In university I get the opportunity to spend a semester teaching English in rural Japan. A Japanese woman who did her master’s studies at my university had opened her own English school, and every year she took on a student from my program as her way of paying it forward.
I am excited to go, but it means flying from Chicago to Tokyo Narita, the international airport, catching a train to Tokyo Haneda, the domestic airport, flying to another airport in the south of Japan, then catching another train to the small town, all on my own. My supervisor won’t be meeting me until I make it all the way to my final destination. Since I’ll be in Japan for four and a half months, my suitcase is huge and I can’t lift it on my own.
My first flight goes well; I even manage to sleep a little. I speak Japanese moderately well, since that’s what I am studying in uni, but reading is much harder, especially when tired. Luckily most of the signs in Tokyo also have English translations, and I am able to catch the connecting train to Haneda, where I have about four hours before my next flight. I get checked in and find my gate, but I am so tired I can’t help curling up to nap and hope that no one messes with my bags, which I pull as close to me as I can.
Several people do wake me, but only to make sure I am not missing my flight! Every time a new boarding is called at that gate or the one next to it, someone comes to wake me and politely ask if this is my flight. It is a different person every time, and I am so touched that all of them are concerned about the young foreigner obviously traveling on her own.
I make my second flight to southern Japan, where everything is much more rural and English much more rare. By the time I land and am trying to find my train, I have been awake for about twenty hours, there is a thirteen hour time difference, and I am completely exhausted and losing my grasp on Japanese. I finally figure out where I need to go, but the platform is up a double flight of stairs and I can’t find an elevator anywhere.
Seeing no other choice, I start hauling my bags up the stairs, one step at a time. I have not only my huge suitcase, but also a backpack and a shoulder bag with my laptop. I make it up to the first landing and then trip, falling over my suitcase and only barely keeping my laptop from hitting the concrete. I am so tired and stressed that I just sit down on the step and start crying.
Out of nowhere, an older Japanese man in a full suit and tie stops and bends over me, asking if I am all right. I manage to get across that I need to get up the stairs, but I can’t do it by myself. Without further word, he leans over and lifts my giant suitcase, despite me protesting that it is very heavy. He carries it up the rest of the stairs for me while I follow, pouring out thanks. I manage to pull 1000Yen out of my wallet and try to give it to him, but he refuses, makes sure I have ahold of my suitcase again, and disappears into the crowd.
It seems like no big deal, but I was so tired at the end of a very long trip, and I’ll never forget the kindness that was paid to me. I had so many amazing interactions with people during my months in Japan, but that kind soul right at the start of my trip will always be the clearest in my mind. Arigatou gozaimasu, kind stranger!