Lost in Translation

March 21, 2019


Vision BoardsLast week I have the privilege of traveling to Japan as a guest of Akitainu Tourism. The purpose of the trip was to learn more about the less frequently explored area of the Country.  I will be covering the highlights of the trip on my Seven Degrees blog.  This post is about my experience traveling to a land where I did not speak the language.

The trip was very last minute with little time to prepare.  It would have been great to take a few months of Japanese lessons in advance, but this luxury was not available.  I hopped on a plane a few days after my airline ticket was issued and away I went.

Having never been to Asia, I booked an extra night at the beginning of the trip to see Tokyo.  Fortunately, the group used a wonderful travel agent and along with my local contact, they suggested I use the Tokyo Shuttle bus to get from Narita airport to downtown.

Armed with paperwork for a portable WiFi unit, I managed to find the booth and pick up my device.  The desk agent was European and spoke English.  So far, so good.   The bus ticket counter was well-marked in English and I asked for a ticket to Toyko and paid cash having just taken out money from the ATM. I did enough homework to know to place the money in the tray on the counter as is customary.  The agent handed me a ticket and circled #31 ad the pick-up location.  She told me (in English) that the next bus was at 4:10pm.  I found #31 and was directed to wait in line after showing my ticket.   At this point in the trip, I had spoken less than 50 words in any language.

Ten years ago I may have been more nervous hoping off a bus on the other side of the world. However, with the power of Google Maps in hand, I easily found my hotel which was just a short walk from my stop.  Checking into the hotel was a breeze.  While the desk clerk spoke some English, she used some graphics to explain how the public bath worked and other hotel procedures.

The next day I began my own personal walking tour.  When looking for a particular item in a store, I pulled out my phone and showed a picture. When ordering lunch, I ordered by number.  When reading something in Japanese, Google Translate augmented reality and magically, words appeared in English.

By the end of the day, I was ready for conversation and opted for a volunteer tour guide at the Edo Museum.  Kinko was fabulous and gave me the history of Tokyo.  She had lived in New Jersey as a child and had visited on several occasions.  It was a relief to converse, even though it had only been a few hours of solitude. More about that later.

The following day I met Maiko, my local connection and a friend of a friend.   Her English was much better than my Japanese and it felt comforting to have someone who spoke the local language.  This was the beginning of the tour and I met two other English speakers, one who spoke fluent Japanese and one who didn’t.

We made our way to the train and our destination.  t