Over the course of the next few days, I continued to drift into experiences that I never would have had without strangers' help. After the rakugo show, I met a former Seiko board member who was celebrating his 76th birthday with his wife at a sushi restaurant called Tuna People. The man, who spoke perfect English, gave me careful directions to a temple in his neighborhood north of Tokyo where monks put on a theatrical fire ritual called a goma ceremony several times a day. That night I asked the head sushi chef for his favorite dish, and after giving me both an unsolicited recommendation for an art museum and a plate of julienned raw squid, he presented me with a row of nigiri topped with uncooked mollusks. Following the suggestion of a young television host I met on the street, I sought out a public bath, and spent a morning soaking in a pool of steaming hot water backed by a mosaic of a blonde mermaid. I asked an artsy-looking woman with highlighted hair and a fake leopard collar for her favorite lunch place and ended up in a Hawaiian-themed burger restaurant where the staff greeted me with "Aloha."
It felt as if I were in a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure. I never knew what might happen next. I went to the Electric Power Historical Museum, experimented with something called an aroma computer, visited a climbing gym, tried on a trendy wig, took photos of myself in a subterranean photo-booth arcade, and rode a subway train at rush hour (yes, that was actually a suggestion). I approached men, women, old people, young people, visitors from Taiwan and Australia, toy store employees, Starbucks baristas, art students, bank tellers, and a young woman dressed as a bunny rabbit. I even figured out the mystery of the octopus in a bowl: The term was actually octopus ball, and referred to takoyaki, round, delicious dumplings with a chunk of octopus in the center. I tried, in short, to do everything people told me to do.
If you'd talked to me before the trip, I'd have predicted that my experiment would be stressful. And indeed, if it had lasted longer, my excitement might well have turned to anxiety and annoyance. But instead, forbidding myself to plan for the future allowed me to be more grounded in the present; I felt a level of calmness I rarely do in my normal life, where I'm supported not by strangers but by a loving network of family and friends. Why was this—and how could I bring the feeling home?
Part of the answer lies, I suspect, in a parable James Baraz wrote about in Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness. He talks about a trap used to catch monkeys in Asia in which a coconut with a hole drilled at one end is filled with candy and tied to a stake. A monkey, smelling the treats, reaches inside and grabs a fistful. Excited, it tries to run off—and then encounters the genius of the trap: The hole is big enough for an empty hand but not one that's full. It doesn't matter whether the hand in question is holding sweets—to escape the trap, you just need to let go. Unfortunately, says Baraz, it's a rare monkey that figures that out.
I am not usually that monkey. But something about my week in Tokyo gave me a glimpse of how freeing it could be to let go of my desire for control. I wasn't concerned about logistics or worried about what would happen the next hour or the next day; I simply had faith that things would work out. Ironically, being immersed in a state of insecurity made me feel less scared.
The author's last day in Tokyo