h1>Three Minutes to the Inn
Nasu Shiobara, Japan
â€œTakshi onegai shimasuâ€, I sputtered into the lime green payphone. Iâ€™d learned a little of the language before my trip to Japan. â€œIâ€™d like a taxiâ€, I repeated in pseudo Japanese. It turns out Iâ€™d learned very little of the language: not enough to understand the dispatcherâ€™s reply. Iâ€™m sure it was something simple like, â€œWhere are you?â€, but he might as well have been reciting haiku.
I had never expected to be stranded in the hill town of Furumachi. The directions had been straight forward: bullet train from Tokyo to Nasu Shiobara station, bus to Furumachi, thenï¿½ This is where the trouble starts. It is a three-minute walk from the bus stop to Gensenkanâ€, the inn that would be my home for the next two nights. Three minutes.
The bus terminal was nice enough: a shady area for the bus to park, ticket office and convenience store. The town had the atmosphere of a popular weekend getaway destination for locals, and consisted of a few dozen old-fashioned shops and restaurants stretched along the two-lane highway.
Up until now, my trip had gone pretty much as planned. Five days earlier, I had flown into Narita airport with my Airman son, Jason, who had been home on leave. Now he was returning to work at Yokota Air Force Base near Tokyo. It was the perfect opportunity to tag along on my first visit to Japan.
At Narita, we had purchased seats on the express train to Tokyo. With the train already in the station, we handed our tickets to the platform man in his military-crisp gray uniform. Pointing a white-gloved finger in the direction of the train, he directed us to our car. We quickly wheeled our luggage aboard and had barely taken our seats when the train began to pull out of the underground station. But these werenâ€™t our seats. A Japanese couple approached. Using internationally approved body language, they glanced first at us, then at their tickets, repeating the process until the message was received. Looking carefully at our tickets for the first time, I was surprised to find a car and seat number printed on them. We shuffled off to our reserved seats three cars back.
After changing trains in Tokyo and continuing northwest another 28 miles, we arrived at the Yokota airbase. It seemed we had never left home. In many respects, this was a 1700-acre U.S. city. There were a few reminders that this was not America: cars drove on the â€œwrongâ€ side of the road. All the employees at the baseâ€™s Burger King were Japanese, and the ATM dispensed yen. Even Fussa, the suburb just beyond the gates, was more an American Little Tokyo than a full-fledged Japanese city. The townâ€™s stores and bars catered more to its foreign neighbors than the local citizenry.
After three days on base, we traveled by bullet train to the ancient city of Kyoto and then, by taxi from Kyoto station to our hotel. Japanese cabs are not the dirty, advertising-laden machines that prowl the streets of major U.S. cities. Typical of the genre, the small Mercedes Benz sedan was impeccable. Lacy white doilies covered the seat backs and complimented the surgically white gloves worn by our uniformed driver. The driver spoke some English, but still confident in my foreign language prowess, I gave him our destination in Japanese: â€œHoteru Nishiyama, kudasai.â€
Hotel Nishiyama is located in central Kyoto not far from City Hall. Here, a tightly knit web of narrow alleyways passes for streets. Kyotoâ€™s streets are mostly arranged in an orderly grid, but addresses follow no such pattern. After circling the same block a few times, our cab driver finally used his cell phone to call the hotel for directions. It was just around the corner.
While cars are plentiful, the primary means of wheeled transportation is the bicycle. Bikes are everywhere: stacked by the hundreds outside popular eateries, zipping at breakneck speeds along congested roadways, running down tourists on sidewalks. The popularity of bikes has led to an overly casual attitude among the cyclists. They pedal one-handed puffing cigarettes – another widespread Asian habit. Or they carry the largest packages. Strolling the crowded sidewalk paralleling the main artery of Kawaramachi Street, I absentmindedly made a quick U-turn into an oncoming two-wheeled red missile. The rider, a twenty-something young lady, quickly applied her brakes, dragging both feet flat on the ground, stopping inches short of a catastrophe. Smiling apologetically, she slipped by and continued on her way. Iâ€™m sure she was thinking â€œcrazy foreignerâ€, but her pleasant expression betrayed no such sentiment.
Aside from the Narita Express seating debacle, the Kyoto taxi circling episode, and the sidewalk cyclist affair, nothing much had gone wrong on this trip – until Furumachi. Ten yen doesnâ€™t buy much talk time and the phone soon went dead. Just as well, I thought. My limited vocabulary would never get me anywhere with the taxi company. I doubted theyâ€™d send a taxi this far into the woods anyway.
Then I had a bright idea: call the inn. Gensenkan is a traditional Japanese inn known as a ryokan. Excellent service is the hallmark of the ryokan. Surely they could help. Feeding a few more 10-yen coins into the cash-hungry phone, I soon heard a Japanese greeting of some sort. â€œEnglishâ€, I inquired hopefully. No English, just indecipherable Japanese gibberish. Phrase book in hand, I desperately scanned the pages for sentences that most closely described my predicament. â€œI have a reservationâ€, I stuttered in pathetic Japanese. â€œCan you get me a taxi?â€ (Iâ€™d given up on the taxi idea, but the book had nothing better to offer). More gibberish.
By now the young shop girl, standing within earshot, must have been laughing hysterically on the inside. Her face displayed nothing but compassion as she stepped outside and motioned for the phone. I happily handed it over. She spoke excitedly with the innkeeper probably sharing a joke at my expense. After a few minutes, she said softly in broken English, â€œThey send a …â€, and paused to gather the correct word. â€œKarumaâ€, I offered using the word I had learned for car. She smiled. â€œKarumaâ€, she confirmed. It turned out to be a silver van that pulled up ten minutes later, but car was close enough.
After twelve minutes of twisting mountain roads and a multitude of anonymous intersections, we arrived at Gensenkan. The travel agencyâ€™s three minutes must have referred to the amount of time they expected us to walk before realizing we were hopelessly lost. Even with precise directions, it would have taken over an hour on foot.
The next two days were disaster free. We came to rely on Mr. K., the only English speaker at Gensenkan. Mr. K., whose correct name we never fully understood, translated a Japanese-only trail map, and advised us to hike along the nearby Akagawa River which he had highlighted on the map.
Jason wanted a nap, so I set out on my own. Mr. K.â€™s directions were perfect and I soon arrived at a narrow wooden suspension bridge spanning the river. I watched three men in tan coveralls and white hardhats cross the bridge. They made an odd tinkling sound as they walked.
The Akagawa trail follows the river through dense green forest punctuated by small streams and mossy waterfalls. After about half-an-hour on the trail, I came to a large sign in Japanese, of course, with several colorful illustrations: a single sleigh bell next to a blaring radio; two types of trash, each with a large red X through it; a blue-shirted backpacker jumping and waving his hands; and below that, the same backpacker crouching in a shallow depression with his hands clasped around his neck. Now the tinkling sound of the three workmen made sense: this was bear country. Their unseen bells served warning of their approach to any nearby ursine inhabitant. Bell-less, I whistled the rest of the way.
On my way back to the trailhead, I heard a sharp, heavy thump a few feet to my left. Investigating, I found a bright green, round seed pod a little smaller than a baseball lying in the dirt. Surrounding a honeycombed central core, its entire circumference was studded with sharp, slender needles about a half-inch long. Looking up thirty feet or so into the forest canopy, the trees were full of these spiky seed bombs. From that height, getting beaned by one of these things could be disastrous. That explains the hardhats. The workers had the inside scoop on the trailâ€™s dangers. I wondered why there wasnâ€™t a sign at the beginning of the trail in a dozen different languages: â€œWarning! Seed bombs and bears!â€ I picked up the pace a bit.
After Gensenkan, I spent four more uneventful days in Japan. I mastered the train system, grew accustomed to crowds, and explored Tokyo after dark where I felt safer than I would in my own hometown. Not a seed bomb in sight.
Alan L. Haynes is a photographer and writer based in San Diego, California. His website is www.alanhaynes.com.