To Tokyo Strangers

While many understandably hate layovers, I feel the opposite. Sitting in an airport is like existing in an alternate world where all the worries and stressors of life seem to be suspended. Airports are a place where there are no expectations of you but to be present; you can clear your mind, sit down and enjoy a coffee, escape both the neverending demands and grueling mundanity of daily life, and imagine all the exciting things to come (or reflect on a trip past). Combine this with my love for experiencing new places and meeting people from around the world, and I actually look forward to visiting airports in new cities, and especially new countries. As such, when booking my flight to Bangkok to meet an old friend, I opted for the ten hour layover in Tokyo instead of the two hour alternative. I was determined to take this opportunity to explore a small slice of Japan, and with my starry-eyed wanderlust, the airport more than sufficed. 

On the twelve hour flight from Dallas to Tokyo, I thought of all the cool experiences I might have in Japan. While it would’ve been tricky to venture out of the airport due to covid restrictions, I wanted to make the most of my time in Tokyo any way I could, and Narita International seemed to offer enough hidden gems to make it a memorable experience. When I landed, a feeling of euphoria swept over me. There’s always something inspiring about those first steps off the plane into a new and unfamiliar country, knowing there are so many stories waiting to be discovered. 

After disembarking into a quiet part of the airport, I barely gave myself enough time to use the restroom before dashing to the terminal transfer bus. While pandemic restrictions were finally starting to lift, most shops in two of the airport’s three terminals hadn’t yet reopened. The second terminal, which I landed in, felt like a ghost town. Rows and rows of shops were all closed; it was so quiet you could hear the distant hum of toilets flushing and doors opening and closing. It certainly was a contrast to the pictures I had seen of bustling crowds and vibrant shops. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, when after inspecting my plane ticket, a security guard prevented me from leaving the terminal. As I walked towards the terminal transfer bus, the elderly man, seemingly exasperated, muttered “No entry.” Through our poor attempt at communication, I was able to piece together that travelers were not allowed to change terminals unless they had to. And he was right — I had no reason to leave the terminal I was in, as my next flight left from there as well.

I was pretty devastated. Not only would I now have to spend the next ten hours bored out of my mind, I wouldn’t be able to seize my only chance, as far as I was concerned, to experience a piece of Japan. I felt like a complete idiot, not only for voluntarily booking a 10 hour layover, but for not double checking the airport’s policies beforehand. (If there’s anything worse than feeling sad, it’s feeling dumb and sad.) 

While I tried to stay positive, I couldn’t hide it — I felt like all the energy had been sucked out of me. As our eyes met, I could tell he sensed how deflated I was. But I had no choice, so I apologized, picked up my belongings, and walked back towards the terminal. 

As I began to hunt for a cozy spot to chill for an absurdly long time, I heard someone calling out. Looking back, I saw the security guard motioning for me to come his way. I assumed I had left something behind, but when I got there, he simply pointed towards the terminal transfer bus schedule. Sensing my confusion, he directed the bus driver to wait for me. His eyes were softer this time, his voice gentler and more patient. Having clearly had a change of heart, he whispered, “Go ahead, just be back in time for your flight.”

When I realized what he was doing, a stupidly large grin erupted across my face. Seeing my excitement, he began to smile too. As I rushed into the bus and took my seat, our eyes locked one last time. I nodded to him and him back to me, an unspoken acknowledgement of what felt like our secret pact.

I can say I had the best time exploring and eating all the onigiri, mochi, ramen, and matcha-flavored snacks my stomach could handle. I read part of a yakuza memoir, befriended a German couple also headed to Southeast Asia for a backpacking trip, went to the famous Japanese 7-Eleven (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing, has anything a human could possibly desire), played arcade games, picked up adorable pens and stationery, and more. It was an amazing first glimpse into Japan. Those hours went by so fast. I really hope to return one day.

But while I was grateful for that experience, I was even more touched by the security guard’s small act of kindness. Despite all the reasons he had to not care — our seemingly insurmountable generational and cultural differences, language barrier, and official rules (which in Japan, are no joke) — he went out of his way to look out for a complete stranger. It was a reminder that no matter where in the world you are, we are not all that different from each other; that the barriers that separate us aren’t so big after all. His gentle, quiet compassion in a world where people are all too quick to stomp over each other has stayed with me. Next time I am in a position to help a vulnerable stranger, I will do so with a smile. I’d like to think he’d be smiling back.