JAPANESE WON’T GIVE ‘NO’ FOR AN ANSWER

NAGANO, Japan — So now I am in Japan, where the answer is always “yes.” I learned this Friday night — or maybe it was Tuesday night, I’m so mixed up by this point — long after dark, when I had been traveling for 20 hours and found myself in a gas station/rest stop along a Japanese highway trying to figure out which of the 800 buses parked in the lot was the one I had stumbled off of a few minutes earlier, hoping to find a restroom.

“Is this the bus to Nagano?” I asked.

“Yes!” gushed the Japanese Olympic volunteer. She was somewhere between 16 and 19, as all the volunteers in the grey Nagano jackets seem to be, and she was smiling enthusiastically, as if she actually had a clue as to what I was talking about. In truth, I could have been asking about bongo drums.

“I mean, is this my bus? I got a little mixed up. Was I on this one?”

“Yes,” she gushed. “Olympics!”

“I know. It’s the Olympic bus …”

“Yes! Olympic bus!”

“But was I on it? There are so many buses. Maybe it’s not the right one.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, it’s not the right bus? Or, yes, it’s the wrong bus?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not the right bus?”

“Yes!”

“It is the right bus?”

“Yes!”

You see the problem. It has been like this since I fell off the plane from the United States, which took only half a millennium to arrive here. Japan is not exactly around the corner. You cross the international date line, which I always thought was a phone number French girls called to date American guys — ha ha, get it? the international date line (look at me, I’m delirious already, and we haven’t even had the men’s downhill) — and as if flying to Tokyo weren’t bad enough, when I landed, I was greeted by many more smiling Japanese volunteer Olympic workers, one yes after another.

“The bus to Nagano?” I said.

“Yes, it leave in …uh …two hours maybe. For now, enjoy your free time.”

My free time?

Four hours later, I was still “enjoying” it.

My baggage, however, was not.

Does the driver do karaoke?

My baggage was taken away by truck. This, I was assured by a smiling Japanese volunteer, was for the best.

“Truck goes fast,” she said.

“But will my bags go to where I’m going if I don’t travel with them?”

“Yes. Bags are going. Yes.”

“Bags are going?”

“Bags go bye-bye. Hee-hee. Yes.”

I shrugged. So she gave me — and I am not making this up — a small orgami bird. It was made of red paper and was maybe an inch high.

“I make …is present for you.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“In Japanese culture, when person has illness, we …uh . . .”

“You give them a paper bird?”

“Yes!”

Now I was genuinely touched by this. Unfortunately, hours later, I was still playing with my paper bird, while my luggage, I was sure, was in Osaka. Also why did she say they give orgami to ill people? Did I look pale?

When the bus arrived, I boarded — with several other unshaven, exhausted journalists — and then another volunteer, age 16 to 19, took a microphone and said, “So, welcome to Japan. We will ride five hour, stop for break for 15 minute, go to bathroom, thank you very much.”

Then the bus driver stood up, took the microphone, smiled — I thought he was going to break into a karaoke — and spoke nonstop in Japanese for 60 seconds. At the end he smiled again and bowed. Since none of us understood a word he said, we did what we thought we should do — we applauded. I believe it was his first ovation. Of course, for all we knew, what he said was, “Hello, I am your driver, and you have a better chance of meeting Sadaharu Oh than getting to Nagano before Thursday.”

We clapped anyhow.

Welcome to vending machine city

Now, never mind that I hadn’t slept in a day, or that during my four-hour wait at the airport I had something to eat that resembled spaghetti, only it had salmon, onions and soy sauce, which is not really good traveling food.

But then this rest-stop thing. No one needed a rest stop. We were all asleep. But schedules are schedules in Japan, and so we stopped, and our volunteer blared into the microphone, “We go rest stop now!” — which of course woke us all up. I stumbled out, rubbing my eyes, and walked through a sea of Japanese travelers busily buying things from vending machines. The machines sold yogurt, beer, hot cider, bottled water. You name it, there was a vending machine for it.

Anyhow, when I came out, I realized I had no clue which bus was mine. They all looked alike, and it was dark and cold.

“Is this the right bus or the wrong bus?”

“Yes!”

Anyhow, you heard that part. Suffice it to say I finally found my way to the Olympic Village, which is near a Denny’s and a Toys-R-Us, I kid you not, and upon arrival two young volunteers grabbed my baggage — my bags looked at me as if to say “What took you so long?” — and led me around a corner, down a street, up stairs, and to my room.

And when I opened the door, crossing the threshold to magnificent, glorious, luxurious sleep, I took one step and the volunteer shrieked, “Wait! Take shoes off, please!”

And I looked at her, bleary eyed, and said, “Yes,” because I am a quick learner, that is what I am.

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