In any trip to Japan, you’ll see a lot of shrines and Buddhist temples.
As in Europe, where cathedrals and monasteries are always on the itinerary, here too despite the fact that 80 percent of the population no longer attends any church, religious sites are at the top of the list.
On our visit to one of the largest and most famous Buddhist temples Eiheiji, we walked up long wooden staircases, polished every day by the 170 hard-working monks, who rise at 3 am to chant and pry and do everything including eat, sleep and pray on their personal 1 x 2 meter mats.
As we climbed the last staircase, we came upon the room where the monks were chanting, warned not to shoot any photos, and stay silent as church mice.
Outside the rain began to pelt down, pinging in a bronze cistern and giving the huge wooden temple a cozy atmosphere. It’s hard to recruit new monks, we learned, their severe lifestyle is not something that most young men are seeking.
America and Canada are the two only countries besides Scandinavia where no one shows you religious sites.
Part of the fun at meals here is the total mystery of what is set before us. This morning at breakfast I picked up a little bowl filled with baby sardines. Yesterday, we had lunch at a place that made their own tofu, so every one of the dozens of items on our plates was made from soybeans or tofu.
I got lost one afternoon after we took a short break in Fukui, in the north of the country along the Sea of Japan.
I went the wrong way exiting the shopping area near the train station and was completely lost–and I’ll admit, terrified. I looked in all directions for our small tour bus but only city buses were in view.
I panicked and then saw an information kiosk filled with five uniformed officials. I had the business card of our guide in my wallet (thank God!) and handed it to the woman behind the desk.
“Can you call this guide?” I asked in a panic. My phone had lost its charge and this seemed a quite reasonable request.
They all looked at me and the head woman took the card, examining it, baffled by my request. I took out my black iPhone, trying to show them how it was dead and asked again for them to call Ike, our guide. Nothing.
In a room filled with tourist information guides nobody knew what I was asking.
I aped making a call pointing to their landline but they still had no idea what I was asking.
The clock was ticking past our rendezvous time, so I tried reaching for the phone myself as they turned the card over and looked at the two phone numbers.
Finally they understood what I meant and called Ike but after she began speaking I knew she had gotten his voice mail.
“Sit over there,” the head women said, as I paced around running outside to try and find a glimpse of my companions. It would not have been hard to spot then since we were the only non-Asian people in the area.
After about five nervous minutes their phone rang and I arranged to meet up with our group.
My point here is that Japan is hosting The Olympics in 2020, and no host country has the low level of English speakers that they do. It’s time to introduce subtitles to Japanese TV channels and increase the amount of English classes being taken.
Something pretty intense has to occur if even information guides can’t speak a word of English, the lingua Franca of the world.
If visitors face hosts who can’t speak a single word of English this is going to be a rough Olympics for visitors!