We have many tales to tell of the random kindnesses of strangers – most notably that of a handsome young couple in Osaka who drove us from the train station to our hotel after witnessing our struggle to schlep a suitcase filled with ironware and LPs acquired in Tokyo. And there was the time when we had restaurant reservations that had been made for us by Megumi’s family. We confidently walked into the restaurant down of a flight of stairs below street level, as we were told to. All signage was in Japanese, and there was no English menu, and the servers spoke not a lick of English. We attempted to communicate to our charmingly helpful waiter in sign-language that he should feed us whatever he thought was good. The group at the table next to ours realized what was happening; although they also spoke little English, they summoned the waiter and took over designing and ordering our dinner, checking with us as each new dish arrived to make sure it was to our liking. It was a wonderful meal, and we enjoyed it very much. It was also the wrong restaurant; our reservations were for the gaijin-friendly place with a bilingual staff and menu next door.
Tokyo is an enormous city that it difficult to manage until you get used to the train/subway system. Even then, don’t even try to negotiate Tokyo or Yokohama stations at rush hour! Tokyo has the exhilarating energy of NYC but with a crazy-quilt of streets and a heterogeneous assortment of neighborhoods, instead of the more-or-less predictable gridwork of Manhattan. Supposedly the streets and many neighborhoods have not changed for centuries, despite multiple levelings of the city by fire and by war. Addresses are problematic, even for experienced taxi drivers. The only thing that works in a Tokyo taxi is a map…in Japanese.
Kyoto, in comparison, can be managed with a simple map and rudimentary knowledge of the subway system. It is an utterly charming city, as everyone knows by now.
I prepared for the trip by immersing myself in books —six altogether — written by outlanders about their experiences in Japan, ranging from delightful anthologies (Japan: Stories from the Inside -- Gregory) to one by an Oregonian who improbably taught himself to read Japanese in a couple of years, and then spent a month eating in different Tokyo neighborhood restaurants as research for his book – not a very likely scenario, especially after we had spent nearly that long and ate nearly as many meals there as he. Nevertheless, Pretty Good Number One (Amster-Burton) was the most useful book in helping us negotiate the restaurant scenes (remember – I spent 7 years there as a child and this was the 4th trip back in the past 20 years, and I was still frequently baffled).