The summer heat and humidity stifled our every will to move, yet it was incomprehensible to let a single day go by without trying for an adventure, and so we, as a group, had set out for Yoyogi Park. If Yoyogi could be famous for one thing, it should be its beauty. If it could be famous for two, it should be its beauty and the mosquitos. The massive landscape sprawled out before us, filled with people playing Frisbee, walking their dogs, and sitting by the fountains. The fountains themselves flicked on and off at odd intervals, preserving the power it took to run them while still keeping the dreaded mosquitos from laying eggs in still water.
Our group consisted of four people: Jill, Annalise, Joanna, and me. Three weeks ago, I hadn’t known a single one of these people that had become my constant companions. We met on the first day of the study program in which I had enrolled. This story isn’t the story of making great friends quickly and without a hitch. At the time, I had been recently diagnosed with severe, chronic anxiety and bipolar disorder, but at the time, remained without any medication to help manage my constantly fluctuating stress levels. Long story short, I was terrified every second of the beginning of this trip—and quite a few times after the beginning.
A huge occurrence in Japan is staring. Everywhere we went, we’d catch either wary or interested eye as we tried our best to be polite and quiet on the train or at a restaurant. We didn’t dress bizarrely, in fact, I remember that I had a very strict, minimalist packing scheme that involved black t-shirts and long denim shorts for every single day of the week—wash when all of the clothes were dirty, and repeat. Jill usually took the brunt of the staring, as she was a tall woman, built up with plenty of muscle that allowed her to walk comfortably for miles while I, out of shape, would huff and puff along by the end of the day. Her height and build got plenty of attention.
Joanna, too, was often watched, as she had dyed blonde hair, which fascinated some people to the point of wanting pictures with her. Annalise was likely the least stared at—as I’m 5’9” and definitely had some glances for my height in the same manner as Jill. Annalise was average to short in height with curly dark hair, styled into a very short pixie cut.
In short, we weren’t ignored as we entered and traversed the massive park. The heat brought sweat from our brows into our eyes. The mosquitos were most active at night, so in the humid summer’s day, we were mostly safe from the itching bites. In Yoyogi Park, you can always hear crows cawing away, but in Japan, the crows, to me, always sounded a bit like old men laughing in the trees.
The old men laughed, the sun blazed on, and we walked determined forward toward Harajuku—a place to which we wouldn’t arrive on this day. Music drifted through the air…
Okay that’s a lie, some drunken men’s screeching hung limply in the air, assaulting our ears. We stopped to listen as a young man with a guitar, a cooler filled with mixed sake drinks sitting next to him, screamed the chorus to “Stand by Me” over and over again, growing more excited with every “SO DARLING, DARLING…” Feeling silly, we joined in, yelling tunelessly the words to just the chorus of the song. The Young man and his friend began to laugh, thrilled that some American tourists had stopped to enjoy the revelry. His friend handed each of us a drink, and we thanked him profusely for the liquid relief from the sweltering heat.
After the song finally decided to end—some twenty choruses later—we all laughed and hugged and began the arduous task of trying to communicate with our mediocre Japanese and their fairly decent English.
Meanwhile, Jill was being harassed by a man who just repeated the word “breasts, breasts, breasts” in Japanese at her, trying to give her a slobbery kiss. The young singers intervened, moving the much-more-drunken man on to seek another victim elsewhere—hopefully, he wouldn’t find any.
We continued to ‘talk’ with our new friends—a smattering of English here, an attempt at Japanese there. We spent the afternoon as a day of heat and conversation, mingling our conversation with intermittent Japanese songs to which we knew no words. Joanna left, as did Jill, as evening approached, heading back to our dormitory for a quiet evening in front of the television, preparing for class the next day. Annalise and I, however, exchanged glances when the two young men asked us to come with them to get beers with their friends at a bar in Shibuya. In America, if two men I didn’t understand had invited me to the middle of the city on a late summer’s night, I would have run. However, an hour later, we walked along the sidewalks approaching the bar, chatting away as best we could, learning that the men were in a band.
When we approached the bar, we halted for a moment, unsure, as the bar entrance descended into the basement of the building, dimly lit, and every ounce of our American experiences told us not to enter with two strangers into this place. However, once again, we abandoned our instincts and prior knowledge and dove deeply into the chance to experience something unique. I wouldn’t recommend doing such things to anyone in any country, but in our case, we were quite lucky. Upon entering the bar, we found a brightly lit area, cozily divided by wooden booths, and a massive group of people waiting in the corner for… us.
The man had invited all of their friends to meet us. Two dozen people waited under the warm, yellow, and naked bulbs that hung sporadically from the ceiling. We took our seats, ordered beers, and the game of conversation hot-seat began as each friend took a turn sitting before us, practicing English, letting us practice our Japanese, and getting to know one another. Late into the night, we left, walking safely home from downtown all the way to our dormitories in the black of the night under the city sky.
The striking memory of this event was never our conversations, as much of the interactions I don’t quite remember, but rather the safety with which we were greeted by complete strangers in a park on a hot summer’s day. These people, whom we had never met, welcomed us not only with open arms, but open eyes, hearts, and perhaps even more astoundingly, an open city. Tokyo slept as we walked home, passing people who had missed their trains sleeping outside, and we flinched from fear not once.