Lost in translation? I know the feeling

Fifteen years on, the memory of that Tokyo nightmare still brings me out in a rash

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Everyone I know has seen, loved and is now urging me to see a film called
Lost in Translation about a couple of Americans feeling disorientated in Tokyo. All right, all right, I'll go, though why I should want to relive an almost identical personal experience heavens knows.

Everyone I know has seen, loved and is now urging me to see a film called Lost in Translation about a couple of Americans feeling disorientated in Tokyo. All right, all right, I'll go, though why I should want to relive an almost identical personal experience heavens knows.

Occasionally when we play that old one-upmanship game about how many countries in the world you have been to (when the children were small I heard them playing a slightly different version that went "how many countries in the world have you been sick in?") I always count Japan, but feel slightly guilty when I do. It counts because I have actually been to Tokyo. The guilt comes because I hated it so much that I checked out after less than 24 hours. The circumstances were bizarre to say the least - throw another log on the fire and I'll tell you the story.

Back in the bad old days before bird flu and cheap flights, when people still enjoyed good food instead of all this fusion stuff that's foisted on us now, Thai-style haggis with Yorkshire pudding and linguine, the big airlines set great store by the standard of their in-flight cuisine, especially for first-class passengers. They vied with each other, chequebooks in hand, to persuade top international chefs to do their menus in the same way that they hired Paris couture houses to design the staff uniforms. So anyway, British Airways signed up Anton Mosimann, the then legendary chef of the Dorchester Hotel, to create a dazzling new menu for its first-class long-haul flights. To promote it they invited a dozen journalists to dinner in a magnificently appointed private penthouse dining room at the hotel to sample a five-course banquet which, as far as I remember, was pretty damn good.

The reason, I dare say, that the finer details of the meal were forgotten, was that scarcely had we laid down our coffee spoons and picked up our petits fours than a hat was passed round and we were each invited to pull out an unmarked envelope at random. It goes without saying that at this stage we were all pretty drunk; every course had been accompanied by a complementary vintage wine and most of us thought that this was some kind of post-prandial party game on the lines of Consequences.

It wasn't. The envelopes contained a first-class return ticket to one of 12 destinations, the name of the passenger to be filled in. The man from The Times got LA; the girl from the Telegraph got Singapore; the funny wee fellow with a pigtail from the Glasgow Herald got Cape Town. I got Tokyo. Our brief, said the man from British Airways, was to sample the identical meal we had just eaten tonight at the Dorchester, at 30,000 feet tomorrow night, and see if we could detect any difference in the quality. I've had some tough assignments as a journalist but ye gods, this was something else. Next day I flew first class to Tokyo sitting in a huge wide armchair seat beside the friendly man who had offered to carry my hand luggage on board, who turned out to be David Puttnam. While I dutifully worked my way through the Dorchester menu plus wine, David Puttnam had a chicken sandwich and two glasses of orange juice.

We got to Tokyo. A car arrived to take me to the hotel I had been booked in to for up to a week if I wanted. It was 7am, too early to arrange tour guides and translators, so heady with excitement and the novelty of foreign parts I set out to explore the city on my own.

Fifteen years on, the memory of that Tokyo nightmare still brings me out in a rash. I got lost, of course. The street names were in Japanese. No one spoke English and I'd forgotten the name of my hotel. If only I had had the same foresight as the late Dowager Duchess of Portland who when travelling abroad always took the precaution of writing the following sentence in 10 languages, including Japanese, and sewing it into the hem of her coat. "I am the Dowager Duchess of Portland. Please take me immediately to the British Embassy."

I ran into a man who spoke English who said he would help me but first he would take me to some Taoist shrines, introduce me to the ancient Japanese tea ceremony and buy me a drink at a geisha club. His name was Otagi and he failed to mention that he was a serial waylayer of lost English tourists whom he bored to death. When at 2am, having seen more shrines, drunk more tea and conversed in pidgin English with more geishas than Otagi had had sushi suppers, and he returned me to my hotel, all I wanted to do was go home. Disorientation? Tell me about it.

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