featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Visiting today is artist, fashion designer, and travel author Anne Van to tell us about her time in Japan. If you’d like to know more about Anne’s Japanese adventures, you can read her story Going Underground, in The Best Women’s Travel Writing of 2011. You can also find  more travel stories on her blog. -- AP

Sensoji Temple's Famous Thunder Gate in Tokyo, Japan

My unfailing sense of direction always added another dimension to my love of travel. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d managed to get lost. That was before I landed in Tokyo. Talk about a test of my navigational skills. The city was a labyrinth of alleys and side streets, and guess what? The streets didn't have names! The address numbers were really block numbers. Confused? Welcome to Japan. 

The famous Sensoji Temple was at the top of my Tokyo must-see list. Sun poured through my hotel window and I knew I’d picked the perfect day to visit the famous site located in Asakusa. I asked my Japanese friend, Keiko, to draw me a map to follow once I got off the subway station. I thought I had nothing to worry about. Keiko was a native, so how could I possibly get lost?

Easy. I got off at the station, turned left, and ran into a market where endless stalls of merchandise bombarded me. Beautiful textiles blew in the wind like flags. Then a row of stalls full of amazing handbags caught my eye. I was so dazzled by all the styles that I didn’t realize I had wandered way off course. After purchasing a beautiful embroidered wallet and matching coin purse, I finally came up for air. I reached into my pocket for Keiko’s map. Empty! “Crap,”  I said to a lady in a blue floral dress. She smiled and waved good-bye as I walked back toward the street. Sweat dripped down my face as I struggled to remember the landmarks Keiko had drawn on her map. Was it turn left at the bookstore?  

I headed down the main boulevard with complete faith that my incredible sense of direction would somehow kick in. I’d turn the corner and see the famous Thunder Gate of Sensoji Temple. After wandering down several alleys I could no longer deny I was lost. I stuffed down my pride and made my first attempt to seek help. A nice woman with a colorful shopping bag looked like a good candidate. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” She shook her head and quickly walked away.

Several more housewives walked by, but I continued to strike out. Then I saw two teenage girls in their school uniforms. They must have studied English. “Hello, do you speak English?”

One of the girls nodded her head. “Are you lost?”

“Yes, I’m trying to find the Thunder Gate.”

The girl and her friend were all smiles as they walked me to a main street that led directly to the temple. Now that they’d pointed the way, I found my destination in no time. I looked at my watch. It was already 3:30. How could I have been shopping for two hours? Knowing I had to meet Keiko for dinner at 5:00 way on the other side of town, I snapped a few pictures and waved good-bye to the Thunder Gate.

Safely back in Shibuya, I met Keiko for dinner with just five minutes to spare. I  tried to hide the evidence that I did anything more than visit the temple.   

I settled in and ordered octopus for dinner while Keiko suspiciously eyed my purse with the plastic bag sticking out. “So what did you think of the temple?” 

“An amazing experience, so spiritual.”

Keiko gave me a knowing grin. “Yes, I can tell. Your face is glowing. What did you see that made such an impression on you?”

“The Thunder Gate was amazing. I loved how the enormous paper lanterns swung back and forth in the breeze. But I especially liked the red leather purse with the chrome buckles.” Oops.

Moral of the story: when you are traveling abroad, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re lost. You won't end up with octopus on your face like I did.

Anne, if only more of the population with Y chromosomes would take your advice! Readers, how many of you have been to Japan? How many plan to go some day? Post a comment to be entered in the drawing for a book by our Book Club Friday guest author.  -- AP


Nicole Maggi said...

Hahaha! Sounds like me in the markets of Florence. I will ALWAYS get sidetracked with shopping! I can't wait to someday do it in Tokyo.

Liz said...

My cousin flew to Japan regularly in the '50s and decided to take a train for sightseeing. Worked for leaving Tokyo but not coming back. Luckily a U.S. military officer shepherded her back.

Things had changed by the time I traveled there in the '70s. Have heard even more so now, post-Olympics etc.

Beautiful country. So sorry for all the pain the Japanese are enduring.

David S Bateman said...

Great short story. Really a fun little adventure.

Lizzie said...

I always get lost even when I have a map. How was the octopus?

Anonymous said...

I never wanted to go to Japan till I read this. Now, I want to go get my own little red leather purse with the buckles! Great job!!

Romina said...

i have NO sense of direction, LOL! also, now i want some octopus. :)

Margo Candela said...

Reading this reminds me why Tokyo is on my must visit list!

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to visit Japan but I better stay away from Tokyo and stick to one stoplight towns. I get lost anywhere and everywhere. I'd love to see that magnificent temple, though. Do those gps things work in a foreign country? Does the know-it-all direction giver speak English?

Just wondering?

Petal - as untechnical as ever.

Michael said...

Visited virtually - had a great time. Fun story. When I'm lost I ask for directions…and I'm a real guy!

Anne Van said...

LOl Michael. Glad to know real guys can ask for directions too!

Anne Van said...

Petal, yes they do have a GPS that would work perfect for you. So don't be afraid to hop on a plane!

Anne Van said...

Nicole & Margo, You should definitely go to Japan. It’s an amazing place. Tokyo is the Big Apple of Asia. So much to do and see and it never sleeps!

And Japan could use the tourist dollars more than ever after the earthquake and tsunami.

Anne Van said...


My Japanese friends say the country is slowly recovering. Things are humming along in Tokyo. But up in Fukushima it's another story. It made me so sad to see pictures after the tragedy. I've been to Fukushima twice and the seaside towns were so beautiful. Now they are gone and may never be back. So sad.

Anne Van said...

Lizzie & Romina,

Believe it or not Japanese barbequed octopus is really good. Wish we could get it here in the States.

Anne Van said...

Thanks everyone for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed my story!

Anne Van said...

And a special thank you Anastasia for hosting me!

Craig said...

Great little travel tale. Bad enough to get lost here in the U.S.A.--but in a place with no street names where the locals don't speak English? Now I know to stop by Auto Club for my map before my visit to Japan!

Anonymous said...

Most main intersections have a city/area map at one corner. That makes finding your way around so much easier.