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 always have a story of how they’ve shown 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 now headed to Hakone, where we were going to stay at a ryokan. That’s the equivalent of a Japanese bed and breakfast but is actually more of a “dinner and bed and breakfast.”
I had several amusing 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.
Hotel Taiseikan Hanakajika
I planned out the time needed to get from the hotel to the train station in Nagoya, then the train to Odawara station, and finally from that train station to the hotel. Remember this was 2005 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 the train.
It was about 15 minutes into the Shinkansen ride that I realized my mistake. I forgot to add the travel time of one of the trains into the schedule and that was going to add at least 60-90 minutes. If we were checking into a hotel that would not have 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 and we decided I had to call the ryokan and tell them. Again, this was 2005, so while cell phones were prevalently used, they weren’t cheap and international usage was unheard of. Steve rented a cell phone that worked in Japan because he needed to be in contact with his job, if necessary. U.S. phones weren’t compatible back then and 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 cell 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. Please do not serve us dinner because we are late. I am sorry.
Thank you. Thank you. Good day. I’m sorry.
Whatever replies I got from them were in Japanese. I was happy when I got an “hai” (Japanese for “yes”) back, hoping that meant they understood my message, but I wasn’t really sure anything I said was getting through to them.
As a precaution, we picked up some prepackaged bento boxes at the next 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 checked in at 7:50 PM they told us to go right to our room and dinner would be served at 8:00 PM. They prepared our room so dinner could be served, in addition to making our beds for the evening. This is not typical and we later learned they even had one of their staff who spoke the best English stay to help us settle into our room.
It turned out we 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 at once, this was a many course affair with plates brought out in 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 are one of the reasons why Japan is one of our favorite places to visit.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary