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In their widely acclaimed 2009 book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, James Fowler, PhD, and Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, investigate how our friends' and acquaintances' behavior affects our own. According to their research, for example, if a friend's friend's friend gains weight, you're more likely to as well. Thankfully, total strangers don't usually wield much influence over our pants size. But they are useful for something else: gathering information. "Close friends tend to have exactly the same information you do," Fowler explains. "By making contacts with strangers, you increase the likelihood you'll get information you never had before."

By approaching only strangers, I was definitely getting new information. So the question came down to what type of stranger would be the most useful. Was it someone with expertise, like a 75-year-old Tokyo native? Or would it be better to speak to a tourist closer to my age, whose tastes were likely more similar to my own?

I came up with a simple solution: Try both. First, I sought the familiar. Two young Americans at the tuna auction had told me their favorite activity had been riding bicycles around Tokyo. So the next morning, I set off for CoolBike, a rental place nearby.

Unlike the strong-thighed, greasy-fingernailed mechanics who populate American bike shops, CoolBike's staff—or at least the three people who ran into the street when I rang their buzzer—looked like they'd come from a conference call. The woman wore a wool skirt and blouse. One man sported stylish glasses and a well-tailored suit, and the second man, also dressed for the office, had rushed out of the building so fast that he was still wearing plastic slippers. They seemed both thrilled to have a customer and confused about what was supposed to happen next.

"Do you have a bike map?" I asked. The woman glanced at her coworkers, then looked at me quizzically. "You know, a route?" I said. I pulled a map out of my bag and pointed at it with a questioning expression. "Ah," she said. "Where do you want to go?"

I handed her my introductory card ("Put fear! My name is Kasharin!") and asked where she thought I should go.

The woman and her colleagues began debating routes. Should they recommend the Imperial Palace? Or the Tokyo Dome, a puffy-topped sports stadium next to an amusement park? Eventually they settled on a circular path that hit both and sent me on my way with an even stranger imperative: Find an octopus in a bowl.

I had no idea where—or, more important, why—I was to find a domesticated octopus. But I had a more immediate problem: how to navigate the streets of Tokyo on a collapsible bike. I tried staying to the right, American-style, then switched to the left to match Japanese traffic. Neither worked. Pedestrians gave me nasty looks, and I nearly sideswiped an elderly woman when she paused to open an umbrella.

The area around the Imperial Palace was quieter, and I tooled around until I came upon an older Japanese couple sitting on camp stools outside a palace gate, drawing in sketchbooks. They seemed the perfect candidates for the second stage of my experiment—getting advice from older Tokyo natives—so I pulled up and gave them one of my favorite cards: "What is the most Japanese thing I can do or see in Tokyo?"

The husband grabbed my pen, wrote something on the back of the card, confirmed it with his wife, and then launched into a fast-paced monologue, chuckling, gesticulating, and pausing for laughs.

The man's suggestion turned out to be rakugo, a form of Japanese comedy. His performance in the park made me think it must be similar to American stand-up—a boozy bar, a boisterous crowd—but when I arrived at his favorite venue later that night, it was a clean theater brightly lit with paper lanterns. A series of men in kimonos knelt on a purple pillow onstage and told long, humorous stories with no props other than a small cloth and a folded paper fan. These monologues were broken up by acts bordering on vaudeville. My favorite performer was a guy who did imitations of bullet trains on a violin, then put on tap shoes and danced to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

So which was better, the suggestion from the Americans or from the Japanese natives? Neither would likely have made it onto a top ten tourist list. But for my purposes, that didn't matter. "It's okay if you don't always end up at the 'best' movie or the 'best' restaurant," said Sheena Iyengar, PhD, author of The Art of Choosing. "Sometimes we should just let our hair down and experience life."

"It felt as if I were in a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure"
Photo: Jun Takagi


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