1. The couple living out of the back of their van
You sleep across the tatami from them on the ferry, and then bump into them at three different locations. They take your “no thank you” to coffee as a “yes” to corn soup. They’re driving around the country making the most of discount coupons.
2. The couple who invite their friends to look at you
A friend of a friend finds you a place to stay in distant Kushikino. The middle-aged husband-and-wife duo ply you with quality sushi and tempura and compliment you on your ability at both speaking the Japanese tongue and using the Japanese chopsticks. You wave away their compliments, as is the custom, and then repeat this as a line of neighbours and guests file in to see the exotic specimen on the couch.
3. The gap year student whose dad’s Japanese golf buddy hooked him up with a sweet gig in Miyazaki
You soak up his admiration for the awesome challenge you’ve undertaken and advise him to come back to Japan after he’s finished uni. As you’re telling him about the pretty decent salary you get over here for teaching English, you realize that perhaps your vision of what constitutes a decent salary is awry. He just came from an internship at a brokerage in Hong Kong, he informs you. You sigh and eat gyoza.
4. The retired civil servant who’s bored out of his wits and wants to electrocute you
After spending 45 years in a suit working from dawn till dusk, retirement came as a bit of a shock. At 68, he’s a bit older than your regular couchsurfing host but he’s desperate to please. And desperate to show off his medical equipment. He sticks the pads on your forearm and cranks it up to 10. Your fingers touch your elbow.
5. The English teacher who’s just here for the money
“I’m just starting my fourth year,” he says as you drive through the rice fields toward the ramen shop. “I don’t really like the job anymore but I’m saving shitloads.” You nod. “I play Final Fantasy a lot,” he adds. You each pay for your own ramen and then fall asleep as he plays Final Fantasy. He plans his classes over breakfast the next morning.
6. The onsen receptionist who doesn’t want your dirty money
You look a little bedraggled after cycling across Kyushu and approach the reception desk at the onsen (hot springs) with your wallet out. She takes one look at you, assumes you’re a homeless person, takes pity, and let’s you in for free.
7. The girl who tells you that you look a lot older than you actually are
“Foreigners are so difficult to age,” she squeaks after her eyebrows have descended from behind her fringe. You point out you’re only a year older than she is and ask if it’s your receding hairline that prompted her guess. She bashfully denies that and you take it as a compliment.
8. The “lifer”
He’s in his 40s and came to Japan on a whim 23 years ago. He’s been married twice but that hasn’t put him off. He’s in purgatory — his foreign friends come and then leave and his Japanese friends will never embrace him as truly one of their own. He’s jealous of your trip and looks nostalgically into the middle distance.
9. The trucker who gives you a ride
You’re cycling merrily along when you’re confronted with a sign: No bicycles on the Akashi Bridge. To be fair, you weren’t relishing the thought, since the Akashi Bridge has the longest midsection of any suspension bridge in the world. You hold out your thumb and your hiragana sign and smile. A long-haired guy in grey, oil-streaked overalls deftly chucks your bike in the back of his truck and whizzes you to the other side. You take a photo of him and he takes one of you. You bow like men and go your separate ways.
10. The lonely housewife
She invites you into the huge house. Tatami mats bedeck every room except the kitchen and bathroom. You compliment her on her beautiful home. “It belongs to my husband’s parents but they live somewhere else,” she says, sipping her ice coffee. “My husband got transferred to Saitama and all the other mums around here have jobs, so I just wait for the kids to come home from school. The house is a nightmare to clean so we only live in these two rooms.” She oozes loneliness. “I just baked some bread. Are you hungry?”
11. The guy who joined the gym primarily for the bath
He gives you a spare key and tells you to make yourself at home. You rotate on the spot and absorb the entire apartment. He pops out for a couple hours. On returning he explains that for ¥5000 it’s much cheaper to bathe at the gym than pay ¥400 a day at the bathhouse. You ask if he ever takes a shower in the apartment. He looks bemused and answers, “I’m Japanese. I need a bath.”
12. The incomprehensible old lady in the countryside
She shuffles in your direction, her stick and slippers moving alternately like an injured spider. Her toothless grin is lost among the deep wrinkles on her face. She stands over you and mutters something that ends in “ne.” You smile and nod and add your own “ne.” Her eyes go all glassy and you worry briefly for her life, and then she farts ostentatiously before shuffling away. You thank her for her gift.