The first time I … took public transport in Japan.
I wanted to kick myself.
It was my very first time taking public transport in Japan. I was in Hokkaido and I had bought a ticket for a three-hour train ride from Sapporo to Hakodate.
The train was scheduled to depart at 8.10pm, if memory serves me right.
At 7.50pm, I made my way to the relevant platform and found a train already parked there. I thought because the train was there much earlier than the scheduled time, it couldn’t be my train.
So I waited.
As the minutes went by, sharply-dressed men and women started filling the train. There were other tourists, too, lugging their multi-coloured suitcases onto the carriage.
Then the words “8.10pm” blinked on the electronic signage, signaling that the train was about to leave. Still, I didn’t think it was my train so I just stood there and waited.
At 8.10pm, the train that had been parked right in front of me for the last 20 minutes or so left; and I figured my actual train would swoosh right by within the next few seconds.
Then it hit me. The train that left was the one I was supposed to get on.
I’ve heard wonders about Japan’s public transport system. I knew that its trains would always be on time. I just didn’t know that they would arrive so much earlier on the platform.
To make things worse, the train I had missed was the last one bound for Hakodate that day.
A meltdown would be an appropriate word to describe what ensued in the next few minutes. I was travelling alone and it was my first time in Japan. And I don’t speak Japanese.
Eventually, I gathered myself and ran to the ticketing counter, asking (more like badgering) a train employee, who thankfully spoke a bit of English, for help.
I asked him to suggest other ways I might be able to get to Hakodate. He took out a booklet filled with timetables and told me I could take a bus there.
But the bus station was not located near the train station and I had to take a taxi.
He scrawled the name and address of the bus station on a piece of paper for me to show my driver, who most likely would not be able to speak English.
I thanked him profusely. For a moment, I thought I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
And then it went black.
When I got to the bus station at about 9pm, the ticket counters were all closed. Whatever brochures and signages they had were entirely in Japanese.
Perhaps there’s a website I could go to and purchase the tickets? Or perhaps I could buy the ticket on the bus itself?
There were 10 to 15 people waiting at the bus station. Even so, it was quiet, save for the sound of a TV set nearby blaring the day’s news.
They tried to be helpful, but as none of them spoke English, they couldn’t understand me and didn’t know how to help. There was a young man who even tried downloading a translation app on his phone so he could understand me, but was unsuccessful.
Finally, I approached a cleaner working at the bus station who pointed me to a particular ticket counter. The counter was closed but it had a paper signage with Japanese words on it. The only thing I could understand was “10.30pm”, which the cleaner pointed at repeatedly.
So I waited for a few minutes to see what would happen … at exactly 10.30pm, that sole counter opened! I quickly bought a ticket for 11.55pm. This time, the bus arrived right on the dot; I finally reached Hakodate the next morning at 5am.
There are a few things I learned from this ordeal.
It’s a good idea to get yourself mobile data before you go overseas (something I don’t usually do) as WiFi is not available everywhere. Not being able to Google for a solution to my problem that night made me feel utterly helpless.
Also, if you’re travelling to a country where its people may not speak a language you’re familiar with, it’s important to have a few translation apps already downloaded onto your phone.
Lastly, mistakes and unexpected turn of events may happen during your travels but don’t let it ruin your mood.
In hindsight, I see that although my plans were derailed and a great deal of inconvenience was incurred, I got to experience the kindness and warmth of the Japanese people, which thoroughly moved me.