I studied Japanese in college fifty years ago, but never made it to Japan. My friend Judy, was living there now, and it was on my way to Australia. It was even in the same time zone as Australia, so I could get over my jet lag while I was there.
I replaced the Spanish I’d been studying on Duolingo with Japanese. I thought that it would teach me basic conversation probably using western alphabet. But no, it introduced katakana (the Japanese alphabet for foreign words) hiragana (the Japanese phonetic alphabet) and kanji (Chinese characters) all at once, without much explanation. My brain spun backwards and surprised me by knowing answers I thought I’d forgotten.
I remembered how to read the hiragana, but the rest seemed to escape me. I’d never really learned how to speak Japanese. My friend, Judy, who claimed she knew only five words spoke much better, plus she knew Japanese etiquette, which is the most important thing in Japan. She was my constant guide, showing me how to bow, how to walk, how to talk softly, and how to use the bidet toilets. She could navigate the trains and subways in the largest city in the world with her five Japanese phrases. Whenever we appeared lost, someone would come up to us and ask in polite English, “Can I help you?”
We always said, “Yes, please.” They got to practice their English, and we were saved from spending the entire day on trains. Judy always complimented them on their English, and they’d shake their heads, shyly claiming that no they didn’t speak that well. We’d say “Arigato Gozaimasu” thanking them for their help. If we were still lost the subway had people near the entrance who were also very willing to give us directions.
Although I was only in Japan for eight days I wanted to visit Kyoto. So we left for Tokyo station on a Sunday evening to catch the Shinkansen, a fast train to Kyoto. We were in the subway station of the largest city in the world. Judy said it was almost empty, but to me it was crowded:
Everything was clean, calm and orderly. Lots of people wore masks because of the coronavirus, just as a precaution. We found where to get the tickets, and stood in line, we just bought one-way tickets because they wanted to know the exact time we were going to board. For two hours we swished our way across Japan and it was totally dark when we arrived in Kyoto and tried to find our Airbnb. We were almost there, but we couldn’t find it and it was cold out, so we hired a Taxi. The Taxi driver was driving around in circles unable to find it but my friend saw the sign. It was well lit but way down a narrow alley. I followed the cryptic on my phone: first, find locker 304 put in the combination take out the key. Then the key had to be inserted into a keyhole not in the door but on the wall. We had two seconds to run through the sliding glass door. We got in the elevator and went up the third floor. The hall felt like a hall in Alice and Wonderland with tiny doors. Turning the key we opened the door to our perfect Japanese apartment Judy gave a virtual tour of it:
We made our beds and fell asleep, the next day we put on almost all of the clothes we had brought with because it was colder than we’d expected. Following the directions on the GPS we made our way to the train Station and found the 1,000 Torii Gates(Fushimi Inari Shrine). We joined the crowds and walked up through the gates seeking good fortune on the sacred mountain.
We stopped in a lovely restaurant on the way down from the mountain. Lots of young women were dressed in kimonos.
During lunch we read about Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, a shrine where the plum blossoms were in bloom. We decided to go there, since we were too early for cherry blossoms. It was going to close at 4:00 so we needed to get going. The GPS said it was an hour away by train and bus. We got on the train and did that part just fine, but we had trouble finding the bus. We asked the bus driver, and he said we had to wait for bus 55. We waited and waited. We saw a gaijin couple (foreign couple) standing there. They were visitors from Canada and they were going to the same Shrine. We waited together. It was very unusual for a Japanese bus to be late. Maybe it was because it was the emperor’s birthday. Finally the bus came. It was a crowded bus. This was my view on the bus:
Finally we got to the Shrine at 3:15 and hurried to the gate. It was worth the crowded ride and the wait to get there.