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Couchsurfing in Japan and the Search Party

In Japan, everything is organized.  Everything is immaculate and orderly.  So there we were, in the middle of a matrix of order and organization, lost and being told by your cab driver that the house where we would be spending the night at was “somewhere in that direction.”  Well, not in so many words.  In fact, this was communicated to us in very sloooowly spoken Japanese and a lot of vigorous pointing.

After swearing that 30 is too old to be overnighting in a hostel with eight bunk beds full of dirty and loud 20-somethings that arrive in the middle of the night in their drunken stupor and try to climb onto the top bunk bed—your bunkbed—we decided it was time to try couchsurfing.  Sleeping in a stranger’s house, whom you met online?  “You’ll die.” I could see my sister, the voice of caution, shaking her head in alarm.  “For sure, you’ll die.” She’d say for emphasis.  But alas, my sister was not around and neither was common sense.  The only thing left after our sleepless night at the hostel was the impairment of our common sense.  And desperation.  A combination that definitely called for desperate measures.

And so that’s how we found ourselves somewhere in the suburbs of Kyoto, looking for a place we’ve never been to, trying to find people we’d never met.  Equipped with no maps but determination, driven by cheapness and tiredness, carrying over 25 pounds in our backpacks, we started walking in the direction our cabbie had indicated.  In the distance, there was a sea of simple, one-story Japanese houses, with small, neatly kept gardens.  They all looked the same.  “Like all Asians all look the same” I’d hear somebody making a bad joke.  And seeing that there were only Tim and I there, my bet is that he made the bad joke, always armed with this racial joke immunity derived from being married to an Asian himself.   We walked for about 10 minutes before verbalizing that it was, in fact, ridiculous to be walking in a straight line, based solely on the fact that “over there” was the last direction (as opposed to the other five corners) that our cab driver had pointed to.  We turned to the first person we saw, a middle-aged woman riding her bike.  We showed her the address on a piece of paper.  We were encouraged by her nodding, her expression of “aha” until, that is, she stopped at her house and asked her husband to get a map.  Her husband came out of the house and greeted us with a smile.  They congregated around the map, a very stranged map, a Xeroxed copy of a hand-drawn bean-shaped area (what we guessed was the district) divided up into irregularly shaped plots with small kangi characters next to each of them.  The couple asked each other questions, pointing here and there, looking alternatively at the hand-drawn map and the crumpled paper where we had written down the address.  The woman, who was obviously on her way home for a quiet evening, dropped off the grocery bags with her husband and started pushing her bike:  “Shougou?” we heard her ask. We knew “shougou” meant name, but we had no idea what she mean.  The natural response was to give her a confused look and shake our heads.  She realized it was hopeless and just motioned for us to follow her.

It became clear that she didn’t know where she was going when, after only one block, she stopped yet another neighbor and showed her the piece of paper with the address.  The second lady, who was wearing a fisherman’s hat, shook her head.    And as we walk forward, I realized that the lady in the fisherman’s hat was following, having decided that she too, would help these poor foreigners.  The next 20 minutes were like a neighborhood tour, where we stopped at four other houses, each time adding more members to our search party.  People would attentively listen to the lady pushing the bike, look at the address, shake their heads and trail behind us.  We made a few turns, and people took turns at re-reading the address, recruiting more members for our search party and stopping to discuss how close we were to our destination.  Every once in a while, one of them would repeat “Shougou?” and we would stare blankly at them.  When we turned into a wider, open street, we heard a motorcycle.  The members of our search party turned around to see a heavyset woman in her 60s wearing a black motorcycle jacket, black pants and pilot sunglasses, riding her motorcycle like she was parting the sea, making the big entrance that gave us all hope.  She looked all badass and the only indication that she might be a housewife instead of a Hell’s Angel were the dozens of fabric bags with pictures of Hello Kitty and other versions of cutsy human-like animals, filled with groceries and other trinkets hanging from either side of her handle.   The motorcycle grandma dismounted her bike, and as she approached the lady who was holding the map, people started moving over to the side, giving way to the person whom we had all silently appointed to be our savior.  The motorcycle grandma moved up to the front of the group and took the lead.  We walked a few more blocks and at this point I realized that the group had got so big that we are actually blocking the street.  This meant nobody could go through without being interrogated by our group of rescuers.

One of the interrogated happened to be a quiet man, a bit hunched over but eager to help.  There were words exchanged, none of which we understood, as they were all speaking Japanese.  Suddenly, there was an excitement in the air.  This man seemed to know something!  “Gaijin” here “gaijin” there.  We had finally heard a word we recognized:  “Gaijin,” or “white person.”  And as they all spoke of “gaijin” their words became more animated, the pointing more decisive.  “Gaijin, gaigjin, gaijin” they said in unison.  Soon enough, motorcycle grandma made a turn east, this time with resolute steps and a concentrated stare.  All the old ladies and men in the search party now seemed optimistic and were actually pointing in the same direction while repeating “gaijin, gaijin!”

We took one of the back roads, passed two community gardens and stopped.  Motorcycle grandma politely motioned us to go up the porch of the house with the corrugated roof.  Everybody pointed at the sign outside of the door:  “Shougou!” they said.  We later found out that every Japanese house has a name, and in addition to the street and district, this is also required information when trying to find an address.  The group looked at us encouragingly, as if to say “go ahead, knock on the door.”  We did as we were told and the door opened.  Our hostess, a Canadian, opened the doors and greeted us with a warm smile.  Even though we had never met her, she knew exactly why we’re there.  The group watched us and when they were sure they had delivered us safely, they proceed to say “arigato” and bow down, though it was us who were thankful for their help.  Our rescuers slowly retreated, looking at as they bowed down and walked away, bowed and walked away until they disappeared into the distance.


The Lost Files

I’ve been reminiscing…There are a few stories (hopefully more) that have been confined to our memory…at least until now.  I’ve been missing our life of travels, so instead of musing about it, I’ll just relive my old life vicariously through experiences past.