Traveling solo in rural Japan

I had a really nice experience at the hotel I stayed at in Nozawa Onsen. In spite of the fact that the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever, she was really friendly, and at one point even called her son on the phone to explain something to me in English. Still, the language barrier did allow for some confusing moments.

What the son was called to explain to me was that they would be canceling a cab they had booked me for to go to the train station the following day for day tour to the snow monkey park. Although I really wanted to go there and had every intention of doing so, the tour was too late in the day and would make me miss my bus back to Tokyo. But the really confusing part is why they had booked me a cab to begin with. I had never spoken to a soul here – least of all about going to the monkey park or any other plans for my day on Monday. Why would they just randomly sign me up for a tour without knowing my schedule? My skimpy Japanese skills could not get me an answer to that one.

Then I tried to reserve breakfast for the next day. The website stated you needed to reserve a day prior. I’m pretty sure I used the right word for breakfast and I’m pretty sure I was told no. What I don’t know is why. Were they out of food? Was there a reservation cut off time? Did she think I was asking about general breakfast availability rather than requesting a reservation? Who knows? I decided I would find a coffee shop and survive.

Then, I came home after the fire festival just a few minutes before the 11pm curfew, or closing time. I had learned earlier that the shared bath was available from 5pm to 10pm only, but since eating dinner and seeing the fire festival were my major priorities, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not get to take a shower. Oh well, I had on so many layers of clothes there’s no way anyone would ever smell me. But as I was getting ready for bed in my room around 11:30, the phone rang. The front desk was calling to tell me I could take a shower. “It’s closed” I said in Japanese. “It’s ok. Dozo” – (please) she said. Humph. I don’t know how they knew I was up, first of all. And second, I’m not sure why I was extended this courtesy. Did they say “oh, the dirty foreigner hasn’t bathed! Call her and make her do it at once!” Or, did they say to themselves – “oh, the poor girl missed the shower time bc the festival ran so late. Let’s let her go ahead and use it.” I also have no idea how they knew that I, specifically, had not bathed but I guess it is a rather small hotel. I was intrigued to find a handwritten “vacant/occupied” flip sign hung over the door that wasn’t there before. Did they think that I, or perhaps other western guests would skip bathing rather than be naked amongst strangers?

Upon returning my key the next morning, the older lady who had checked me in beamed at me and offered me coffee. I accepted, and was presented with a delicious apple as well – perfectly peeled, cored and quartered, and served on a plate with a toothpick so as to keep my fingers clean. I found this especially surprising since i was not allowed to BUY breakfast just the night before. We had a short conversation as I put my shoes on, whereupon I was able to find out how many words from Japanese class I had remembered and which ones I’ve forgotten. Also, my pronunciation needs work. I tried to say a gracious phrase from my Lonely Planet phrase book, but had to show her the Japanese in the book before she understood me. But then she was really pleased and said something I didn’t understand except for the borrowed English word “friendo”. Overall, I found all of the Japanese people I encountered to be this warm and friendly everywhere I went on this trip.

When traveling in Japan, even if you’re pretty certain of where you are going, I highly recommend using whatever few words of Japanese you know to ask someone. Throughout my journey through rural areas in Nagano, ordinary bystanders went out of their way to make sure I was taken care of. A woman at the Nozawa Onsen station came over to alert me to the arrival of the bus I needed, and took it upon herself to tell the driver where to let me off. I hadn’t asked her for any help – she had simply been standing next to the ticket man when I asked him if I was at the right stop. At the next small village station, two ladies helped me find the next bus I needed after they overheard me asking the station agent. Upon arriving at the next station (there were FIVE transfers in this trip!) I double checked the name of my next destination with the driver. He then asked another driver who walked me all the way inside the train station and upstairs to the second floor, marched me over to the gate agent, and explained to her where I was going. She then helped me personally through the whole ticket buying process. Some of these people knew a fair amount of English, some knew almost none, but all were more than happy to shepherd me around more like they would a friend rather than a stranger.


2 responses to “Traveling solo in rural Japan

  1. My own personal experiences have led me to conclude that Japanese hospitality is in a league of its own 😀 That being said a friend of mine did explain to me that most Japanese people expect kindness to be reciprocated with kindness (however bad you might believe you are at speaking Japanese doesn’t matter one bit because it will make them happy beyond words to hear you speak their language). Best of luck on your travels! 😀

    • Thanks Jenny! You are so right! I took another trip last weekend and met even nicer people – if that is even possible. It is astounding how far people here will go out of their way to help a stranger.

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