Other than seeking variety, I had no criteria for the people I approached—the first person who made eye contact with me usually got a card. Such was the case with a woman selling greens in a produce market next to Tsukiji. One smile tossed my way, and I thrust a question into her hands. It said, "What is your favorite restaurant?" so I tried to explain, via hand gestures, that what I actually meant was "I am hungry for breakfast but already had a large bowl of shrimp tempura for dinner, so could you recommend something a little lighter?" She shook her head shyly and handed it back.
Meanwhile, a man had walked over and was inspecting herbs. In his early 40s, with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he glanced up from his parsley to find me staring at him, and responded with a word I'd never expected to hear from a Japanese herb buyer in the Tokyo fish market: "Bonjour."
He took my card when I offered it and tried to respond in English but kept lapsing into French, a language I hadn't attempted to speak since high school. Figuring Tsukiji was a safe place to practice my accent, I jumped in, and soon the man and I were communicating in a pidgin of languages and hand signals. "Je suis Americaine, et je veux manger le petit déjeuner," I told him. I am American, and I want to eat breakfast!
The man, whose name was Yoshi, paid for his herbs and then, like many other people I met that week, stopped what he was doing and gestured for me to follow him. We darted through the river of whizzing carts, and then he pointed me toward a street of hole-in-the-wall shops with pictures of noodles in their windows. But instead of disappearing back into the crowd, he kept chatting. It turned out that he was the chef at Amor, a French-and-Spanish-inspired restaurant so close to my hostel that I'd passed it that morning—a remarkable coincidence, considering that Tokyo covers more than 800 square miles. I should come for dinner, he said, jotting down my cell phone number so that his wife—whose English he claimed was better than his—could give me a call. Then he slipped back into the market to finish shopping.
Despite our fear of strangers, there are times when we share surprisingly intimate details with people we don't know—like when we exchange life stories with the person sitting next to us on a plane. Sociologists call these interactions fleeting relationships, and, on the surface, they appear to be nothing more than pleasant ways to pass the time. But according to Calvin Morrill, PhD, coeditor of a collection of studies on personal relationships in public spaces called Together Alone, these interactions are more than just enjoyable: They act as the "connective tissue" that helps societies function and makes the public realm a nicer—and potentially safer—place to be. A culture that mistrusts strangers is less likely to encourage such relationships, which, according to Morrill's logic, may have the ironic effect of making that society less safe.
I've always considered such brief encounters one of the best parts of traveling—they give you a personal glimpse into a foreign culture that a guidebook can't provide. So I was excited when I arrived at Amor to see Yoshi—now wearing a black apron and white chef's hat—enthusiastically waving at me through the restaurant's glass door. He explained that he had just been describing our conversation to his wife, Maiko. A petite woman with heavy bangs and a black-and-white-striped turtleneck, she greeted me in English and motioned for me to have a seat.
I sat at the bar, which was decorated with a model train set left over from the previous owner. With one station in Asakusa and the other in a German Alpine village, the train was an odd addition to a French-Spanish restaurant in Tokyo; if I'd been in a more poetic mood, I might have contemplated the symbolic connection between my interactions with Yoshi and the international train travel taking place on the counter. But instead I was concerned with the menu. That morning I'd somehow missed the noodles and ended up with two more enormous fried shrimp. In the afternoon I had asked a teller at a Citibank if she could recommend a place for lunch and found myself in a sixth-floor kushikatsu restaurant, a Japanese specialty that roughly translates as "deep-fried skewer." It involves taking otherwise healthy ingredients—mushrooms, tofu, asparagus spears—and turning them into the Japanese equivalent of a corn dog.
Luckily, Maiko and Yoshi refrained from making me anything deep-fried. Instead, Yoshi emerged from the kitchen with a multicourse meal that included everything from smoked salmon crepes to sea urchin consommé. He and Maiko hung out behind the bar as I ate, telling me about their years in France, where Yoshi worked as a chef and Maiko as a journalist. They had never wanted to fall into traditional jobs and thought that traveling had opened them up to pursuing less conventional professions. We traded e-mail addresses, and I encouraged them to contact me if they ever came to America. "Je suis très content—I am very happy," Yoshi said at the end of the evening as we said goodbye. I agreed.
"Sometimes we should just let our hair down and experience life"