“I have a house in Japan.”
A Japanese man had approached me with his business card. I blinked several times before realizing that he was handing the card to me.
This was right after the winners had been announced for the 2013 Aurora High School Japanese Speech Contest at UC Irvine. This was my second time competing for the grand prize: a trip to Japan. Unfortunately, it was my second time not winning. In fact, I hadn’t even placed that year.
I stood among the other participants feeling like a failure. I wasn’t looking forward to calling my Japanese teacher with the outcome. All that work we put into writing my speech just for me to go home empty handed.
But now this card was in my hands. It wasn’t a first place certificate. And it certainly wasn’t a ticket to Japan. It was a plain white card with the following information:
I accepted his card with a slight bow and tucked it into my pocket. The man gave me a smile and walked away.
OK, that was weird, I thought.
After my flight back to Houston, I mentioned the card to my Japanese teacher. Half-jokingly I told her that I was going to throw the thing away. I was still sore about not winning the speech contest and wanted to avoid thinking about going to Japan.
My Japanese teacher vehemently told me not to do such a disrespectful thing.
“Japanese people really cherish business cards,” my teacher lectured me sternly. “Don’t throw it away!”
Even though I was hurting from not being able to score an all-expenses paid trip to Japan, I decided to heed my teacher’s advice.
It was just a card. Maybe it could come in handy one day.
Three years later, it did.
In 2016, I won the 29th annual Japanese Speech Contest that was held at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago, Illinois. In my hands I held my certificate and my ticket voucher.
I had no clue what to do.
JAL (Japan Airlines) told me that I had to use my voucher within a year. Desperate to get housing, I reached out to Japanese students at my college but couldn’t secure anything. So I ended up planning everything by myself.
I purchased the Tohoku JR rail pass (I purchased a two week round trip or 往復(おうふく) as opposed to a one-way or 片道(かたみち) ) and paid to stay in a hostel in Saitama (a bed-town or suburb right outside of Tokyo). Slowly my available funds were dwindling, but I figured I’d have enough.
Most importantly, I realized that I had no itinerary. I thought of the card that I had stored in my wallet in my dresser. I emailed Mr. Suzuki expecting him not to reply.
But he did. He was elated to learn that I had won a speech contest. Mr Suzuki wanted to show me around Tokyo.
He attached a picture of himself and honestly I didn’t even remember him from three years ago. My friends and I wondered if this was even legit. At the time it did seem bizarre that this person I hardly knew was willing to help me out so much. I went out on a whim, however, and agreed to meet him a day after my flight touched down.
When I finally purchased my plane ticket, I was told that the taxes on it would be $500.00—that was literally all the spending money that I had planned to use while in Japan.
When the plane reached Narita Airport, I realized that I was broke and budgetless.
I got lost (took the train all the way to Yokohama, a considerable distance away from Saitama). I checked in at the hostel and didn’t have enough money to cover my two weeks. The owner agreed to let me pay in full at check out.
So I was off to a bumpy start. It didn’t help that in the morning, I wandered around the neighborhood looking for the nearest コンビニ (convenience store) and got lost again because all the street signs were numbers, not names.
I managed to find a Lawson’s where I bought some mochi. Then I got lost on my way back to the hostel. When I finally returned, the owner told me, “Errol-san, someone’s waiting for you.”
It was Mr. Suzuki. He told me that his wife Kazuko had orchestra practice and couldn’t tag along. I would meet her the next summer when I came back to Tokyo as a 留学生 (foreign exchange student).
We got on the extremely crowded train together and spent the day exploring various restaurants, temples, and tourist attractions.
In the summer, 紫陽花（hydrangea) bloom in places like Enoshima. You wouldn’t believe the number of photographers in the parks and temples!
One of the most famous attractions that I remember going to was the the Daibutsu. 大仏 (lit. Big Buddha).
The kaminarimon 雷門 (lit. gate of thunder) was swarming with people carrying selfie sticks.
Till this day I keep in touch with Mr. Suzuki and his family. I sent him a 年賀状 (New Year’s card). When I came back to Japan to study abroad, he let me stay with his family at his house in Tokyo. I got to meet his wife and daughter, who are also lovely people. I always think about how acts of kindness can really make a difference in someone’s life. And for a penniless college student like myself, the Suzuki Family’s kindness meant the world to me!
After the first week, I was able to explore Tokyo by myself. I managed to get back to Narita airport safely by the end of it. How did I survive?
Asked Family and Friends Money
I had to ask mom for money. I asked the pastor from my church for money. It’s not an awful thing to do given how I knew them. And I offered to bring back omiyage and a postcard so it wasn’t like hey give me money and you’ll never hear from me again.
Used Tinder to Find Group Outings
I don’t know about other countries, but in Japan the Tinder app is sometimes used by groups of people to just find other people to hangout with. I found one through the app and we spent the day in Kanagawa!
We also split all the meals so that really was a relief for my wallet.
I Learned the Language
I’m what’s known in Japanese as someone who is 方向音痴（ほうこうおんち). This means that I have no sense of direction. If you saw this map, you’d lose your sense of direction too.
It helps to know the language.
If you’re coming from zero knowledge of Japanese and just want to know enough to make it around, carry H.B.D. Clarke’s Colloquial Japanese course. This was literally the first book my mother bought for me when I started studying Japanese on my own as a 13 year old! I learned how to ask for directions and how to count in Japanese through it.
You can even make friends online before or during your trip. I used Rosetta Stone’s SharedTalk (and still talk to the friends that I made on there!) but it’s been retired. You can still connect with people through awesome sites like iTalki or apps like HelloTalk.
Tokyo is pretty accessible even if you don’t know the language. I stayed out in the “bed town” or suburb known as Saitama. The further you get from Tokyo, you may run into more people who don’t know much English. Most people will try, however, so it’s not like you have to be in Tokyo to get someone to speak to you in English. In fact, you’d be surprised how many 外国人(foreigners) like pop up all around Japan!
I did go back to Japan to study abroad. I may do a post on that but if you’d like to see a blog I once did, please check out Black in Japan. It’s incomplete, of course, because that was the first time I ever wrote a blog and I wasn’t motivated to maintain it.
There’s something about the “hustle” and relying on the kindness of strangers that renews my faith in humanity. Going back to Japan to study abroad was a great experience but it couldn’t hold a candle to the freedom that I had the first time I went.
Yes, I struggled. I had no money. I was eating mochi for breakfast I had so little money. And the goal in life is to not struggle. Those scholarships that I used to pay for train fares, textbooks, and food made the second time around much, much easier. I felt safer and more financially stable.
Still, I’m the kind of person who likes to be challenged. I’ve learned to set concrete goals for myself but with the experiences in life that I’ve had, I’ve also learned that there are some things we just can’t control. We have to focus on the things that we can.
Life is an adventure and the kindness of people, along with your own kindness, will take you far.