Monday, July 22, 2013


Kyoto, Japan (Jun 3, 2012)

According to Mayli I don't have any sense of orientation. She may have a point, I do tend to get lost. When she took her job in Argonne (near Chicago, while I was still working in the Boston area), she got me a GPS unit to make sure I would find my way back home every day after work. After 12 years living in Boston I was indeed still getting lost all the time. If I am navigationally challenged in a place where I speak the language, you can imagine how it generally went in Japan, where I can barely read the syllabic alphabets (kana) and no more than the dozen most common ideograms (kanji). What I lack in natural skills, however, I supplement in technology (iPhone + international data plan + Google maps), so when Mayli proposed to take a bus to go from Tenru-ji to Daikaku-ji (another temple barely 2 km north), I proclaimed that buses are for wimps, and that we should hike. As so we hiked, on the 24 min Google maps route faithfully shown on my handset. Well, after one hour Daikaku-ji was nowhere in sight. We were on unpaved roads in the middle of rice paddies, as documented in the photo above (I still take pictures even when I am lost, for posterity). You know how at some point the Australian police was officially warning people against using the new Apple Maps application, due to the excessive number of tourists lead to perdition along inexistent roads in the middle of the outback? Well, this was Google maps, Japan is a little more densely populated than Australia and we never really left Kyoto. Still, we were lost!

In the end the temple was just behind the next bend in the road (Daikaku-ji is in the middle of rice paddies) and, as Mayli pointed out, we weren't really lost and I have the tendency of slightly dramatize my adventures. It was enough, though, to persuade me, after our temple visit, to get the bus on our way back to the Saga Arashiyama station. And that's where we did get utterly lost! Taking trains in Japan is easy, if you trust the timetable and follow the signs, usually in english. City buses are a different beast, as the sign are often in japanese only (with a lot more kanji I can deal with), and the drivers are the japanese equivalent of the Boston T (the subway) conductors: easily comprehensible provided that you speak their language (japanese and that obscure linguistic mystery that is the bostonian english, respectively). After getting on what we thought was the right bus we realized that we had no clue where the bus was actually going, and most importantly where the bus was supposed to stop! Despite the language barrier we decided to ask the driver. He apparently understood our request, but we certainly didn't understand his answer, which was, very much, in very fluent japanese. He was clearly trying to be helpful, but all was coming out of his mouth was unequivocally japanese, and way above our level. Well, I guess this is the same that happens when foreign tourists asks directions to italian bus drivers: despite the drivers efforts to help, the chances of getting a reply in english would be rather small. The only difference would be that the italian drivers would try to compensate by raising their voice, based on the common assumption that repeating a sentence loud enough can overcome any language barrier. Our japanese driver didn't raise his voice, but we still could not understand a thing of what he was saying.

Trusting that the bus driver had, despite all chances, really understood us, we decided for an all-or-nothing strategy: we would stand in front of the exit door just as the bus was approaching each stop, looking at the driver to see how he would react. At the first stop he almost jumped from his seat trying to stop us. At the second stop he kind of figured what was going on, and just said a loud "ie". At the third stop he only motioned us to stay in the bus, and so on for many, many stops on a much longer route than the one we did by walking. When finally the Saga Arashiyama station appeared behind the corner, the whole bus had by then realized the likely reason of our dance to and from the door, and all the passengers erupted together in a joyous "hai", clearly signaling that we had finally found our destination. We were saved! The Japanese people are the most helpful in the world!

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