Getting through the Tokyo Train Station that hot summer morning, nearly twenty years ago, was exhausting. As I made my way to the tracks of the shinkansen, Japan’s “bullet” train, I pushed through crowds of travelers and commuters, each rushing for one of the more than 3,000 trains that left the station that day.
Now, sitting in the cool shinkansen car, I relaxed, shifting my backpack from my lap to the seat next to me. After seven weeks of traveling through Asia, my black, well-worn backpack had become an extension of my body. I knew what was in each pocket, which meal each stain represented, and why it had gotten so dirty on the Great Wall of China. So it only took a millisecond to know something was missing. I started unzipping the pack with wild, jerky movements. A glance inside confirmed my fear.
I started hyperventilating. Or maybe I groaned. Either way, I panicked, putting my head between my legs and trying not to throw up.
This moment is one of the reasons we have best friends.
“What happened? Are you ok?” asked Megan, moving beside me from her seat across the aisle. She put her arm around me, as if trying to hug my panic away.
“My plane tickets are gone,” I whispered, as if saying it too loud would make it worse. Those plane tickets were a necessity for the next leg of our travels: the trip home. I remembered how we had moved from one counter to another while redeeming our train tickets. Perhaps that was when they were left behind? Or had someone reached into my backpack while I was distracted?
Megan sucked in her breath as if to try to swallow my words.
For those who don’t remember—or don’t know about—traveling in the 1990s, electronic ticketing didn’t yet exist. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went to a travel agent, who made all of your arrangements, printing out your tickets on shiny cardstock, with each leg on a different perforated sheet. Those tickets would always remind me of Christmas morning, right before I opened my presents; holding them in my hands made my heart beat a little faster. Losing those tickets, however, could cause big problems. With some maneuvering, someone else could use your tickets as his or her own. Oh, you could get new tickets, but that was a complicated affair, costing money and time, both of which were in short supply.
Back on the train, in a haze of increasing anxiety, I saw the problem clearly: we were to spend the next week visiting Japanese landmarks—from Nagasaki’s Glover Garden, to the Carp Castle in Hiroshima, to Kinaku-ji, Kyoto’s stunning Golden Pavilion. Deviating from what had been planned for months seemed impossible. Plus, I was out of money.
This is when we come back to the best friend, normally the dreamer to my organized problem solver.
“I have an idea,” she said. And, with that, she was off down the aisle.
I sat with my forehead pressed against the window, crying. I loved our travels, but so much intensity was wearing me down. My wanderlust, apparently, could only last so long. Our trip had taken me from the United States to Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and now back to Japan. I had ridden horses in Inner Mongolia, swam in the Gulf of Tonkin, and eaten dim sum on a restaurant boat that rode the waves of the South China Sea. Meeting new people and learning about different cultures thrilled me, but I was also disoriented; my connection to home—to my familiar—seemed so far away.
Then Megan was back. “Come with me,” she said, waving to me from the door. She grabbed my hand, pulling me into the next car.
Another traveler, a man, perhaps in his 30s, of medium-height, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, stood waiting for us. “Hello,” he said in heavily accented English.
“This is Sorato,” Megan explained. “He is going to help.”
Apparently, Megan had gone to the dining car and found Sorato whose English was about as good as her Japanese (read: bad). Together, they had come up with a plan. Why he was helping us was unclear but I suspected it had a lot to do with Megan’s effect on men; he looked at her like she was a plate of very fresh sushi.
We found the conductor, a tall, thin man whose face was deeply lined, in his tiny office. He spoke no English, but Sorato and Megan were able to reconstruct the problem, thanks to hand gestures, rusty English, and error-filled Japanese. The conductor stared impassively while they talked. Or, maybe he was thinking about my stupidity. If so, I agreed. When they had exhausted the limitation of their language skills, he picked up the telephone.
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“Calling Tokyo Station,” Sorato whispered. His quiet response indicated that such a phone call was rare and ought to be treated with honor.
We waited, swaying with the train as it curved along the bends in the tracks. The conductor spoke in rapid-fire, possibly irritated, Japanese. After several minutes, he nodded, as if the person on the other end of the phone could see him.
He turned to Sorato, whose face broke out in a big smile as he listened to the conductor’s report. “Tickets found!” Sorato exclaimed.
The rest of the story came out in a jumble: a stranger I was never to meet had found my tickets at shinkansen counter and turned them in the authorities. I knew then that I must have forgotten them in the rush to catch our train. There was no detail about the person or why he, or she, had chosen to be so helpful. This was entirely my own fault, and yet so many people had been willing to come to my aid. The kindness was comforting; it reminded me of home.
The conductor explained that my tickets would be sent to the lost and found where I could pick them up later, on my way to the airport. The conductor wrote a note for me to claim them, in an effort to hopefully prevent another retelling of my mistake. After hugs to Sorato—the one from Megan he especially appreciated—and a bow to the conductor, who may have even shared a small smile at our gratitude, we returned to our seats.
I carried that note, with its elegant Japanese characters, in a pouch around my neck for the next week. I handed it over at the dusty lost and found when I returned to Tokyo, disappointed to give it away. I had come to see it as a map of sorts, leading me home.