I am visiting a city known for its courteous people, forward-thinking creativity, and quirkiness: Tokyo.
It’s 11 mins past 10 and I’ve only spoken to nine people today: four airport officers, my capsule hotel’s receptionists, Tully’s Coffee’s barista, Book-Off’s clerk, and a cashier at Family Mart. All transactional, so far. I ask (mostly about prices) in English and they respond in pure Japanese.
I didn’t expect to have a meaty conversation with someone in Japan on my first day. I hardly know their mother tongue. It’s too late to regret abandoning my free Duolingo Japanese language lessons.
For someone who doesn’t drink much and who gets bored in bars, my chances of making friends out of random strangers are reduced even more. Why? Sober people rarely muster up the courage to speak to strangers. I can’t blame them. Like them, it is my default behaviour to shy away from strangers.
It’s 15 mins past 11. The hall in the female cabin area is filled with noise from slightly tipsy girls. They are chatting and giggling. I could hear them from my room. I’m not yet sleepy, the hotel’s promise of free cup noodles after 10pm has kept me awake.
I haven’t made much progress with the quest for a “friendly chat” in Tokyo, but if I could score some free (albeit instant) ramen, at least I’d be able to sleep with a happy belly.
I press my cabin’s sliding door open, heading for the elevator. As I am about to close the elevator doors, a woman wearing black shirt, black slacks, short hair, and a brilliant smile enters. I smile back, thinking it might be all I could get from this meeting.
But clearly, I am wrong. She starts speaking, “Where are you from?” With fake rose gold hair, bigger-than-average eyes, and brown skin, I obviously don’t blend in.
“Philippines,” I reply.
“Oh, nice. I’ve been to Manila and it’s really beautiful.”
“Really? Have you been to Cebu, too?” I ask, expecting a ‘yes.’
“No. It was just a short business meeting,” she answers and the elevator dings to halt, signaling we reach the second floor, where the reception area and cafeteria are located.
“See you around,” I tell her.
“See you,” she replies.
The cafe has a center counter and several tables and chairs for diners. I immediately reach out for a glass of lemon water and a cup of free coffee. Score! Then I grab one of the free noodle cups lying around the table. Another score!
The only thing to do now is to pour hot water… Shoot. Japanese labels, no English translation. And unlike the common high-tech toilet buttons, this one doesn’t have icons to help me figure out which one to press. Just plain Japanese text.
I’m screwed. I turn my head looking for the nearest source of help. Then the woman in black comes to my rescue. She wears the same friendly smile.
“Do you need help with that?” she asks.
“Sure, thanks,” relief showing in my voice. “Do you want one, too?” I offer, as if I own the cafe.
“I think not. I ate a lot at dinner and I had plenty of beers,” she says, sounding bubblier than usual.
“Oh, after work drink.” I reply.
“It’s quite common for people here to drink with their boss or workmates after work,” she explains.
“I see,” eyes now on my cup noodles.
We both sit down, facing each other, she’s drinking water while I scoop noodles out of the plastic cup, trying to eat with as much poise as possible.
“So, are you planning to visit Kyoto?” she opens again. She sure wants to have a friendly chat.
“Not this time. Tokyo is too big to cover in just 5 days,” I say.
“Oh, the best spots are usually in Kyoto. You should visit my hometown next time.”
“Wait, you’re from Kyoto?”
“Yes, I’m only visiting Tokyo for work. The professor I am working with is from Tokyo University. I work as a research assistant in Biology.”
The conversation goes on for a while, until we hit sort of a sore topic.
The Pressure to Marry in Your 30’s
You’d think Japan’s progress would change its social construct. Hardly so.
I eventually learn that this 30-something Japanese woman from Kyoto never wants to marry, much to her mother’s disappointment. During our short chat, she manages to tell me that she doesn’t think she would ever find someone who sees her as “marriageable,” not her exact words, I’m merely paraphrasing.
At 31, she feels she’s too old. She believes that most Japanese women past the age of 25 usually find it difficult to meet a lifetime partner.
Like a considerate friend, I try to lighten up the conversation by changing the subject. I ask for her help with my Tokyo itinerary. She beams – the sore subject quickly forgotten.
And she’s very quick to help. She even goes back to her room to get her phone. When she gets back, she shows me how to use Google Maps.
I feel a little guilty for not telling her I totally know how to use one. The Philippines isn’t exactly known for its tech-savviness, so I can easily forgive her. The next day, we cross paths again and she even offers to accompany me to the nearest train station and show me how to get to Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.
Not wanting to be a burden to her, I politely decline her offer. It’s fall and my first order of business is to see Tokyo’s autumn in all its splendor.
I guess, despite my lack of language skills, we have connected.
I’ve made a friend in Tokyo on my first day.