The importance of timing, and the kindness of strangers


Okay, so allow me to set the stage: We’ve got two American women, with minimal, and I mean minimal, knowledge of Japanese, traveling in the interior of Japan. I speak at maybe the 2 or 3-year-old level (or did back when I was studying Japanese) and Nori doesn’t remember what she once knew. When we went to the Japanese travel agency in Honolulu to book our rail passes, our (Japanese) travel agent exclaimed “Ohhhh, I’ve never been up theerrrre.” So, …you know, we’re on an adventure. (It’s very possible I didn’t explain this part to Nori very thoroughly, but then, we’re in Tohoku in hopes of meeting up with her relative.)

After our marathon 16-hour automobile-plane-train-shinkansen journey from Oahu to Yamagata, we had two days to explore our first prefecture: Yamagata. Day one was a morning trip to a nearby temple, Yamadera (see pictures here: 2014/11/01/yamadera/), and in the afternoon we ventured to Zao Onsen (this involved sharing a bus and a tram car with a lip-smacking-woman-with-ill-fitting-dentures, but I’ll spare you the details).

BDay Two.

We realized the night before that the mountain we wanted to visit, Hagurosan, was 3 hours away by train. That meant six hours on a train to see one mountain. Was it worth it? There wasn’t a lot else to do (so it seemed), so we decided it might be.

Here enters Lesson One: you cannot (at least not without reading kanji) plan all of your routes ahead of time. Local bus schedules are not available on line, at least not in English. So if you’re traveling outside of the big cities, or even if you are, please make use of the friendly Information Center staff. They are everywhere.

Our local information staff person handed us a bus schedule with a bus leaving at 10:27 that would only take an hour and a half. Score!

But oh! The 10:27 bus doesn’t go all the way to the station we need. It stops at another station in the same city (Tsuruoka). The bus that would take us to the correct station didn’t leave until 12:55, bringing us to the base of the mountain at 3pm at the earliest. Not enough time.

Enter American ingenuity! Is it possible to get from the one station in Tsuruoka to the correct station by taxi? Yes! And what time does the bus leave from the proper Tsuruoka Station to get to the base of Haguro-san? Slumped shoulders, Gomenesai, I only have information for Yamagata City. That’s okay, arigato gozaimasu.

Nori and I looked at each other and shrugged. We had to try? Right?

So off to the bus we went.

On the bus trip we passed the other two holy mountains in the Dewa-sanzan: Gassan and Yudonosan. People will do a pilgrimage and visit all three. It takes two days, and if you walk between them it takes longer (mark that one down on my list of things to do). Important mountains in Japan all get the honorific ‘san’. Fuji is known as Fujisan, and the mountain we were heading towards is Hagurosan. Mr/Ms. Mountain, it’s very nice to meet you.

The bus pulled up to the last stop and we paid our exact change fare and climbed out. Oh shit. Parking lot city with no taxi stand or other discernable business. A large restaurant complex stood to the left with a gigantic crab on the roof, and across the way seemed to be a walmart-type-place. This is why she wasn’t anxious to put us on this bus. Only a handful of people had been on the bus, and I made a beeline for a young woman pulling her suitcase behind her, “Sumimasen- Haguro-san ni ikimasu. Taxi???” Oh! A look of slight alarm. She looked around and we found this:


I thanked her and didn’t have the presence of mind to ask her to make the call. And then she was gone. Me, Nori, the phone, and two drink vending machines. And a giant crab.

I eyed the phone and tried to remember what Japanese I knew. What I forgot was what you normally say to a taxi driver when you call, such as, where you are. I picked up the phone and asked the kind man if he spoke English. He did not. I told him we were going to Hagurosan and we needed a taxi to get to Tsuruoka Station. He asked me something I didn’t understand. I think he asked how we got there, because I remember saying something about a bus stop. He asked my name, and I embarrassingly said “Siri” and then “Shiri” (which, if you haven’t read my earlier posts, means ‘butt’ in Japanese: Then he said “Chotto matte kudasai” (please wait) and I said thank you and quickly hung up.

Was he going to ask me something else? Why did he ask me to wait? Wait for the taxi? Should I call back? I had panicked and hung up on him.

I turned to Nori. Let’NoriNoodless wait here ten minutes or so and if a taxi doesn’t show up we can go over to one of those stores or restaurants and see if they can help us. We were next to a park and ride lot. Why doesn’t someone take pity on the poor Americans?

About 10 minutes later, a taxi showed up. God I love Japan.

After a very short stay at Tsuruoka Station we caught the bus to Haguro Center. Nori and I had independently found local bus schedules and planned out our return. When we arrived at Haguro Center we stopped at a roadside restaurant to have a late lunch (it was the only road side restaurant). We had noodles.

And then on to Hagurosan. We walked up to the entrance and I knew I already liked this mountain. It has a good feel about it. It’s supposed to be one of the more mystical mountains in the area which is why Prince Hachiko established Hagurosan as place of both Shinto and Buddhist worship in the Suiko Era (A.D. 593). Did you get that? Year 593.

There are 2446 stone steps leading to the temple at Hagurosan. According to our schedule we had about three hours to climb up to the temple and look around. The steps were split into three tiers. The second tier supposedly the most grueling, and there was a teahouse just after that stage so you could refresh yourself.


TheBeginningIt was a beautiful day and there were quite a few people out. As we passed group after group of people who asked if we were climbing all the way to the top, it became clear that pilgrimage or no, folks were taking the bus to the top and walking down the stairs. But we’re die-hard pilgrims, Nori and I. And up we would go.


I’m a big believer in the slow and steady approach to climbing hills, mountains, stairs, out-of-bed. I understand that this doesn’t work for a lot of people, but it’s the only way I’ll ever make it to the top without needing cardiac support. Fortunately the sun filtering through the trees gave us many excuses to stop and take pictures. “Konnichiwaaaaa” “Konnichi-wa!” “Gambatte!” I would like to know if all Japanese people greet one another like that on trails, or just people who are obviously foreigners? (anyone who knows please chime in). I’m assuming it’s everyone, but don’t always hear it said.


We got to the top of the second tier and there was the promised teahouse, looking like it was just waiting for us to arrive. It was sitting back a bit from the edge of the mountain with beautiful views of the valley and out to the Japan Sea.


SaviorTeahouseWe took off our shoes and padded over the tatami to the low tables. “Irrashaimasse!” Welcome! We sat down and ordered matcha tea with mochi tea cakes. One of the women (there were two) brought over a sign-in book.

The women with the book asked where we were from and where we were staying. When we said Yamagata she asked our plans for the trip back. She said it got very dark on the mountain by 5pm and we assured her that we’d be on a bus by then. She started to look concerned and went to go look for something (a bus schedule I assumed). I said we had one and proudly pulled out both sets of schedules ready to explain our well-planned return bus trip.

But oh no. This, this bus? This doesn’t run today (….oh that’s what that symbol means!). You either have to run down the mountain and catch the next bus from Haguro Center or catch the last bus from the top at 5:15.


MatchaI showed her how the 5:15 bus didn’t get to Tsuruoka station until 6:05, when our bus to Yamagata was due to pull out of the parking lot. She shook her head. That won’t do. Not possible.

We had one hour before the next bus would leave from the bottom. We’d come all this way and wanted to see the top. Plus, both Nori’s and my knees were iffy at best and plowing down about 1500 stone steps at high speed didn’t seem possible. Or wise.

Maybe we could take the train back?

She went into the back room and enlisted the help of her business partner. Luckily they weren’t doing a brisk trade in matcha. Now both of them started looking at schedules and rapidly talking back and forth. No, the train won’t do.

More talking. Does the Haguro bus stop at a station that the Yamagata bus stops at so we could get off early and intercept it? Yes! No. Shoot.


MakingThePlanMore talking. Okay, here’s what you’re going to do: You catch the 5:15 bus from on top of the mountain, take it down to Haguro Center. You’ll call a taxi and have the taxi take you to this stop (she was writing something down) and you’ll intercept the Yamagata bus after it leaves Tsuruoka Station. The taxi should go faster than the bus so you should make it. We’ll call the taxi company to warn them, but you should call too, and this is what you should say: “Haguro Center ni ikimasu. …”. Okay? You call, and watashi-mo (I’ll also call).

ThePLanWe left with three pieces of paper, one with our bus information on it, one with the taxi company information, and one to give to the taxi driver so he’d know where to take us.

This woman, who I shall refer to as our savior, dropped everything to make sure we’d get back to Yamagata that night. When we left she came running up and took my hands in hers and bowed. She was pulling for us. And I was once again overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

So up we went. The last tier was not as challenging as the first two and we made it to the top and looked around as the sun was setting.

NoriCheckingTimeWe caught the 5:15 bus and I had the piece of paper out ready to call the taxi as soon as we arrived at Haguro Center. But when we got off the bus, the taxi was waiting there for us, and so was our savior. She’d walked over and waited with the taxi to make sure we were correctly on our way. I wanted to hug her, but that didn’t seem culturally appropriate, so there was much exclaiming and bowing and we clasped hands again. I felt inadequate. What could I do to thank her properly? I hadn’t asked her name, and that was a mistake. But it had seemed a little weird at the teahouse, and then we were so rushed, and surprised, when we got off the bus that I wasn’t thinking clearly.

So if anyone goes to Haguro-san, please say hello to the ladies who run the teahouse and give them my very best. I’m taking this as a lesson in paying it forward, and hope I can do the same for someone else.

Epilogue: The taxi ride was another extensive, and rather expensive, affair, but we arrived with plenty of time to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Eventually our bus did arrive and we landed safely back in Yamagata just after 8:00.





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