THOSE STRANGERS YOU MEET ON THE ROAD… OR ELSEWHERE.
1ST EPISODE – FIRST NIGHT IN JAPAN
“Don’t you dare to speak to strangers!” We’ve all been hearing this, especially during childhood. Because strangers are unknown, and unknown is scary, filled up with bad intentions, particularly with those fizzing candies and long raincoats. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, for it’s actually a good piece of advice for kids, whom are innocents and don’t really know about mistrust, carefulness, and well, who knows what could happen to a helpless kid? However… I’m wondering why this piece of advice stays stuck within us once we grew up. Is it right? Aren’t we doing too much being so cold and distrustful towards strangers? What’s going to happen if we step up, just a little, out of our comfort bubble?
Here, I’ll try to prove from A to Z how it can be really awesome sometimes to let yourself go and talk to strangers, to trust them a little and moreover to take some time to… Just speak and get to know them.
While travelling, you often get some random acts of kindness. Maybe because you’re more up to it, more open to it, and also more dependent on it. Here, I wanted to share some of those encounters with strangers, some of those acts of random kindness, some great surprises I had with strangers, and therefore what I learned from it. I’ve got plenty of little stories that I’d like to share and write about. I hope this little saga will have the advantage of bringing a different, yet optimistic glance upon our world.
I’m telling you, folks. You can talk to strangers. That’s pure happiness.
SOME RANDOM STREET IN SHINJUKU, TOKYO, JAPAN
I’m lost. My plane got delayed and I missed the last subway trains to get to my Couchsurfing host’s place. I’m so excited to be finally in Japan that I decide I won’t be sleeping in the airport hall for my first Japanese night. I’m taking the last bus to Shinjuku instead. But I have seriously no idea what I’m going to do once I get there. I’m meeting Holly and Jake, two Australians who offers me to share a taxi with them. They drop me off close to a capsule hotel, which is supposed to be somewhere further on this street. Except that… I can’t find it. In Japan, it’s quite complicated: you have to watch at the signs in a vertical way, for a building could have both a karaoke bar and a travel agency, both a cat café and a hostel. And more. And obviously, those signs are all written in Japanese kanji. I keep wandering around, I’m in Tokyo for God’s sake! I am going to find a cheap hostel to spend the night at some point. In the meanwhile, I could just have a nice walk and discover the neighbourhood. I’m heavy loaded, Monster my backpack is killing my shoulders. I can’t seem to realise that I’m finally here, in this country I so often dreamed of, that I’m am all by myself, starting my long journey in this huge sprawling city. I find a nice bench to sit on, close to a drink machine (it’s crazy how much vending machines there are in the streets here!) and it’s a welcome relief for my shoulders and my thirsty throat.
A Japanese guy stops and approaches me. He asks me if I’m okay, and moreover what the hell am I doing alone in the streets in the middle of the night?! I tell him about my adventures and this capsule hotel I can’t seem to find. He now seems really determined to help me. Even though it’s like 2:00 AM. I think it’s weird. Because if in France someone is approaching you in the streets in the middle of the night, you’ll think it’s weird. Dangerous even. But I am so excited, so tired and well… I have nothing to lose. I mean that’s even the first reason that brought me here. So, I find myself following Teiichi who’s bringing me to his favourite izakaya. I’m now in a really tiny traditional Japanese bar, in a really tiny traditional Japanese street with many other really tiny izakaya. I’m feeling fully immersed into Japanese culture, for it doesn’t seem that this place has a high touristic traffic. The place is empty, except for Hamachan at the counter. I’m a bit nervous, starting to think that maybe Teiichi’s endeavour won’t be free of charge if you see what I mean. What do Japanese guys dream of? Do they dream about blondie European girls in their hentai’s fantasies? He introduces me to Hamachan, makes me put down Monster in the backroom, introduces himself a bit. He’s working in the Publishing industry. What a coincidence since I used to be a bookseller! As the Japanese tradition dictates, he gives me his business card. He’s often on the phone, seems like he’s calling people to find me a place to sleep tonight. He says I should relax, he’s going out to find me some place. What the hell is going to happen to me?
Alone with Hamachan, we start chatting, even though her English is really limited. She serves me green tea with honey, a kind of seaweed soup and some edamame (it’s actually immature soy beans with salt) for I told her that was one my favourite Japanese food. I look at her gashapon collection (little action figures) and show her the Creamy Mami’s one because I was actually watching this anime when I was a kid. She seems so happy about it that she gives it to me! I refuse, but she insists. This will be my first failed attempt to refuse generosity coming from a Japanese people, and believe me, there was plenty. You don’t turn off gifts that a Japanese offers you, it’s just not something to do. And as I’m feeling it’s enough good surprises for the last hours, Teiichi shows up and I don’t have to pay anything for the tea and the food! I don’t know who paid for it, Teiichi or Hamachan, but I must say that I’m completely bewildered facing their kindness.
I’m still nervous when I follow Teiichi in the Shinjuku’s streets. His English speaking is quite limited (but way better than Hamachan’s), so I just get that he found a place for me. But where? At his own place, at some friends’ place (please let’s hope they speak English), in a hotel? Okay, well, I’m trying to remember my Judo classes from almost twenty years ago, but let’s be honest it won’t be any piece of cake to make a move with heavy-Monster on my shoulders. Still, I am very curious about how this (mis)adventure will end. Finally, Teiichi brought me to a spa hotel… only for women. He says it’s safer. He’s taking care of the booking since they don’t speak English here either (hello, I just got out of the plane and I’m already fully immersed in the country!) He’s about to leave and I’m like I can’t stop thanking him and finally ask him if he wants anything in return (secretly thinking ‘please not sex’.) But it’s fine he says, he’s done it to help me, but he’s in a kind of hurry now, he has to go home, he’s a bit late. I’m speechless. For the first time of my life, I’m getting the full picture of what just happened to me. For the first time of my life, I just got hit by an act of random and free kindness. It makes me shiver.
The hotel in which Teiichi brought me in is a spa hotel, which means hot showers, bubble baths, hot baths, etc. It’s more than welcome for me since it’s like 4:00 AM now so I’m having the time of my life in the bubble bath. I have to follow the footsteps of this smiling Japanese lady because I’m afraid to do it wrong – I know that you have to follow some rules while taking a bath in Japan, and I’m completely scared to do something wrong that might look shocking. This lady doesn’t speak a word of English when I’m asking her how should I was myself before entering the baths, but she’s smiling like an angel so I just watch, learn and do as her.
My long first night in Tokyo ends in a dormitory full of women, on a very uncomfortable leather tatami, dressed in a night yukata the hotel provided.
I’m completely jet-lagged, I feel like I’m floating on clouds. I don’t really realise what happened within the last few hours.
Mate, I’m in bloody Japan!