A Woman, a Mountain, and an Act of Kindness: Connecting Without Language in Japan

I didn't speak any Japanese. In the end, it didn't matter

Woman framed by red maple leaves admiring Mount Fuji and Lake Kawaguchi in autumn, Japan.

Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

We're dedicating our April features to all things solo travel. Whether it’s a soul-searching hike, a decompressing beach trip, or an invigorating urban getaway, tackling the world as a solo traveler has become safer, easier, and more empowering. Dive into this month's features to learn strategies for making friends while solo and the ways technology has changed the solo travel experience, then get lost in inspiring stories of bus journeys through Africa, a voyage to Mount Fuji, a social experiment in South Korea, and a solo bikepacking birthday celebration.

I thought how unbelievable it was to be standing in front of Mount Fuji when the bus pulled up. The 12,388-foot dormant volcano, a sacred site since the early 7th century, had a looming presence that had distracted me, for a moment, from my current problem.

The only ATM at the bus station I stood at didn’t seem to have any power, and I nervously looked down at my debit card, my only lifeline. I hoped there might be a way to convince the bus driver to let me on and let me pay him once I got to the airport. It was before 6 a.m., and I had a 10-hour travel day ahead. (Little did I know that I was boarding a bus to the wrong airport, and I’d arrive at my next destination, Bangkok, many hours late. But that’s a different story altogether.)

When the bus door opened, I pulled myself away from the view of Fuji rising into a sky the color of cherry blossoms. Hopping in line behind a woman and her young daughter, I started to wring my hands, wondering what I’d do if the debit card didn’t make the cut. They boarded the bus, paid in cash (I panicked more), and sat down in the first row. When I approached the driver and held out my debit card, he looked at me sternly and shook his head.

“I don’t have any money,” I said. I showed him my wallet. “Cards? This is it.”

He stared back blankly and then replied in Japanese.

I nodded again, even though, of course, I didn’t understand. I pulled up my flight information on my phone and showed it to him. I said words like "airport," "yen," and "please." I pointed to the ATM on the sidewalk and crossed my pointer fingers in front of me, making the shape of an X, trying to signal that it didn’t work.

He looked at me, then behind him at the other passengers, then at the door.

I’d been traveling on my own in Japan for work for just under a week. While the resort where I was coming from (where several of the staff spoke English) was only about 15 minutes away by taxi, walking there from here wouldn’t be easy (the road was long and steep), and the taxi driver who had dropped me off was long gone. The station was empty now; there was no one else around.

As I fumbled with my phone, trying to bring up Google Translate, the woman who had boarded ahead of me stood up. She walked over to me and said something in Japanese, nodding to the row near her. She pointed to the ATM outside, then my wallet, and said "Narita." She understood that I needed someone to lend me yen, and I would immediately repay it at the airport. I nodded like a bobblehead, smiled and put a hand over my heart, and said thank you repeatedly, first in English and then in Japanese (though I know my pronunciation was dreadful). She waved a hand as if to say "no big deal" and handed the man the bus fare in yen. Then she walked back to sit with her daughter, gesturing for me to sit across from them.

I sat there quietly reflecting for the three-hour bus ride to the airport. This generous woman must have had a motherly instinct—or simply understood how it can feel to be navigating a foreign country alone as a female.

Every hour or so, our eyes would meet, and we would smile. I imagined that if I spoke Japanese, I would ask her if she was from the area, where they were traveling, and how old her daughter was. I’d explain how big of a difference a favor like this can make for someone on their own across the world from home.

Once we arrived at Narita, I followed the woman and her daughter off the bus. She pointed at her watch, and I nodded—they were in a rush—and we headed inside together. She seemed to know precisely where the ATM was. She smiled at me as I took out my wallet, moving quickly to avoid wasting their time. After I handed her the cash, I said thank you again, wishing I had more words to convey how grateful I was. She put a hand on my shoulder and nodded like she got it. She and her daughter waved and said goodbye and hurried off to the check-in desks.

After my trip to Japan, I read a bit more about Mount Fuji. It’s long been a site of religious and spiritual significance, its poised slopes dotted with shrines and temples and even huts for hikers. The Shinto shrines at Mount Fuji honor Princess Konohanasakuya, a supernatural deity of the faith. Fuji draws hundreds of thousands of people every year, many of whom make a pilgrimage to the summit, leaving at night to reach the top by dawn. I was most interested to learn that women weren’t allowed to climb the mountain until relatively recently—the Meiji Restoration, only in 1886.

To this day, I find great comfort when I think back to that experience: the woman, the mountain, the act of kindness; it continues to feel particularly significant, especially when news of the world feels discouraging and unsettling. There she and I were, having our wordless conversation below Mount Fuji—a symbol of Japan and its culture, but also a place that signifies progress for women and their rights to do things like climb up mountains.

Encounters like this one make me want to continue traveling alone, especially in a world where women can climb together and look out for one another, language barriers be damned. I wonder if she ever thinks back on it, too.