My travel companion and I were hot and tired after our 12-hour flight. Tokyo was our first stop on a 2½ month journey around South East Asia and we both badly wanted a shower and a long cool drink. For fun we had learned the Japanese for hello, thank you, please, goodbye on our flight, but hadn’t got much further than that. As we trudged up the hill, hoping that my hotel was just over the next crest, we were starting to question how prepared we really were for such an adventure as we were embarking on.
My companion was due to stay at the apartment of her cousin in the business district – but with very strict rules about the numbers of house guests allowed – I had booked myself into a modest but bright hotel I had found online. I very badly wanted to see those neon bulbs beckoning me as soon as possible.
After congratulating ourselves on having successfully gotten the train from the airport to the city, we decided we would try and find my hotel on foot – not yet having the confidence to navigate the public transport system – and keen to find our bearings for ourselves. Also, despite the fact that every few steps there was a vending machine offering one sort of refreshment or another (we had been told there were approximately 22 of these machines per head of population in Tokyo alone), we were as yet to figure out how to make the local currency work properly, and in any case were too fixated on finding our resting place to stop and quench our thirst.
But then, very shortly, we had to stop.
What had for some unshakable time felt like we were very carefully following the map we were clutching (with such hope and determination), was now starting to feel more like gradually walking in the entirely wrong direction with dogged obstinacy.
It was time to admit we didn’t know where we were anymore. And to also accept that some human interaction was going to be required to resolve this impasse.
We took it in turns to approach a handful of kindly faced people. Though they tried their best to understand our English, it was nevertheless clear that nobody knew where the hotel was or where we were in relation to it.
Approaching that special place of tiredness, where sitting on the pavement and crying seems like the most feasible way forward, we spied, from the corner of our slightly submerged eyes, a postman on his bicycle.
“Well!” we thought
“If anyone is going to know their way around Tokyo then this fella should!”
And with our last reserves of energy, heaving our people-sized backpacks as fast as was possible in our diminished state, we chased said postman up the street.
When we reached him it was with immense relief we realised he understood what we were trying to achieve. We apologised profusely for our lack of Japanese – feeling really rather embarrassed, ill-prepared and amateurish, we showed him our map. We then showed him the printed brochure for the hotel we were trying to track down. We looked intently at his face with the expectant belief of small children.
The postman’s face crumpled into a visage of grief. He did not know where our hotel was. And this clearly caused him immense pain. He was utterly devastated to be asked for assistance and be unable to provide it. We felt thoroughly wretched for having visited this despair upon this poor man’s head. He suggested to us that if the map was correct the hotel should be somewhere ahead in the direction we were travelling, but he was not aware of it and was not able to direct us any further. After bestowing us with every apology he had within him, his hands clasped together and a final forlorn bow, he wished us well and remounted his bicycle to continue his day’s work.
Though now weighed down further by the addition of guilt to the load on our shoulders (having ruined this man’s day and upset him so greatly with his inability to help us), we were slightly buoyed that he did at least think we were heading in the right direction. And so on we trudged, up the hill that never seemed to end, and never resulted in the neon lights which we might very well start hallucinating for lack of sleep and liquids.
With a temporary suspension of conversation (for fear we may be too irascible to be polite at this moment in time) we were starting to lose the will to put one foot in front of the other, when we became aware of a commotion heading toward us. From over the top of the hill came a small, determined figure – at great speed – on his bicycle. It was our benevolent postman!
When he came to a screeching halt it became apparent that – so saddened was he by his failure to assist us fully – he had taken himself off in search of the missing hotel and, having eventually found it, hightailed it as fast as his peddling feet would carry him back to where we were (probably not as far up the hill as he might have expected). He was clearly overjoyed at finally being able to complete his mission as number one best helper of lost (slightly inept) girls.
He beckoned us to walk with him, beside his bicycle and he would show us the way. As it was still quite a walk from where he had located us, this gave us the opportunity to respond to his many questions about where we were from, where we were going and what we planned to do whilst in Tokyo. He was fascinated by our journey and, when he deposited us at the door of our elusive hotel, gave us another bow and proclaimed “Wished you happy times in my city”.
We were so touched by his generosity, warmth and perseverance on our behalf. And still, 6 years on, this is one of my favourite stories to recount – along with the myriad other examples of the kindness of the people of Tokyo, who never ceased to amaze us by stepping up to help a couple of meerkating strangers, desperately trying to see their way to somewhere above the crowds.
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