Several months ago Embry suggested that instead of traveling on our own like we did in 2015 on our trip-around-the-world-without flying or our 2016 road trip out West and back in 2016, we should do an easy, on-the-bus tour with a group. She had identified a good one, a Roads Scholar tour of Japan. We would be part of a group of seniors our age, which would virtually guarantee a pleasant, low stress trip. It sounded like a good idea to me as I envisioned a bunch of gray and white haired people some with canes and walkers. Even with my bum knee I would surely stand out as a paragon of physical fitness.
This is a story of how this trip began and what it was like.
The first leg of the journey—a flight to San Francisco (where we would spend four days staying with old friends) got off to a shaky start and was a reminder why we elected to avoid airplanes when making our around-the-world journey in 2015. Arriving at 8:30 AM at Dulles Airport in plenty of time to check in at Virgin America Airlines (the cheapest ticket Embry could find), we were informed that our flight had been cancelled. When Embry complained that we had not been notified in advance, the attendant, a 40-something man with a scowl, mumbled that it had just been cancelled a couple of minutes ago for reasons unknown. He said he could rebook us on a Virgin America Flight from Reagan National Airport leaving at 6:00 PM and arriving at San Francisco at midnight.
Not acceptable, we replied.
What transpired over the next two hours was a seemingly futile effort to rebook on another airline. The scowling Virgin America guy informed us that it was Travelosity’s responsibility since Embry purchased the tickets from their website. The encounter with Virgin America ended with the attendant snarling, “Don’t raise your voice at me, Lady!” We gave up and retreated to the quietest corner we could find to begin the ordeal with Travelosity. I checked the time. It was 9:05. At 10:30 she was still on the phone.
The phone call between Embry and Virgin started like this from Embry’s end:
“No, leaving from National Airport at six and arriving in San Francisco at midnight will not work. We already told Virgin America that.
What do you mean that is the only option and take it or leave it?
No, it is not our responsibility, it is yours. You sold us the tickets.”
This dialogue continued for about 30 minutes with no apparent progress. When Embry realized her cell phone was running out of power, we rushed to find a electrical outlet for the charger. I spotted an outlet near a line of unused wheel chairs. I rolled two wheelchairs over to the electrical outlet so we could sit down and continue the ordeal. Embry directed me to try to find some coffee and something to eat, which I did, returning a half hour later with two cups of coffee and two banana nut muffins. By this time Embry was on her second supervisor, but her tone was less exasperated. Miraculously Travelosity had been able to book us on a noon American flight from Dulles with a change of airplanes in Charlotte. We breathed a sigh of relief.
We immediately rushed over to the American Airline counter and after waiting in line for a few minutes, began the procedure of getting our boarding passes.
After spending several minutes on her computer, a mid 30s, frazzled woman announced with authority, “You’re not going on this flight. There is no record of it in our system. You will have to start over with Travelosity. Besides American does not do business with Virgin America. There is nothing we can do for you. Period. Now I have other customers to deal with…”
When we refused to budge, she frowned, excused herself and returned with her supervisor who I suppose she assumed would support her case and get rid of us. It took the supervisor about two minutes to determine that our reservations actually were in the system and that we should be issued boarding passes. After protesting, the attendant reluctantly printed out the boarding passes, never once hinting at an apology. We took them and charged off to the security line.
We had an hour to make the connection in Charlotte and were a bit dismayed when the pilot came on to announce that because of an equipment issue the takeoff would be delayed indefinitely. False alarm: whatever the problem was got fixed in about 20 minutes, and we were on our way. We made it to Charlotte with time to spare, but when our time came to board, we were told to go back to our seats because the boarding process was on hold. The attendant announced they were in the process of trying to find someone to fly the airplane.
I imagined a bunch of harried American Airline executives running up and down the terminal frantically asking, “Can you fly a plane? Can you fly a plane?”
In about an hour, a plump, balding middle age guy wearing an American Airline uniform pushed his way through the anxious passengers bunched around the counter and started signing a bunch of papers. Someone in the line commented, “Well, it looks like they found a pilot. Hope he knows what he is doing.”
Boarding resumed and we were on our way, arriving in San Francisco at 7:35, almost eight hours behind the original arrival time. Thus began the first leg of the journey to Japan.
I wondered at the time if this ominous start might be a harbinger of things to come.
The flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was uneventful and about as stress free as you can get since Embry had used frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class on ANA, a top Japanese airline. The only glitch was that I boarded the plane healthy; and when we landed 10 hours later, I felt like the walking dead—fever, sore throat, runny nose and a hacking cough. I don’t know how I looked, but the customs attendant at the Tokyo immigration gate took one look at me, excused herself and returned wearing a surgical mask. I would just have to take it a step at a time and deal with it as best I could. Thank heavens, I said to myself, I can just sit on the bus, watch the views and take in a temple or shrine when I feel like it.
The other thing I would have to deal with was my knee. For over a year I have been suffering though a cartilage issue but have not had surgery because apparently Kaiser Permanente has some sort of protocol that puts off any surgery until the pain is unbearable . “Yep, “ the orthopedic doctor said upon looking at the X-rays, you need a knee replacement but you aren’t going to get one here!” I shrugged my shoulders, mildly protested and eventually tried a stem cell treatment from another provider, which alas does not seem to be producing miraculous results. Bottom line: walking would be limited anyway; so I figured, no problem.
The knee issue moved to the front burner during our three day stay in San Francisco when I noticed that it was extremely swollen and to be safe probably should be drained before leaving the U.S. I went to the closest Kaiser outpatient office and persuaded them to see me without an appointment. The doctor—a sports medicine physician—knew his stuff, performed the procedure and told me I should badger Kaiser in DC about the knee replacement. The stem cell stuff he said was a big fraud. His final words were, “You are good to go, no walking or knee exercise for at least five days and go easy for ten.
“No problem,” I replied, “This is a geezer tour. There will be people with walkers and wheelchairs. I am planning to mostly just sit in the bus anyway.”
Our plane to Tokyo landed on time and waiting to get our bags we bumped to our traveling companions from Seattle, Rick (Embry’s first cousin) and his wife, Karen. We had traveled with them to India, Southeast Asia and sailed with them in Tahiti and they are almost like brothers and sisters. Also joining us would be Rick’s sister, Meimei, and her husband, Neil, from outside San Francisco. Suffering from jet lag and lack of sleep, we staggered together to find the rendezvous point where we would meet our fellow travelers, hop on the bus, and be whisked to our hotel. I could not wait to collapse in a soft bed.
We were soon to experience our first surprise.
Tokyo is a city of some 38 million people, the largest in the world. You can imagine the size of the airport—a vast terminal, with masses of people, mainly Asians, scurrying about in every direction. All we knew was that we were to meet our Road Scholar group at 4:oo pm in Terminal 1, South Wing, near the information center. Getting through customs took a bit longer than expected so when we finally dragged ourselves to the South Wing and spotted the information center, we were about five minutes late. I figured it would not be hard to find a group of 20 or so American old folks standing around in a fog after spending 12 hours on a plane. By this time my cold was in full force and it was about all I could do to keep standing. All I could think about was the soft bed.
Where were they? Thousands of people were running this way and that but no herd of old codgers.
We wandered over to the information booth and asked if they had seen any Americans like us hanging around, and the attendant replied that there had been a group there a few minutes ago. Embry had a cell phone number to call, dug into her backpack to find her phone and got through to the person who was our leader. After a short conversation she hung up with a shocked expression on her face and reported back that since we were late, we were on our own. The tour leader said it would be easy to get to our hotel, just take the number 4 train to Tokyo.
“That’s it?” I exclaimed, “They leave us here because we are five minutes late and the only advice is to take a number 4 train? You have got to be kidding!”
Rick and Karen were as baffled as me.
You can picture the situation. All four of us were disoriented and exhausted. Due to my cold, I now had one foot in the grave. It was 4:30 in the afternoon—the beginning of the evening rush hour in the world’s largest and most congested city, and we had no idea where the number 4 train was or the address of our hotel. We were lugging huge suitcases weighing what seemed like thousands of pounds each. Furthermore I was under strict orders from my doctor to avoid any strenuous walking for a week. Trying to process all this I felt a panic attack coming on.
Taking it all in stride Embry scurried off and returned a few minutes later with good news: She had directions to where to catch the Number 4 train and it was not that far away. Furthermore she had even purchased the tickets.
So began our introduction to Japan.
Actually finding the location for the Number 4 train turned out to be somewhat harder than we were led to believe—with a few failed attempts to find the right turnstile– and it required walking underground, hobbling in my case– for something like a half mile, but it could have been much worse. We finally made it to the station area and managed to board the train around five o’clock. Because the train originated at the airport we were able to find seats and a place to store the baggage. I collapsed in my seat contemplating our next move, finding the hotel.
We were told the ride into the center of the city would be about an hour and that we should hop off at the second stop, the main station, called “JR.” We did have the name of the hotel, but no address. But we had a small map showing the hotel to be only a couple of blocks from the station. None of the streets was named on the map; but even if they had been, we would not have been able to figure out the Japanese writing. I figured we would exit the station and try to find someone who could speak English. Since the hotel was so close, they would probably know where it was.
The doors opened and we found ourselves in the middle of the world’s largest beehive. We were in Tokyo’s largest train station where the trains and subways all come together. This was the peak of rush hour. I have never seen so many people walking so fast in so many directions in such a vast space. Combine Penn
Station and Grand Central in New York City and you still would not be close.
For a brief moment we stood silently marveling at what was going on around us, wondering which way to go. Just getting out of this place was going to be a challenge. We aimlessly took the path of least resistance allowing the flow of people to push us along to a larger space where there was room to pause and try to get our bearings. Standing in the middle of the gigantic room and puzzling over the map with skimpy information, we must have looked pretty pathetic; and it was not long before a police officer tapped me on the shoulder and in pretty good English asked how he could help. I showed him the map, and he kindly pointed us in the direction of the North Exit. Only then did I begin to realize how big the station was. The North Exit had to be close to a mile away. We set off with renewed determination and a half hour later managed to stumble out onto the street level where we found even more people charging in every which direction. Rolling the suitcases along the crowded sidewalks was close to impossible, but we had no choice.
We had to be close to the hotel, but where was it? Certainly someone must know about it. So we began stopping people, asking if they spoke English—not that many did—and if they knew where the hotel was. The response was always the same. The helpers scrutinized the map, looked around at the crowded streets and sidewalks and shrugged their shoulders. Finally a young woman took a special interest in us and after admitting defeat in finding the hotel, had the brilliant idea of calling the telephone number on our information packet. Two minutes later a young man wearing a hotel uniform appeared and led us to our destination. It was only a few hundred feet away, and we must have passed by it several times. The sign out front was in both English and Japanese but was tiny and easy to miss. The hotel was also quite small, under 100 rooms. My question at the time was how could the Road Scholar people possibly think it would be easy for us to get from the airport to the hotel on our own.
The hotel was modern and chic with a restaurant and bar. The room, however, was on the small side with barely enough room to squeeze between two twin beds. In fact I believe it was the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I immediately collapsed into one of the beds, where I would remain for another 24 hours in a desperate attempt to avert a total physical meltdown as Embry hurried off to the orientation session followed by a welcome dinner. When she returned a few hours later, I managed to wake up enough to hear her describe our group of 19 senior travelers as relatively young, spirited and very experienced in international travel.
The full day of rest for me was what I needed to get me more or less back on my feet, and I was able to join the group on the second day for our bus tour of Tokyo—except for one small detail. There was no bus, and this was no get-on-the-bus-tour. This was a walking and public transportation tour, described in the Road Scholar promotional materials, which we had failed to read, as “strenuous,” averaging about 3.5 miles a day on foot. The name of the company running the tour was “Walk Japan.” How did we miss this? Embry later confessed that since it was a tour for a bunch of old folks, she figured it had to be easy.
Now there were times not that long ago when I would have welcomed this kind of adventure. For 25 years I was a dedicated runner and for another 25 years a serious power-walker, logging in between 15 and 20 miles a week. But for the past two years it has been a different story with my bad knee causing me to cut out all serious walking and switching to lap swimming. How was I going to manage? And the words of the Kaiser doctor in San Francisco were fresh in my mind: “Stay off the knee for at least a week.”
Oh ,well, I thought, how much damage can I do to the knee anyway? Maybe at least I will qualify for a knee replacement when we get home.
So at eight in the morning I was standing with our group still coughing, sniffling, and a bit dreary eyed as we began Day 2 in Tokyo. Having gone on Day 1, Embry had alerted me that it might be a bit of a challenge.
We had two somewhat unique guides. The leader was a 30-something Japanese woman who actually had been born in the U.S. but raised in Japan. She returned to the U.S. for college (SUNY Buffalo) and masters in Environmental Policy (Duke) and spoke totally fluent English. The “color commentator” was a 72-year-old, former Catholic priest (now married with adult children) with a bushy mustache from the Midwest who had worked and lived in Japan for over a dozen years serving in the Catholic Church in Kyoto and later working in business in Tokyo. As far as I could tell he was as good speaking Japanese as his tour partner was speaking English.
Off we went.
The first leg involved negotiating the Tokyo subway system en route to the Tokyo fish market. This procedure involved herding 19 old folks on and off several trains at the height of the morning rush hour. It also involved charging up and down several steep staircases. Our leader carried a yellow flower and led the charge. Her partner was the sweeper. How they kept us all together involved considerable skill and focus. Naturally I was last as I hobbled along with my walking sticks. The sweeper was close behind barking out, “Stay to the left, faster, faster, keep up, keep up, quick and the dead. Quick and the dead.” I was probably the only one on the tour who understood the meaning of the ‘Quick and the dead,” which was taken from an old English translation of the Apostles Creed “[Jesus] will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” Put it this way: it put the fear of God in you. The very thought of being left behind in the Tokyo subway was enough to keep me going at all costs.
We emerged from several subway stations to see a few shrines, temples and a fish market at various locations, but frankly all I can remember is the white tile in the subway stations, the packed trains and endless staircases. At one point I thought I had seen a mirage—an escalator. But it was not a mirage. It was real and directly in front of us. Our leader charged up the staircase next to the escalator, leading about half of our group. I stared at them in disbelief and stumbled toward the escalator with a few other stragglers, saying a prayer of thanksgiving and making a mental note of the physical conditioning of certain members of the tour.
So the question running through my mind in the middle of the second day when I hailed a cab to return to the hotel and left the tour group so they could scale more stairways and enter more tunnels was this: how am going to survive two weeks of this. Of course, this was hardly our first trip abroad as anyone knows who has followed my blog on the trip-around-the-world-without-flying in 2015 and the road trip out West in 2016. Between the two of us we have visited or worked in something like 50 countries, many of them developing nations. We have done harder trips than this, I kept telling myself. But still….
It is true that we are blessed that the human mind has the capacity to downplay the painful moments in life and remember the good ones. Embry pointed this out, observing that were it not for this fact, no woman would ever have a second child.
As I reflect on the Japan adventure a month later, I have to admit that all things considered, it was a good trip. The Tokyo ordeal was by far the most challenging and only lasted two days. On the third day we departed on the bullet train to a tiny village in the mountains where we spent two days in a delightful, traditional Japanese inn with an onsen—the name for the traditional, communal hot bath. By this time Embry had come down with my cold, but I was on the mend, and within a week we were both almost back to normal. My knee situation was not great but was manageable. I am sure the cortisone injection I received in San Francisco helped a great deal. The hiking sticks I brought with me also made a difference.
The tour took us to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, several rural villages, and ended at Fukuoka. We stayed an extra two days so Embry could give a lecture on the U.S. health care system at Kumamoto University. One unusual aspect of the tour protocol was that we were not allowed to bring our large suitcases with us because since Japanese trains pause only for a minute or so at each stop, it would be impossible to get 21 people with big suitcases off the train before the doors closed. The solution was to send via the Japanese equivalent of UPS the big suitcases to the stop after the immediate next stop and take what we needed with us for the next day in a backpack. That actually seemed to work pretty well and eliminated the ordeal of trying to lift a 50-pound suitcase up to an overhead storage rack.
Here are the highlights:
- The beauty of Japan. Embry and I have been to a lot of countries and would describe Japan at or near the top in terms of beauty. I had spent an entire summer in Japan in 1962 traveling with American students and working on a farm in the Japanese Alps. I remember from that experience the beauty of the towering mountains, the sparkling sea and the quaint, small villages. Some 55 years later, the beauty remains. Just about every square foot of space that is flat is occupied by a road or building or rice patty. The cities are big—especially Tokyo—and congested; but they are pristine compared to ours. The only trash I spotted on the streets or sidewalks was one short piece of thread and a scrap of paper. I saw only one small patch of graffiti, which was on a building scheduled to be demolished. Nothing compares to our low income or working class neighborhoods.
- The politeness and efficiency of Japanese culture. What is it about these Japanese? The bow to each other all the time. They speak softly. They always take off their shoes when entering a private residence or a religious building. They dress conservatively. They are friendly to tourists and are all the time apologizing. The cab drivers will not accept tips nor will anyone else. It is considered dishonorable. The prices are what they say they are with no add-on for sales taxes. No one asks for a handout. No one tries to sell you anything. Baths (and fancy toilets) are a big thing, and you get the idea that they are the cleanest people on earth. Subways run on time. Trains run on time. Buses run on time. Drivers always stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, and people quietly line up to get on trains. Courtesy prevails. What is wrong with them? Don’t they understand that life is a conflict and the law of the survival of the fittest prevails?
And where are all the fat people? We surely did not see many. And why do they seem to walk everywhere?And guns? There were a total of six gun deaths in 2016 in Japan compared to over 35,000 in the U.S. and they make it almost impossible to own a gun. Don’t they understand freedom. Healthcare is universal and affordable. Literacy is among the highest in the world. They live longer than any other people on the planet. The list could go on.
One of the nagging questions is given the kind and gentle culture we experienced in Japan, how could they have done the awful things they did in World War II in Nanking, Manchuria, Pearl Harbor and other places. And why are they so hostile to allowing immigration? The country is probably the most homogenous in the world. While welcoming tourists and visitors, the Japanese have the reputation of not accepting foreigners as part of Japanese society. At times some in Japan have described themselves as a master race.
So perhaps the country is not near-perfect after all and has a dark underside. They too are human and have made their share of mistakes. Much of their past history has involved conflict, and the warrior class of Samurais ruled the country for many years. Women are still far from equal with men. Their leaders have been as bad at times as some of ours. There is income and wage disparity in Japan though not to the extent as in the U.S. In other words, they have issues as has every country.
The take-home for me is that the main thing that Japan can teach the shrinking world that we live in is how to adapt to living in very limited space. Our small planet is getting smaller and the frontier spirit that dominated the U.S. and other countries no longer makes sense or is appropriate. Perhaps being polite, courteous, orderly and honoring others is one way to make the best of living together on a small ship.
- Japanese religion. When I was in Japan in 1962 working on an “experimental” dairy farm founded by an evangelical Episcopalian—I know, this sounds like an oxymoron– I was led to believe that the Japanese did not really have much of a religion and that was why it was so important to bring them into the Christian faith. Since our tour guide historian was once a priest in the Catholic Church, he tended to comment a lot on the Japanese religion and went to some length to describe Shintoism and Buddhism as valid expressions of religious beliefs and practice. Many of the fundamental values of all major religions are similar—the belief in kindness, humility, fairness and the awareness that there are mysterious, unseen powers that determine meaning and purpose for our short life on the Planet Earth. According to our guide the biggest difference between Asian religions and Western religions is that in Japan the emphasis is on “practicing” religion rather than adherence to a strict set of beliefs or creeds. In the West, what you believe tends to be more important than what you do or how you behave. He said more than once that if you are looking for theology in the Japanese religions, you won’t find it. In other words the approach in Japan is much looser, and the Japanese tend to “practice” both Shintoism (where they often marry) and Buddhism (where their funerals more frequently occur) and to visit and pray at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They do not see this as a problem or being inconsistent.
When I was a visitor to Japan in 1962, having just completed my sophomore year at Davidson College, I saw this religious fickleness as a weakness. Now in my 76th year, I think they are on to something.
The impressive group of geezer travelers. Of the 19 participants, six of us were “The Cousins,” and being with Embry’s first cousins and their spouses was special for us. It was our third major trip to Asia together, and at our advanced age you always ask the question in the back of your mind whether or not it will be the last. We had a great time together.
Not having read the fine print about the tour, my idea beforehand as to who the other travelers would be could not have been farther from the truth. There were no walkers, canes or wheel chairs, and there were always 7 or 8 people who stormed the steep stairs when given the option of riding on an escalator. I suspect that each of them had read the fine print, and the strenuous nature of the trip is what appealed to them. One couple, like us, had even done an around-the-world-without flying adventure and made the entire voyage in five months on a tramp steamer, leaving the ship only for a day or two when it was in port. Most were from California and Washington State, and they all had impressive careers and were seasoned travelers. I never heard anyone complain about anything—except, of course, Donald Trump.
When it was time to say good bye at the end of the trip, it reminded me a bit of summer camp. We felt like we had made lifelong friends—which, of course, means something for us now very different from what it meant when we were in summer camp. We were sad to say good-bye.
- The seasoned guides. Where are you going to find a Japanese who speaks fluent English matched with an American who speaks fluent Japanese? That is what we had on this trip, and besides that, what made them special was their knowledge of Japan, their organization and communication skills, sense of humor and enthusiasm. Most important they cared for us tour members. I was the straggler in the group, hobbling along as best as I could, and despite the “quick and the dead” admonitions from time to time was never made to feel that I ruined the trip for others. The guides used a new high tech blue tooth communication device to provide commentary along the way, and at times I thought that when the ex priest talked he sounded exactly like Garrison Keeler.
The special moments. There were many:
- Japanese Inns. We stayed in two ryokyns for two night each. Do not go to Japan without staying in one and going to the onsen, the hot spring bath. Also the traditional food served there is fabulous and plentiful. Standard dress is a yukata (colorful bathrobe) for guests at all meals.
- Dancing with the ladies. We stopped once mid day in a tiny village surrounded by rice patties. Towering mountains were on all sides. A dozen or so local, farming ladies prepared a traditional Japanese feast with something like 20 dishes for each person. After the meal the ladies danced a traditional folk dance and invited us to join in, which most did. We then spent almost an hour seated in a big circle with everyone introducing themselves and answering questions.
- Tea ceremony. Another special Japanese tradition. This one was performed for us in a tiny tea house by a Swiss expat married to a Japanese woman. A good tea ceremony can take hours and you won’t find anything like it outside of Japan.
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Someone should make Donald Trump visit these cities before he blows North Korea off the map as he has been threatening. The devastation is indescribable. Could we have blown up at bomb in the ocean close enough for people to see? Did we have to drop a second bomb in Nagasaki only three days after the first? The cities have completely rebuilt and are quite beautiful, but the memories remain and they should. The survival of the planet depends on it.
- The shrines and temples. We saw a whole bunch of these all over the country. My favorites were the Zen temples with the mystical rock gardens and the Shinto Gate situated in the ocean near a shrine in a fishing village near Nagasaki.
- The food. Lots of fresh fish, sushi and sashimi and a lot of things that you have no idea what they are. But most are tasty and are healthy, perhaps a reason why most Japanese are thin. We ate a whole lot but avoided putting on a bunch of pounds.
- Embry’s lecture. Embry had been invited by a professor at a major Japanese university to give a lecture about the American health care system. She talked to a lecture hall full of Japanese students at Kumamoto University and others from various developing countries like Egypt and Bangladesh. She did a great job and was warmly received. At the time she was not sure if the ACA would survive or not. Several people asked why Americans do not have universal health care and why the cost of care is three times per person in the U.S. compared to what it is in Japan. Embry’s answer was essentially this: all is not perfect in the U.S. and there is much we can learn from Japan.
- The challenge of seeing a country in a different way. Ok, I was expecting an easy hop on/hop off the bus tour and instead got a strenuous walking/public transportation tour. Though not easy, there is something to be said for seeing a country more like the people who live there. Admittedly you are still a tourist but taking buses and trains and doing a lot of walking gives you a feel for the country you usually do not get on a tour bus.
Given my knee condition, if we had read the fine print ahead of time, we probably would have passed on this tour. I am glad we missed reading it. It turned out to be a fabulous trip.