Japan Without a Plan

Photo of Translation Cards Used in TokyoHow can you make a run-of-the mill vacation into a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? In the latest issue of Oprah Magazine, writer Catherine Price shows us how, ditching her type-A travel planning techniques by booking a ticket for Tokyo without an agenda. She navigates the city asking questions of its residents about where to stay, what to eat, and where to go. And in a smart move, she planned to overcome the language barrier by carrying a couple of cards with English to Japanese translations which asked people for help:

Figuring that most people’s English would be as nonexistent as my Japanese, I’d had a fluent friend translate an introduction and several key questions, which I printed out on oversize cards and carried in my bag. If I wanted to ask people their favorite dish or sight to see, I would show them the card, have them write down the answer, and have someone else tell me what it said.

(It was an excellent system overall, but beware Google Translate. Based on its software, my introductory card said: “Put fear! My name is Kasharin Price…. We are forced to travel to ask your opinion of the residents there, since the threshold and what to look funny or what should I do.”)

The resulting story is a lovely tale of letting go of the “master plan” school of travel preparation, and allowing a city to steer you around instead. In one telling passage, she speaks with a man buying herbs at a produce stand next to the Tsukiji fish market:

The man, whose name was Yoshi, paid for his herbs and then, like many other people I met that week, stopped what he was doing and gestured for me to follow him. We darted through the river of whizzing carts, and then he pointed me toward a street of hole-in-the-wall shops with pictures of noodles in their windows. But instead of disappearing back into the crowd, he kept chatting. It turned out that he was the chef at Amor, a French-and-Spanish-inspired restaurant so close to my hostel that I’d passed it that morning–a remarkable coincidence, considering that Tokyo covers more than 800 square miles. I should come for dinner, he said, jotting down my cell phone number so that his wife–whose English he claimed was better than his–could give me a call. Then he slipped back into the market to finish shopping.

Price isn’t the first writer to ditch the guidebook, our own Andrew Nelson used Twitter to steer him through Miami. But I wonder when you’ve decided to do the same. Have you ever left your travel planning up to fate?

[Oprah Magazine]

Photo: Jun Takagi, Oprah Magazine


  1. demawo
    February 12, 2011, 6:39 am

    yeah i actually travelled Japan with no itinerary and no pre-booked accommodation. mostly my mate and i just asked locals where are good places to stay and see and headed where ever the word took us…

  2. team national52
    May 20, 2010, 9:13 pm

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