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welcome to Japan

Japan – the land of chatty appliances and heated toilet seats; gas station sushi, seaweed snacks, and breakfast udon bowls; tiny hotel rooms and indoor slippers; inscrutable signs with dubious English and incomprehensible (to us) kana and kanji characters – has long been on our travel bucket list. In fact, before D landed an eleventh hour assignment that forced us into a three-month separation, we had planned to visit Japan during our transfer from Washington to Manila. It was only fitting that we’d make the land of the rising sun the first international destination during our first Asia tour.

S planned an ambitious itinerary that took in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, as well as the Hida Mountains, which are known as Japan’s Alps. Initially, we had planned to rent a car for this trip, but then we learned that unlike every other one of the approximately 60 countries we have visited, Japan does not recognize American drivers’ licenses. The only way to rent a car in Japan is with an international driving permit, which neither one of us possessed. So we bought Japan Rail (JR) passes.

For all of its automation and innovation, Japan also has some pretty anachronistic systems. The JR pass is a case in point. In addition to area passes for the various regions, JR offers a countrywide pass – valid for seven, 14, or 21 days – that is only available to foreigners. It costs a fraction of what Japanese citizens pay to use their county’s national railway system, and it can only be purchased outside of Japan. JR does not sell the passes electronically. Instead, one must go to an authorized retailer who issues a paper voucher bearing the purchaser’s name and passport number. This voucher must then be exchanged on arrival in Japan for physical train tickets. The reduced fare tickets are meant to stimulate the tourism industry since traveling in Japan can be prohibitively expensive, but why make visitors jump through all these hoops to acquire them instead of simply selling them to foreigners on arrival?

Navigating the airport check-in, we congratulated ourselves on how lightly we had packed: one duffel, one half-empty hiking bag, a fold-up crib, an umbrella stroller, and a small carry-on backpack for an 11-day trip for a family of four, including two small children. Our plan to navigate Japan by rail forced us to pack more judiciously than we do for our road trips. In retrospect, we probably could have used a jacket for Junebug and a couple of other pieces of warm clothing, but otherwise we felt good about leaving at least a duffel’s worth of inessential stuff at home.

Unfortunately, we also left a few indispensable items. Our first hiccup came on arrival. After passing the initial passport control post, we were held up by the migration officer. He spent a long time flipping through our tourist passports before sliding Munchkin’s back to us and deferentially pointing out that it had expired two months earlier. Oops.

Fortunately, we also had our diplomatic passports, which we need to enter and exit the Philippines. A laughter-filled consultation with a supervisor ensued, which grew more animated when Munchkin declared that he had to pee and S broke protocol by running off to the bathroom with him. Naturally, we did not understand a word, but took the laughter as a positive sign. We eventually received our entry visas – three in our normal passports, and Munchkin’s in his diplomatic passport.

Our next snafu was considerably less amusing. Luggage in hand, we made our way to the JR office to exchange our vouchers for train tickets. It was at this point that D realized that he had left the vouchers on his worktable. The realization struck like a lightning bolt and literally buckled D’s knees. We went to the JR office anyway, but there was nothing to be done. No electronic record of the purchase would replace the physical vouchers, without which we could not obtain our train tickets.

It was late. The kids were getting restless and cranky. We piled into a taxi and headed for our hotel. On arrival we learned that the hotel had neglected to keep our reservation. After an unnecessarily lengthy consultation, the three staff members announced that a room exactly like the one we had reserved was available for the exact price we were expecting to pay and inquired whether we would like to take it.

The modest drizzle that had greeted our landing in Osaka had turned into a serious rain by the time we finished checking in and got the kids down to sleep. The hotel was nice, but it only served breakfast; there were no food delivery options, and the nearest restaurant was too far away considering we had sleeping children upstairs. We picked up some pre-packaged rice balls and salad at a nearby convenience store and sat down to plan our next steps. It was as inauspicious start to a vacation as we had ever experienced.

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