Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In his autobiography, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1985), physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feynman described being on a committee that included some of the greatest scientific minds of his time, all working on the same problem.

They sat around a table, each in turn presenting a different possible solution. After everyone spoke, the chairman said it was clear which was the likeliest hypothesis, and they would all proceed in that direction.

The committee members' ability to put aside ego and accept that someone else's idea was superior, without an argument, struck Feynman as remarkable.

"These were very great men indeed," he wrote.

When traveling abroad this summer and experiencing the various ways that destinations receive visitors, it struck me that processes exist that should be acknowledged as superior, and all other destinations should simply adopt them without further discussion. Yes, we travel to be exposed to different ways of doing things, but when a society comes up with something that makes a traveler want to yell "Hallelujah!" every other destination should steal and implement that idea, pronto.

That became clear to me last week after I returned from 10 days in Japan. I had an appointment to see my dentist, and he told me, between numbing and drilling, that he, too, was headed to Japan. He added that even though he and his wife like to travel independently, they had signed up for a tour. The language barrier made him nervous about getting around.

With cotton in my mouth and no feeling in half my tongue, I mumbled that yes, language could be a challenge.

But I also told him how, on several occasions, I found that public and private sectors of Japan understood that not everyone reads and speaks their language, and that they go to exceptional lengths to make it easier for visitors.

I doubt my dentist's language/transportation anxiety is atypical. Maybe it's amplified because he lives in New York, where it sometimes seems that transport systems were designed to confound visitors. Route maps are scarce (and possibly defaced), and there's a miserly approach to helpful signage. Announcements are frequently unintelligible, and stations are increasingly devoid of personnel.

Perhaps the simplest and cheapest improvement that the New York City Transit Authority (and other subway operators around the world) could mimic from Japan is to assign a number, as well as a name, to a station. In Japan, I didn't have to try to memorize long names written in another alphabet and language; all I had to know was that I was getting on at 85 and getting off at 77.

And when once I did encounter a problem (a machine didn't return a ticket to enable me to transfer), I approached a ticket agent, gingerly asking if he spoke English. He didn't, but he produced a tablet with a translation app. I spoke my problem into it, perhaps a little too colloquially -- my explanation (which also appeared in English) was that the turnstile "eight" my ticket.

Undeterred, he picked up a phone, spoke into it, and handed me the receiver. "This is the transit translation service," a woman's voice said in English. "How can I help?" I explained my problem. "OK, hand the phone back to the transit employee," she said. He listened for a moment, then resolved the problem quickly.

Although I can gush about Japanese subways for some time -- the cleanliness, the comfort of the seats, the punctuality, ticket machines offering a dozen languages -- I should note they have a legacy network of multiple private companies running intersecting train lines, which can make transfers, day passes and ticketing confusing.

Still, there are plenty of transit ideas in Japan to steal. I'm not sure Amtrak can really borrow too much from Japan's magnificent intercity bullet train system -- the gap between them may simply be too great to bridge -- but I did encounter another stealable innovation when I stepped out of the Kyoto station upon arriving from Tokyo.

Among the cabs were a few that had a sign on the roof reading "Foreign Friendly Taxi." I approached one; the driver spoke perfect English and even helped me with orientation to the city. No advance reservation needed, no extra charge.

And listen up, hoteliers: Three of my accommodations included a complimentary smartphone that acted as a hotspot so I could enjoy a no-cost wireless network as I explored cities. Service directories in rooms were thorough, helpful and translated. And I was never asked to pay a resort fee.

Apps are useful to bridge the language gap, but Google Translate still has a long way to go. My confidence in the app suffered when it listed one of the ingredients in packaged food I had bought as "hairdresser." For quite some time to come, destinations would benefit by mimicking innovative analog as well as high-tech ways of reducing language angst.


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