'Sudoko' doesn't get you very far in Japan. Not when you need to hail a cab or order a drink or ask where the bathrooms are or excuse yourself for sitting on an old lady on the metro.
I really should have learned some Japanese .. or brought my phrase book. And then of course, when you get lost the arguments start.
Nelle and I are bickering furiously about which Japanese symbol to press on the ticket machine at the subway station when we hear, “this button, press for Nikko”.
On A day trip to Nikko, we reach the zenith of Japanese politeness. The journey involves four trains and a bus and a public transport meltdown . . . almost.
Our saviour is called Masako, a name this complete stranger shares with the infamously reclusive Japanese Crown Princess, and she’s rocking a pale-pink netball skirt and white knee socks with pompoms . . . as only the Japanese can.
She’s not heading in our direction, but helps us navigate the ticket machine, even jumping on the train to make sure we don’t get lost.
Masako is an IT student and as we stand swaying in the perfectly-temperate train carriage, she explains that her generous act is not completely selfless. She often helps travellers find their way, she says.
Firstly to practise her language skills, but also to make sure tourists leave her country with a good impression of Japan.
She stays with us long enough to make sure we’re on the right train to Nikko before racing off to college.
Nikko is a small city in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture in the mountains about two hours north of Tokyo. It has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Getting there is all part of the adventure, as the urban landscape falls away to snow-capped mountain vistas.
Shrines and pagodas emerge from the cedar groves like bonsai on a grand scale.
Much of the architecture nestled among the rugged and wooded topography is 17th century with many of the buildings dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
We alight at Nikko train station and meander uphill to our ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Nikko Tokanso is minimalist chic with tatami-matted rooms, shoji screens and futons.
At reception, we trade our sneakers for slippers and shuffle after the concierge to our room.