by Kurt Zech
Austin, Texas, USA
My first trip to Japan was in 1994. I stayed at a new hotel in downtown Yokohama. Since Yokohama is not a typical tourist destination, there are not many signs in English. Since I am an engineer, I HAD to visit Akihabara, the “electronics” area of Tokyo and a nerd’s dream come true!
Japan has a wonderful mass transit system. It can take you to nearly anywhere and drop you off within walking distance. I found the directions from my hotel to the train station that would take me to Akihabara. When I arrived at the train station I looked for and found ticket kiosks. I discovered that none had instructions in English on them. I looked up at the large map showing the stops and prices, but these also were in Japanese only.
I stood there for over 15 minutes trying to match the little pictures in Japanese with the ones on my English/Japanese map. I was having no luck finding the symbol for “Akihabara”, and none of the folks working behind the main ticket counter spoke English.
Suddenly a nice Japanese fellow came by and said, “Lost?” Yes, I replied. It was obvious he spoke little English, but knew the word “lost.” He motioned for me to follow him. He led me around the corner to another map that showed destinations in BOTH English and Japanese! He then motioned in a questioning manner “Where are you headed?” I mentioned Akihabara. He smiled and pointed to the stop.
He then motioned for me to follow him again. We went back to the ticket kiosks and he motioned for me to notice the colors of the trains (a KEY for the future). He counted the number of stops for each train I had to take and showed which ticket to buy.
After buying my ticket, he insisted that he accompany me to my destination. Using sign and body language, I indicated that wasn’t necessary — but my protests were swept aside with a shrug. Although we spoke very little on the way to Akihabara (about a 30-minute train ride), he pointed out some interesting destinations for me to visit.
When we arrived at Akihabara I thanked him in Japanese (which brought out a huge smile) and turned to head out of the station. He grabbed me from behind and motioned for me to follow him again. He led me down to the entrance of the train station and had me buy my return ticket. I bowed and thanked him again; he did the same to me and wandered off into the crowd.
I was astonished by this simple, selfless act of help to a stranger! Ever since, thanks to the example of this man, I go out of my way to try to make any visitor’s experience to my town a nice one.