the language. If you don’t already have friends in Japan, well, then by all means make some!
While the Tokyo portion of our trip went pretty swimmingly, to be honest, those first two days in Japan in all their frustrations were actually a welcome change from the rest of our voyage. In the more challenging countries to travel—India, Cambodia and Ghana, in particular—we’d been on Semester at Sea trips, meaning all details were organized for us and we weren’t necessarily challenged (which is what I wanted at the time…I was so tired by the time we’d get to port each time that the last thing I wanted was to have to figure out things on my own!). I felt like until Japan, we hadn’t really been pushed to our limits, while ironically going into the trip, Japan was the place I thought would be the easiest of our 14 ports (excluding Hawaii, of course). But travel is all about removing yourself from your comfort zone and realizing what you’re capable of when removed from all familiarity.
And yet sometimes, you just want what you know.