I liked to scout out a new school the day before I was expected to teach. That way I could take my time, get lost, get found again, and gauge my travel time without the pressure of arriving late for my first day of class. One Sunday afternoon I drove into the Japanese countryside trying to locate Mikawachi Junior High School from a hand-drawn map with English landmarks. I crossed and re-crossed the same set of train tracks several times before I threw up my hands and declared myself lost. “Lost” wasn’t exactly the right word; I knew how to get home. I just had no idea how to get to the school. How hard could it be to spot a school building among all these rice fields?
I drove back to the main road and pulled into a gas station to ask for help. The attendant on duty was a young man in a pristine red and orange jumpsuit with matching ball cap. He seemed surprised to find a lone gaijin so far from the Navy base.
“Excuse me,” I said in my practiced Japanese. “I am lost. Would you please help me? I want to go to Mikawachi Junior High School.”
The attendant’s face relaxed when he realized he would not have to conjure up his high school English to communicate with me. I showed him my hand-drawn map.
“Mikawachi Junior High School? I’m sorry but I don’t know,” he said, fanning a hand across his chin in the Japanese equivalent of a shoulder shrug. He summoned his coworkers, two other men in identical jumpsuits. The three attendants huddled over my map like a sports team planning their next play, as I tried to translate the landmarks into Japanese.
The attendants began talking among themselves, their voices growing gruffer as the conversation ensued. I strained to piece together their discussion from the few Japanese phrases I could understand.
“Mikawachi school … yes, yes … turn left … no right! … maybe she wants the elementary school? … Baka! Mikawachi is a junior high school. Don’t you know anything? … How should I know? I’m from Saga … the school must be east of here … I think it’s west … should we direct her back to base?”
One exasperated attendant stepped back from the group, shook his head, and let out a loud sigh like air escaping from a tire. The other two continued their debate in earnest, pointing to the markings on the map and scrunching up their eyes in bewilderment.
Perhaps I was in the wrong part of town?
At this point, a customer approached and announced that he knew how to get to the junior high school. He explained the directions to me in Japanese. I understood the directions well enough, but they sounded exactly like my previous journey into the middle of nowhere.
He must have seen my confusion. “I’ll show you the way.”
Was this gentleman really going to drive out of his way to take me to my destination? I glanced at the trio of attendants still squinting over my map and decided to take my chances with this stranger.
“Follow my car,” he instructed as we exited the building. The three attendants trailed after us. I slid into my vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot behind my guide’s car. The attendants bowed to us in unison, waving and calling “Gambatte!” Good luck!
The stranger retraced the path I had made earlier. Once we were parallel with the train tracks, he turned onto a narrow dirt road that led across the train tracks and through some rice fields. I had seen this road before, but thought it too insignificant to lead hundreds of children to school each day.
We wound through the fields to another, even narrower road that guided us behind a grove of trees. Another turn and the school building rose up before me in the tree-shaded enclosure. We pulled into the deserted parking lot.
My navigator made a U-turn and pointed toward the school. I leaned out my window, gave a polite head bob, and said, “Domo arigatou gozaimashita!” The man smiled and went on his way.
I sat in my car in the school parking lot for a few moments. It was quiet out here among the trees. I couldn’t believe this stranger had taken time to drive way out here to help a disoriented foreigner. Not only that, he had initiated the help. If the tables were turned, would I have done the same? Certainly, I would have offered some general directions when pressed for help, but would I have escorted a lost visitor all the way to his or her destination?
That day I vowed to be one of those people who would.
BIO: Laura J Peterson worked as a travel writer for “The Best Places to Kiss” guides (Beginning Press) and later became managing editor for the series. She was a contributing author to “Her Fork in the Road: Women Celebrate Food and Travel” (Travelers’ Tales). She lives outside of Seattle.