The Blind Leading the Blind

Ever have a nightmare about the risk of getting lost in a crowded place where no one speaks your language? For an idea of how it might feel, read this story from my first visit to Japan, in 1971.

Japan was the last stop on a roughly three-month trip back to the U.S. at the conclusion of my Peace Corps service in India. I left India in January and traveled through Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (mainly Bali), Portuguese Timor (now Timor-Leste – East Timor), Australia, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. By the time I reached Japan, it was early springtime, and the cherry blossoms were already in bloom. Except for certain hops that were more practical to make by airplane, I stuck to surface transportation – trains, buses and ships. In future posts I’ll return to a couple of these places – stay tuned for learning to ride a motorcycle in Nepal and motoring down the Sepik River.

The last stop before Japan had been Taiwan, and, since I was eager to see as much of Japan as possible, I flew not directly to Tokyo, but rather to Fukuoka, on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands and, therefore, the nearest to Taiwan. From there I traveled east and north by ferry and train to (among many other fascinating places) Hiroshima, Kobe and Kyoto, before heading, finally, to Tokyo.

The last leg of that overland journey was to be a relatively short, one-day hop from a resort town (whose name I can no longer recall) not far from Mt. Fuji and picturesque Lake Hakone, southwest of Tokyo. However, making that hop the way I’d traveled up to that point – with one-way train and bus tickets – was proving to be a challenge. Despite consulting several guidebooks, I couldn’t seem to find a way to visit several nearby points of interest en route to Tokyo. Virtually all the tour buses traveled circular routes, dropping people off in the evening at the morning’s starting point. Finally, though, I found a bus that would go to all the places I wanted, including Tokyo, and I arranged to be on it the next morning.

When I boarded the bus with all my baggage, including souvenirs I’d picked up all across Asia, I found that I was the only foreigner (gaijin) in a sea of Japanese tourists. (Yes! It’s not only Americans and other foreigners who want to see the sights in Japan. Millions of Japanese do too!) After having traveled three months alone in unfamiliar territory, I didn’t give my unique situation a second thought – until the bus got to its first scheduled stop, a temple.

In the parking lot, we were not the only bus. We were just one of 20 or 30, each with a full load of Japanese sightseers. I soon found that I was in the middle of spring break, and schoolchildren and families were traveling in droves. I panicked. Leaving the bus with the other passengers and walking toward the temple, I wondered how I would know by what time I had to return to the bus – and how to identify my bus among so many near look-alikes.

I also saw that I was at another disadvantage. As I looked around at the other buses, I saw the debarking passengers moving in groups, each led by a guide carrying a pole topped by a distinctive colored flag. My bus, it turned out, seemed to be the only one that lacked the godsend such a guide would have been to me.

Moreover, I’m embarrassed to admit, it seemed to this gaijin that not only the buses but also the people were rather look-alike! I looked around at the other passengers on my bus, trying to find a face or two that stood out in the crowd, so I could stick close to them. But it was hopeless. I was soon lost in a sea of gawking tourists from a gaggle of buses. I was on my own, wishing not only to see the temple but also, above all, to make it back to my bus – and my luggage – without being left behind.

Somehow I made it, and I studied the faces of my fellow passengers assiduously as we rolled on to the next point of interest. After two or three more such stops, all of which I managed to navigate successfully, we arrived at the biggest challenge of all – Lake Hakone.

The brochure (bilingual, thank goodness!) I’d picked up when I’d first boarded the bus showed that at the lake, we would temporarily leave the bus behind and board a boat that would take us to the foot of Mt. Komagatake, to whose summit we would ascend by cable car, then descend on the other side via funicular railway in order to meet our bus again – and my luggage! – at the bottom.

This, presumably, would be no particular trick for my Japanese busmates, but it looked pretty hairy to me. All the more so when I found, once aboard the boat, that the vessel was dedicated neither to our bus nor even to a route that would end at the foot of Mt. Komagatake. No, that would take the thrill out of the adventure, making it far too easy to know when and where to debark. Instead, this boat was plying a regular route around the lake, calling at numerous stops along the shore. The tiny map in the brochure seemed to indicate that the Mt. Komagatake cable car would be found at the sixth stop after our boarding point.

However, I wanted to make sure I was right. I searched the teeming crowd of passengers for a familiar face. And, lo and behold, I found one. “Eigo-o dekimaska?” (“Can you speak English?”), I asked, hoping desperately to have found someone who could speak my language. The man looked at me, puzzled, for a moment, then said – in perfect English – “Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.”

That’s the punch line.

Here’s the epilogue. It turned out the guy I’d spoken to was from Vietnam. A fellow passenger on my bus, he was as much at sea on this boat as I was. I told him I thought we needed to get off at the next stop. He thought it was two stops away. I trusted my instincts though, and held firm. He must have found a fellow gaijin who’d learned a bit of tourist Japanese a rock in an otherwise slippery landscape, so he followed me. We’d gotten off at the right place. We went up the mountain, enjoyed the view, went down the other side, found our bus – and I’m sitting here at my keyboard to tell the tale. Happy New Year!

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