On friendship, the drugstore, and another weekend trip

I consider myself to be somewhat of a self-reliant introvert, a dangerous classification that manifests itself in a “just let me figure it out by myself” mentality. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in a foreign country; whether traveling or just taking care of business, it’s always preferable to work things out on my own. Ask for directions? No way, just give me a map! Ask someone else to take our picture? Nope, I’d rather devise an acrobatic/engineering feat of epic proportion to steady the camera and propel myself into the picture a split-second before the self-timer releases. I’ve got it, thanks.

This past week, though, I was reminded of just how great it is to rely on the help and expertise of others. This may not sound like rocket science to you, but believe me… it’s a real revelation to me.

Take the drugstore, for instance. I’m putting together a first-aid kit for our upcoming trip to Thailand and needed something akin to Pepto-Bismol (which is not sold in Japan, at least to my knowledge). Let me tell you, a foreign pharmacy is a seriously intimidating place. My reading skills don’t include medical terms and, unfortunately, the cute pictures on the boxes weren’t enough to convey their purpose beyond reasonable doubt. Do I want the smiling cartoon stomach? The man on a toilet with a sad face? The office worker daydreaming of steak and beer? If I were to ask for help, what exactly would be the appropriate hand motions for Pepto-Bismol anyway?

Apparently this is the best medicine for stomach ailments in Japan. Good to know. Note: this blog does not constitute actual medical advice.

I finally and humbly consulted a Japanese friend, who led me right into the store and directly to the least-obvious, least-pictorial box on the entire shelf. She ensured that I got the “new” variety of this well-known medicine, which was formulated without the awful taste for which the traditional variety was famous (or infamous). Who knew? I mean, I know that Japanese people can read their own labels and signs (duh), but when my reality involves understanding about 25% of my surroundings, it’s easy for that to become the new normal… so it’s earth-shattering when you realize just how much you are missing. Score one point for Asking For Help.

Another example was when we were invited by a friend to spend the weekend at her family’s house in Odawara, which is a gateway city to Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. As much as I don’t like to impose upon others, this was an opportunity too good to turn down. You know what? It turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire stay in Japan so far. We stayed in a real house in a real neighborhood and had our own personal tour guide who was beyond enthusiastic about sharing her hometown with a couple of Americans. I learned more and experienced more in those two days than I ever could have on my own. Score a few more points for Saying Yes To Invitations From People You Don’t Know Very Well. My introverted self is hanging her head in defeat, for sure.

Main building of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine

Our weekend began in Kamakura, a popular city near Yokohama that boasts a beach as well as a plethora of famous shrines and temples. Wikipedia tells me that, in the year 1250, Kamakura was the 4th most populous city in the world. Yeah, there is an impressive amount of history here. We met Noriko and her daughter Megumi there to tour the city, visit the famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine, and shop along Komachi-dori. From there, we traveled west along the coast to Odawara, arriving just in time for the lighting of the lanterns at the summer lantern festival. We ate festival food to the beat of taiko drumming and talked about how much the town has changed since she was a little girl. You don’t get that kind of insight from a travel guide.

We woke up on Sunday morning to the most delicious breakfast served in the kitchen with a view of her beautiful garden. It occurred to me that most travelers (myself included) have paid a small fortune to sleep on a futon and tatami mats and eat a Japanese breakfast in a ryokan style inn, and here it was being offered to us by a new friend. What a wonderful experience. After eating, we headed for the bus station and bought day passes for the national park bus (which, apparently, can only be obtained after a lengthy conversation with the official lady standing at the bus stop. There is no way Joe and I would have known about these cheap tickets). We rode the bus for an hour, with Noriko pointing out famous landmarks and favorite shops that passed by the windows.

Lake Ashinoko and the Hakone sekisho (checkpoint) museum

Once at Lake Ashinoko, we visited a large hillside shrine, walked along part of the ancient path to Edo (now Tokyo), toured the lakeside town, and experienced a fantastic museum depicting the famous checkpoint to control travel in and out of Edo. Further down the mountain, we were treated to an insider’s guide to the popular resort town of Hakone-Yumoto. We darted through alleys and backstreets in search of favorite bakeries and tea shops far removed from the touristy main drag. Noriko’s grandfather had lived right in town, so she had spent every single weekend there as a young girl. Her face lit up as she recounted what it was like to play among all of the onsen hot spring resorts and hotels.

By the time we boarded the Shinkansen bound for Nagoya, we were overwhelmed with gratitude for such an incredible weekend. We marveled at how we had nearly turned down the invitation since we were so busy this month and, of course, often prefer to do things on our own. What a tragic mistake that would have been!

Here are our weekend photos – click the first one to open the photo gallery if you want to scroll through all of them:

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