Some of the best experiences come out of nowhere—but you have to be there first.
I’m a calculated creature. That is to say, I like to plan things, and I like things to go according to plan. “I think I’ll just go home” was my favorite thing to say to myself when something changed my plans.
However, this has started to change since I came to Japan. During my explorations, I have learned that this brand of mentality can keep you literally one step away from what could be one of the most memorable experiences in your life.
After summoning the courage to take chances and go where I would never have gone before, I have realized just how uncannily close these unimagined encounters can be—particularly in the dense cityscape of Tokyo.
I’m thinking of, for instance, the time I happened to turn my head at an intersection while wandering around Ginza, and noticing an interesting complex of old, scruffy buildings—a distinct contrast from the shiny, high-end business district surrounding them. After crossing the intersection, I realized that I had accidentally walked into Tsukiji, the site of the world-famous fish market that will soon be moved because of the 2020 Olympics.
I did nothing very touristy other than wander around the network of backstreets that lie near the central market building. But it only took me five minutes to fall in love with the rusty green walls, the puddles formed from marketkeepers throwing out melted ice, the local temple said to protect the market and the city from waves, and the old roofs with grass growing out the eaves.
I also think of the time two weeks ago when I was waiting for a friend, whose train got delayed for half an hour. While rambling around an area I had never even heard of until the day before, I made a second’s decision, not to cross the street like last time, but to turn left at a corner that had nice plants growing (strange reasoning, I know). I immediately ran into a crowd of people, and saw tents, booths, and food vendors with delicious barbecue smoke wafting down the street. I had walked into the beginnings of a neighborhood summer festival (usually called a matsuri).
Leaning against a fence, I watched the men of the neighborhood, dressed in matsuri garb, haul out the omikoshi (something of a portable shrine) in a practice run for the parade later in the day. Afterward,a group of kids, all in costume, began their own performance (see video below).
I had always wanted to go to a matsuri, especially a neighborhood one, but never thought I would be able to—until I wandered into this one.
But what probably sticks out the most in my memory, is the day I got to watch sumo in quality seats with an hour-old friend, just because I barged in to a conversation. Let me rewind a bit.
Two days prior, I went to see sumo myself for the summer tournament. I got in line at 6:40 in the morning to acquire “day tickets” which, being the cheapest option, get you seats the farthest away from the arena (from where the sumo wrestlers look like toothpicks).
It wasn’t quite enough for me. And so I decided to go back to the Kokugikan (where the tournament happens), and engage in an activity called demachi—in which people line up on the sidewalk to watch the sumo wrestlers walk into the Kokugikan entrance.
Thirty sweaty minutes and ten wrestlers later, I noticed a tourist couple asking a Japanese lady some questions in English. Since the lady was having trouble, and I knew the answer to their questions, I decided to barge in and help. The couple left, but the lady and I started to talk and quickly became friends. It was around then that two salarymen came and told us that, when buying tickets online, they had accidentally bought a set of two seats each—ending up with four seats between the two of them. They asked if we would take the two extra seats half-price (well of course we would).
Ten minutes later we found ourselves in one of the best seats in the arena (the sumo wrestlers now much larger than toothpicks), breathlessly wondering to each other, “Do things like this actually happen?”
It does, if you are there to walk in on them. Study abroad is giving me the chance to take chances and discover not only new, unbelievable experiences, but even myself and my abilities in the process.
Onae Parker is a linguistics and Japanese major at the University of Iowa. Winner of a 2018 Gilman International Scholarship award, she will be spending the semester in Tokyo, Japan, as part of the University of Meiji Exchange program.