It was a hectic moment.
I was in Tokyo’s Times Square-like Shinjuku district, accompanied by a couple of guys I’d met on my flight from Minneapolis. Our taxi had pulled curbside. We argued over who would pay, our cash-wielding fists jousting for the clearest path to the driver’s hand. Blaine won, and out we tumbled into the Tokyo night.
Then, the sudden panic. My pockets were empty.
My phone was gone, an unwitting passenger in one of thousands of taxis winding through the 5,000-square-mile concrete jungle.
In most major cities, this is where the story would end.
But not in Tokyo.
Though just a few hours into my trip there, Japan’s capital had already made one thing perfectly clear: It is a place where kindness rules.
After landing, I had made my way to Katsu, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant where nigiri, hand rolls, sake, fruit and just about everything else a foodie heart could desire rolls past, preening, waiting for you to snatch it.
Except I couldn’t find the place. I had arrived at the address, but had no clue where to go in the mall-like building, lost amid a maze of establishments on several floors, with few signs in English. Then I stopped a man. He spoke no English — not unusual in Tokyo — but he understood my predicament when I said, “Katsu.” He gestured for me to come with him, took me up one floor and showed me where to sit in the queue while I waited to be called in, smiling and bowing all the while.
What an incredibly nice man, I thought.
But this wasn’t a blip on the radar.
That night, I had taxied from my Shibuya apartment to the Park Hyatt, where Blaine, his partner Pat and Pat’s parents were staying, and where we had drinks at the New York Bar on the 42nd floor, to a live jazz soundtrack, gazing through the floor-to-ceiling glass panels at the twinkling expanse below.
After we’d downed our cocktails, we hopped in taxis, still laughing about my Old Fashioned, which our waitress had asked if I wanted “classic” (she said that meant strong) or “American” (she said that meant fruity).
Ten minutes later, we’d spilled out of the taxi, me phoneless. None of us could remember anything about the car we’d been in.
It was Day 1 of a two-week Southeast Asia backpacking journey that had yet no itinerary, only the promise of an open map and my willingness to plan on the fly.
Only now I’d be doing it without a phone. Or so I thought.
Pat, working the only angle, called the hotel and explained the situation. The clerk remembered us. He remembered that we had taken two taxis — Blaine and me in one car and Pat and his parents in the other. He remembered the company of each. He told Pat, with great certainty, that he would take care of this.
“He’s making it his personal mission, I think,” Pat said with a grin.
Fifteen minutes later, as we were waiting for the show at Robot Restaurant — a loud, bizarre, part-human, part-robot, mouth-dropping entertainery — the clerk called back. He had my phone. When I went to pick it up later and tried to hand him a hefty tip, he furrowed his brow, confused. No one tips in Tokyo, for anything. This man was simply doing his job.
Was this an odd trend? A lucky streak?
Two weeks later, I traveled through the city again on my way home — and again I felt the warmth of a culture so different from my own. Nearly every interaction, from buying a soda to handing someone a ticket, was met with eye contact, a smile that brought those eyes to life, and a bow.
I adopted the bow, too, finding it the perfect means to say something words could not. The deeper the bow, I learned, the deeper the gratitude.
This time, I landed in Narita, which is about as close to Tokyo’s center as the Earth is to the sun. On the Narita Express train, two young women, who spoke about three words of English between them, helped me find which stop to exit. Before they got off, one woman came over, raised her eyebrows and gave me a thumbs up as if to ask if I’d be all right without them. I nodded and smiled, and bowed, and they did, too.
When I disembarked at Tokyo Station, a multilevel behemoth where 15 train lines converge, I was instantly lost again.
I looked around. Hundreds of people were streaming through the corridor, walking quickly, talking among themselves, on their phones, looking straight ahead.
Tokyo’s kindness, you see, reveals itself only when you ask for it.
The people of the city don’t walk around, smiling aimlessly. They don’t heap unsolicited advice on passersby. They seem incredibly rushed, actually. Time, everywhere, is precious but perhaps more so in a culture that regularly demands longer hours of its workers than anywhere else in the world. On a 10 p.m. train, many men and women held briefcases and tired stares.
At Tokyo Central, I knew I needed help, and I reached into the swarm.
Again, the young man whose shoulder I put my hand on spoke no English.
It was no matter.
He saw I needed assistance and directed me to the information desk, where he talked with the clerk in Japanese, then walked me to my subway, waited with me for my train and bowed to me, twice, as it pulled away.
Later that evening, when I was leaving the whiskey bar Cafe Bar Elixir, I asked the bartender for the best place to hail a taxi. She excused herself from other patrons and walked with me two blocks to the cab stand.
The next morning, on my way to the airport to fly home, I stopped at a cafe to get breakfast. I paid the taxi there with nearly all of my yen, thinking I would take an Uber (which uses only the credit card on file with your account) to the airport.
Then I discovered the cafe doesn’t take cards.
An ATM around the corner would be no help; I’d lost my ATM card in Cambodia. I had plenty of cash, but I hadn’t exchanged it all at the airport, thinking of Tokyo, unlike the previous places I’d been in Southeast Asia, as a credit card city.
After gorging on coffee and waffles, I had no way to pay my bill.
I was aimlessly calling the customer service lines of my other credit cards, searching for a solution, when my waitress came to the table. She had seen my panicked face when she’d announced the cafe took cash only. She motioned for me to put my phone down.
“You have plane to catch,” she said, pointing at the clock. “Please this is OK. Let us pay.”
Distraught and embarrassed, I began digging through my purse again, coming up with only change.
She put her hand on my arm to stop me.
“Please,” she said, smiling. “Just if you ever come back to Tokyo, come here.”
My eyes welled with tears. Why wasn’t she angry? Why was she so concerned?
Who was I, this bumbling tourist, to deserve all of this kindness?
I stumbled to my feet, my front pack and backpack pinning me like an anchor. I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you” didn’t seem enough.
So I pressed my hands together in prayer form and bowed until my front pack touched my toes, then walked out and got in my Uber, pulling away into what I now knew to be a kinder world.