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.
We're sorry, this article is unavailable at the moment. If you wish to read this article, kindly contact our Customer Service team at 1-300-88-7827. Thank you for your patience - we're bringing you a new and improved experience soon!