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MIT student blogger Jess K. '10

Lost and Found by Jess K. '10

I've been here for almost two weeks, and been lost at least half of that time. It's starting to feel more familiar than knowing where I am.

There are no directions in Japan. The buildings are numbered, but in a generally useless, chronological order. When you ask for a map, there are no street names, just landmarks and Makudonarudos (McDonalds). Also, I’m pretty sure they don’t allow you to set off smoke signals in Japanese suburbs. Combine all that with my winning sense of direction and you’ve got a very lost American kid somewhere west of Central Tokyo.

It happened the moment when I got off the limousine bus from the airport to go to the landlord’s office, and it happened even worse when I got off the train to look for my house. A woman helped me carry my luggage up two flights of stairs from the subway, then looked at my map and declared, “I think it’s down that way, but I’m not sure. Just go down that street about ten minutes and it should be around that area somewhere.”

And so I walked. Twenty minutes to the left of the station in the eighty-degree Tokyo heat, wearing two sweaters, dragging two heavy suitcases, and wondering why my bodily fluids were trying to escape me so freely. I walked for days. I walked until the Japanese Ghost of Christmas Past walked up next to me and was like, “Got a drink?”

At that time I knew it was time to ask directions, to the first person I saw in the midst of this solely residential area: an older Japanese woman pushing her mother-in-law in a wheelchair, having a conversation with an older man down the street.

“Anou, sumimasen..”
“America-jin desu kara.. kore, doko de wakarimasuka?”

She didn’t know where it was exactly, but she looked at the map and surmised it was probably in the opposite direction. It was the third time today I’d walked at least fifteen minutes in the complete wrong direction, and the phrase “hantai no hoo” (opposite direction) was starting to sound all too familiar. But she took the number off the map and called the company just to make sure.

“Moshi moshi?…”

Just from her Japanese grunting noises (“Unnn”, “Nnnn”, “Sousousousou”) and vigorous head nods I could tell that I was in the wrong place and was probably going to have to make yet another 180, to be followed by several other twisty and difficult turns that could only be navigated by someone whose nationality is from a place that invented the electronic bidet. I deflated slightly, knowing my jet-lagged legs would have to wait slightly longer to be alleviated of their fatigue, and that the smell that’d been hanging over me ever since I’d spent 11 hours seated next to an overly large man with a love of portable cheese would be with me a little longer. I wondered if I’d ever figure out my way through the completely illogical streets of Tokyo, and even worse, if I was sweating out of my ears. (I was.)

“Arigatoo gozaimashita.” The woman hung up the phone. “Issyou ni ikimasyoo!”

Her offer to walk with me was so unexpected I almost passed out from surprise (and a little from heat stroke). As we walked she told me about her one son and two grandchildren, who lived in Singapore, and how her husband loved golf but wasn’t very good at it. She told me she and her husband were retired and stayed at home taking care of their mother-in-law, who was in her 90s and her back was injured. She asked why I began studying Japanese and why I was here for the summer, and I told her.

I also told her I didn’t really know anyone in Tokyo, to which she said “Me, your Japanese friend!”

My new Japanese friend dropped me off at my apartment, told me to get some rest, and to call her some time soon. That weekend, I skyped her to say hello, and mentioned off-hand that I wanted to buy a cell phone.

“Oh, I come with you! You eat breakfast yet? You come to my house!”

And then she made me breakfast, over which I talked to her husband about my flight, work, and getting lost in Tokyo. He told me about their honeymoon in Hawaii over forty years ago, how he’d studied German instead of English, and how he kinda wished he’d studied English now. There was a lot of toast and tea and ramen, and then she took me to Ikebukuro to get a cell phone – grabbing my arm protectively in the subway, guiding me down the street to the cell phone shop, asking if there was someone there who spoke English to explain the terms of the contract to me – where it turns out my visa wasn’t a long enough period for me to buy the phone under my name, so she offered to put it under her ID card – all approximately five days after I’d first met her.

At this point I’m a little suspicious that my mom has sewed some kind of sign into all my clothes that says “LOST FOREIGNER – PLEASE HELP.” Or that I just look really helpless and weak, and that I need someone to rescue me at all turns. My Japanese isn’t that bad, I think, and I start to get defensive. What’s in it for her? Why is this lady being so unexpectedly good to me?

She looks at me and smiles, and says “Me, your Japanese Mama!”

And then I realize there are no alternate motives here. She isn’t trying to take my money or waste my time, nor is she intending to later break into my house and eat what little food I have. (She knows where I live.)

She’s simply Japanese. This is how she interacts with other human beings – helping out a stranger on basic human kindness in a way that, much like yours truly on my first day in Tokyo, has become somewhat lost in American culture.

I follow her back into the subway station, happy to be found.

24 responses to “Lost and Found”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love this post. Japanese awesomeness!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I want to go to japan.

    Or anywhere, for that matter.

  3. Alex says:

    Wow, there are wonderful and nice people in this world. You just have to look for them! I’m glad you found your way home, Jess.

  4. JonTec '13 says:

    I think I love your Japanese mama! That’s so awesome–your commentary really elevated the emotion. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, and good luck with your further assimilation and job/internship. :D

  5. Navin says:

    First to say first!!!!
    i like your Japanese mama…..
    very good and kindhearted woman:-)

  6. Deeni '13 says:

    That Japanese lady is so sweet! Please say hello from me to her, will you?

  7. Steph says:

    What a great story. I love the “Japanese mama” part. How cute. smile

  8. yuriko says:

    sounds like you had a wonderful japan experience…what a wonderful friend to make!
    also, nice blogging…the entry wasn’t short but it was very easy to read!

  9. Leslie says:

    Great post! It brought tears to my eyes to see such human kindness. Have a great time in Japan!

  10. Banerjee says:

    I’ve been to JAPAN!!!!

    And I love the “Japanese Mama” part too, Steph. Its hilarious.

  11. Sparky ('14) says:

    I lived in Japan for 5months on an exchange.
    The lady you met is like your host mama. lol
    Have you had takoyaki yet? It is so yummy! If you’re in Tokyo you need to go to Tokyo disneyland and ginza. If you get anytime off work you should visit kyoto and osaka. I stayed at osaka when I was there. It is amazing.
    p.s. visit some of the castles there – they are amazing

  12. A Parent says:

    Your initial suspicion of the Japanese mama is well placed. In the end every thing turned out to be good and happy, but that is a only a stroke of chance. There are way too many people out there in the world who would befriend a stranger only to fulfill their nefarious motives. There may be fewer such bad people in Japan, but make no mistake they are there in every corner of the world. So it does not hurt to be a bit suspicious and check things out before you declare yourself to be an open book to some previously unknown individual. Like the old saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it might just be that.

  13. Oci says:

    @ Sparky (’14)

    I didn’t even know there are castles in Japan!…Thought there were only temples…From which era or dynasty(ies) do these castles date from, actually?

  14. NathanArce says:

    Another blogger in Japan *-* Sugoi!!!

  15. Phpfiulx says:

    i’m fine good work

  16. 天使のような方


    I have studied abroad for one term in the past and I have met many kind-hearted souls too, including people who, almost like the Japanese mama, went out of their way to help me even though they barely knew me. Those were the top higlights of my experience abroad. Of course, on the other side of the coin, there are cases of foreign students coming to harm: thefts, exploitations, assault, kidnappings- among others.

    This reminds me of the time my friends and I were on a guided tour to the Great Wall of China. After a long hike up to the top with the bustling crowd, it was declared mission complete and everyone got busy signing up for the certificate proclaiming we had reached the Great Wall. Somehow, during this break, we got apart from the main group. A series of wrong turns later, we realized our mistake but at the same time, came upon this empty stretch of the wall which gave us a majestic view of the vast expanse and raw beauty of the mountains lying beyond and the wall itself-untouched by ordinary tourists and free of vandalism. From the position of our site, we could tell that only then had we truly arrived at the top of the wall, not when we reached the earlier section selling victory certificates to the boisterous crowd and which was hailed the signpost of arrival. Now, if we had not been lost, would we have made this discovery and got to the true wall itself? Would we have gazed upon those sights, which so many people fail to know of in spite of an arduous climb up the wall?

    Sometimes in life, I suppose, getting lost can bring us unexpected lessons and discoveries, be it in human nature or nature itself, so long as we find our way out eventually – which brings A Parent’s advice to mind.


  17. Javi says:

    omg jkim. can i have a chinese mama, cause i need one here in shanghai. just tell that lady to come over here. please. thanks! have fun in JAPOOOOOOON!

  18. Emily '13 says:

    Aw! This is such a sweet story. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jess. grin

  19. Christina says:

    Kamber, this is so sweet! And ironic, since I’m pretty sure your (real) mom would do the same for someone else. smilesmile:)

  20. Christina says:

    Actually, you know what? The gig is up. That woman is actually Quanny. This was all part of our elaborate scheme. You should probably call us later for details.

  21. JB '13 says:

    Jess, this post is awesome! Japan is such a fascinating country. I want to minor in Japanese and study abroad for at least a semester. It’s true people in Japan can be quite kind hearted. When I was there for 10 days, the friends and family of my one (or maybe just my first) Japanese friend were the sweetest people ever. I can’t wait to go back. Good luck in the land of the Rising Sun, and don’t forget to watch the game shows; personally, I think they are better than the ones here in the US.