Tokyo. Osaka. Nagoya. Four days of appointments and then each night I rush back to the hotel, gather my luggage, and get on the train to the next city. It’s sort of a drag but over the past couple years I have sometimes had a half hour or something between appointments to actually see a castle or the like.
What I like about Japan is how helpful everyone is or tries to be. If I ask for directions they really seem to want to help and are embarrassed when they don’t know the answer. Also, I just love the word for Yes and how it is something along the line of a karate shout: Hai! I placed my order at a fast food restaurant and after each item the attendant gave a very enthusiastic affirmative Hai like she was shouting to the kitchen a la Saturday Night Live with John Belushi: “CHEESEBURGAAAAH!” Only this was simply HAI!
Hai! From the gut. Like a juggler who just made a really impressive toss of a bowling ball high into the air.
I reserved my ticket for the afternoon train. The attendant bowed and slid the ticket across the counter. I read the train name aloud: “Kodama…” I paused at the number and looked up, and he sucked in air sharply, cocked his head to the side like a bird looking at the ground (the body language of embarrassment, “regret to inform you” sort of apologetic), and said, “Sorry.” Kodama 666. I just smiled, but he had made sure to apologize for booking me on the Bullet Train of the Beast.
Later I asked at the info desk where my train platform would be. I wanted to know how far I had to haul my 140 lbs. of rolling suitcases. The woman pointed on the map: the complete opposite side of the station. I chuckled and pretended to make a silly request: “Oh, I’d like to have that changed to THIS platform.” I pointed right next to where we were on the map. There was much sucking of air, her head bobbing in uncertain directions of neither yea or nay. I tried a bit to indicate that the comment was more of a Murphy’s Law moment. “It has to be THERE because I have a lot of luggage. If I didn’t have much to carry, it wouldn’t matter. But because of the load…” She stared at me with grave concern, the lingering tremors of the previous head bobbing continued. I knew she had no idea what I was talking about and she wanted to be able to answer my complaint if it was in fact a complaint I was making. “I’m joking.” “Aaaaaaaah, joking, yes.” And the tremendous release of air and the color returning to her face. American humor doesn’t always fly. I felt like grinning at her wildly and asking like The Joker, “WHY – SO – SERIOUS?”
And then at the end of the day in Osaka where I was staying in the train station hotel (Granvia Hotel), I decided to just take a taxi to the main intercity station rather than board the connecting rush hour train for one stop. I told the concierge and she allegedly called one. Never mind that there is a long row of taxis just outside the station. She said, “MM, sorry, five or ten minute.” OK, so I waited five and started to get nervous. I didn’t even know if the drive would actually take much longer than the train due to traffic. Approaching ten minutes, I decided I may as well take the train to be safe. I told the concierge and she was beside herself as I put on my backpack, slung the duffel around my neck and grabbed a roller suitcase in either hand and leaned forward for my Sisyphus on the Road routine. She was mortified. I said Don’t worry. No problem. Mondaiarimasen (or something like that) and off I went into the station. She ran alongside me at the same time bowing and bobbing at me in apology and practically begging to help. It was an impressive feat actually. “Please sir I can carry that.” (not likely!) So the man with the mountain of luggage waded through the growing rush hour crowd of a Japanese train station while a Japanese woman had to double step to keep up and do the bow while sidestepping as she did so. Ah Japan…