My most embarrassing travel mistake

When you travel, you’re eventually going to make a mistake. It could be as simple as forgetting to pack your toothbrush or leaving your credit card at home. People who travel for a living will always have the story of how they’ve showed up at the wrong airport or hotel, or even booked a trip for the wrong day.

This is the story of my most embarrassing mistake.

In 2005, Sharon and I traveled to Japan with our friend Steve. It was a very ambitious trip for us as it was the first time we made all of the travel plans ourselves. We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass and planned on traveling from city to city on the JR Rail Shinkansen (a.k.a. The Bullet Train).

We had just finished staying in Nagoya. We had been there to see the Expo 2005 (World’s Fair) and were heading to a town called Hakone where we were going to stay at a ryokan. A ryokan is the equivalent of a Japanese Bed and Breakfast. It’s actually a Dinner and Bed and Breakfast.

I had several really fun email conversations with them about our stay, like this.

Thank you very much for your inquiry.

To regret, we don’t have an internet access facilities in our room.
If you have a laptop computer, you can access to it though telephone line from your room.

It take about 30 minutes – 1 hour from us to Odawara JR station.

Best regards,
Hotel Taiseikan Hanakajika

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Hotel Taiseikan
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This was how we used to look up information before we had smartphones.

Ahead of time, I planned out the time needed to get from the hotel to the train station in Nagoya, then the train to Odawara station and then from that train station to the hotel. Remember this was before Google Maps could tell you in seconds which train to get on at what time and how to get to the train station. Instead, I had all of these notes about travel times planned out on paper. At the appropriate time, we asked for directions to the station from the hotel front desk, walked with our luggage to the train station, got our tickets and boarded our train.

It was about 15 minutes into the Shinkansen ride that I realized my mistake. I forgot to add the time of one of the trains into the schedule and that was going to add at least 60-90 minutes to our travel time. If we were checking into a hotel that would have not been a big deal. However this was a ryokan where we had a full Japanese style dinner waiting to be served to us in our room shortly after our arrival. All the information I had read on the internet and guide books spoke of how the Japanese pride themselves on punctuality and now I made us late because of poor planning. The website and information I had from them stated that the last serving time for dinner was 6:30 PM and there was no way we were getting there by then.

I was totally freaking out. I went to Sharon and Steve to tell them the dilemma. I decided that I had to call the ryokan and tell them. Remember, this was 2005. While cel phones were prevalently used, they were not cheap and international usage was unheard of. Steve had rented a phone that worked in Japan because he needed to be in contact with his job, if necessary. US phones weren’t compatible back then so this was the only way to make sure you were connected.

With the help of someone on the train, I learned how to call a Japanese phone number with the cel phone. I used phrases from our English-Japanese dictionary to try and describe our situation.

I remember the conversation going something like this but with me trying to speak Japanese.

Hello. I am Mr. Joseph. We are still arriving today.
We will be late at least 1 hour. I am very sorry. This is my fault. I am sorry.
We will still be there. We know that we are late for dinner. I am sorry.
Very sorry, Do not serve us dinner because we are late.
Thank you. Thank you. Good day. I’m sorry. 

Whatever replies I got from them were in Japanese. I was happy when I got a “hai” (Japanese for “yes”) back, hoping that meant they understood my message, but I was not really sure anything I said was getting through to them.

As a precaution, we picked up some prepackaged bento boxes at the train station and completed our journey to Hakone. I was completely ready to hang my head in shame as the ugly American who couldn’t even show up on time.

Instead of being treated as the group who inconvenienced them, when we were checked in at 7:50 PM they told us to go right to our room as dinner would be served at 8:00 PM. They had made up our room so that our dinner could be served and they also prepared our beds for the evening. This is not typical and we later learned that they even had one of their staff who spoke the best English stay to help us settle into our room.

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It turned out that we even were given the best room in the ryokan. They treated us wonderfully the entire stay. The second night we had our dinner as planned. Instead of the first night where all the food was presented as once, this was a many course affair with plates brought out in a succession, like a parade. It was amazing and seemed to be never ending.

Here are some pictures of our Ryokan. We had a truly wonderful stay there, despite my unwitting attempt to mess it up. Situations like this is why Japan is one of our favorite places to visit.

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