Japan solo

In July, Japan is a steam bath from Tokyo south, and if it's not boiling and steaming, it's raining instead. ''The rainy season,'' as a phrase, expresses much in Japan - and coupled with the frequent laments of ''mushi atsui desu ne?m. . .'' (humid and hot, isn't it?) - can practically suffice for a foreigner's vocabulary in the middle of summer.

The Japanese make an art of suffering from the heat, using it as an excuse for river excursions by moonlight and lantern, for chilled lemon sweets and cool cotton yukata,m or summer kimonos. As you stylishly blot your cheek with folded kerchief, sip pungent cold drinks, or slurp noodles from an icy trough, you quickly adjust and soon savor the flavors of summer.

Nevertheless, Japan is probably easier in autumn, and the cooler season should prompt you to move beyond Tokyo and Kyoto and the main island of Honshu. Across the Inland Sea lies the isle of Shikoku, and beyond Hiroshima you'll reach the southernmost island of Kyushu, whose historical importance cannot be underestimated.

Most Americans view the Japanese language as the biggest obstacle to independent travel, and there's no question that some facility in the native language can give you a degree of equanimity in the face of the unexpected.

Nonetheless, I'd say language is a secondary matter. Independent travelers travel independently because they expect - and want - the unexpected.

Japan is a very safe place. As a general rule, the Japanese simply aren't thieves and muggers. You can ride late-night trains or walk empty streets with little concern. The big cities, of course, have some bad neighborhoods and some foreign unreliables as well, so common sense is in order.

Then just how important ism it to speak Japanese?

The further afield you are from international centers like Tokyo and Kyoto, the more likely it is that you'll enjoy knowing a little of the language. But even in the larger cities young girls and women scatter in giggling groups at the approach of a foreigner. Eyes go blind and ears deaf until a more worldly person intercepts and offers assistance. If your rescuer does speak some English , you might find yourself escorted off boats, onto subways, to the bank or post office, even if your guide must go out of his way.

But only through struggling with words and the body language that expresses Japanese thought will you move below superficialities and ingest a few spiritual realities of the Land of the Rising Sun.

How to go about learning Japanese? University courses, continuing education classes, and even Berlitz language courses are available. But these may be expensive and involve more of a commitment than you're willing to make. There are classes offered through organizations like the Japan-American Society, whose programs may provide a basic background at a reasonable price.

The Japanese language has three writing systems - two phonetic alphabets (or, more accurately, syllabaries) plus Chinese characters. The phonetic systems - called hiraganam and katakanam - can be learned rather quickly and are extremely useful. If you want to read menus, you'll need katakanam almost always; both systems give you a proper sense of Japanese pronunciation.

Once you're in Japan, you'll find solo travel is very easy. The new Japan Railpass - like the Eurailpass - is a great convenience and like its counterpart must be purchased in the United States. With your pass, you're legal on Japan National Railways, buses, trains, and ferries. Surcharges are only for upgrading your class of ticket or for sleeping arrangements.

Trains are crowded on holidays and weekends, so it's smart to make seat reservations. Findingm your seat is another matter however; an alternative is to head for the dining car - or shokudosham - and eat until you reach your destination.

It's important that you choose your luggage carefully. Porters are practically nonexistent, distances are long, stairs are frequent. Buy either a hard-sided suitcase with wheels on the end (not the bottom), or the fabric kind with a strap and big wheels.

On my first independent trip to Japan, I stayed in a business hotel in Osaka and in a minshukum (family-style inn) outside Kyoto. In Kyoto, I stayed in a tiny inn (immaculate and cozy, by the way) for 2,000 yen a night (less than $10).

You may notice there is not a single Western-style international hotel in the bunch - and so it was intended. International hotels have their advantages, of course. They will cash travelers checks, loan you typewriters, speak English, and box your books and gifts to ship them home or by truck to the airport.

You can't gainsay these courtesies for a moment. But, aside from price, international hotels are often foreigners compounds. If you've troubled to learn some of the Japanese language, you'll not practice on a hotel manager whose English is flawless.

At my bargain-priced inn, the old man who owned it was warm - and curious. The rooms were all floored with straw mats, or tatami, and beds were traditional futon, with pads and quilts spread on the tatami.

Finding accommodations is not too difficult. The Japanese National Tourist Organization operates Tourist Information Centers (TIC) at Narita Airport and in Tokyo and Kyoto - all with English-speaking staff. Outside Tokyo or Kyoto, you can dial 106 for TIC collect (in Tokyo, call 502-1461, and in Kyoto dial 371- 5649) and get immediate assistance. TIC staff members can't make your reservations, but they'll give you lists and phone numbers and directions as well.

You might want to stay in a national vacation village, such as the Goshiki-dai Kokumin Kyuka Mura on the island of Shikoku - overlooking the Seto Inland Sea National Park. These are reasonably priced villages - open to foreign visitors - intended to give moderate-income Japanese a resort for outdoor recreation.

If you have resolved to travel on your own, you might as well work up the courage and go to the outer ends of Japan. But, if you're to travel this far from the usual tourist paths - and do so alone - you need guidebooks, good ones.

The best basic guide to Japan travel is ''The New Official Guide: Japan,'' compiled by Japan National Tourist Organization and published by the Japan Travel Bureau. It's a Blue Guide-style book - at a hefty US $30 here, less in Japan - and gives solid information on history and customs, along with maps, mileage, and tourist information on towns large and small.

A second must: ''Roberts' Guide to Japanese Museums'' (Kodansha International Ltd.). A sure guide to finding exquisite small museums like the Kawai Kangiro Kinenkan (memorial museum) in Kyoto, where pottery lovers can wallow in some of the best modern books of a brilliant craftsman, whose home is an artwork as well. ''Roberts' Guide'' indexes for interests - ceramics, bronzes, calligraphy, folk art - as well as for prefectures and is almost pocketsize.

With these in hand, you will be practically invincible, though you can pick up special-interest books at the ubiquitous Kinokuniya or Maruzen Bookstores.

Pursuing your own direction - following some minor passion or obscure interest - you may begin to make friends. Eventually you may find yourself sipping cold barley tea in a Japanese home, perhaps napping on a hot summer's afternoon in a room rich with the odor of your bran-stuffed pillow and straw tatami. The sounds of temple gongs, the strident chirping of throngs of crickets , the persistent thud of raindrops against wooden shutters - these small moments may turn the most resistant travelers into Japanophiles.

Traveling alone you will no doubt get some explicit lessons in Japanese customs. I know now, and shall know forevermore, that one should never pour soy sauce on his rice. In a small restaurant, I made this mistake and saw the defiled rice smothered by a clean replacement, the soy sauce bottle confiscated, and the table turned into an armed camp to firmly guarantee no mad dash to the next table sauce.

It was only one feeble foreigner against all of Japan. Submission was the only response possible - and an amusing memory a permanent legacy. No guided tour can give you such a good deal.

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