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My last night in Tokyo fell on a Friday. I spent it in an area called the Golden Gai, a dense grid of alleys lined with tiny drinking holes that had been recommended by the same young man who'd suggested I ride a crowded subway train. The bar I entered had six seats and no standing room, and was presided over by a couple who led double lives as professional voice-over actors for cartoon characters. I chatted with the bartender as her husband sat silently in the corner eating rice crackers.

"What did you do today?" she asked in hesitant English. I'd told her about my project as the bar's other customers—three men in messy business suits—passed around my cards. When I announced that I'd visited a sento—a public bath—she laughed and interrupted me with a flood of Japanese that included two English words: "doctor fish."

It was as if I were listening to AM sports radio—I could tell she was speaking my language but had no idea what she was saying.

"You know," she said, seeing my look of confusion. "Doctor fish." She made a nibbling motion with her fingers to demonstrate. "Eating your feet?"

Eventually, I figured out what she was talking about: a beauty treatment in which you stick your feet into a tank of water and let a special breed of fish nibble off your dead skin. It got its start as a treatment for psoriasis but now, apparently, was attracting a trendier clientele.

This was not what I'd anticipated doing on my last night in Tokyo. Karaoke, maybe. Feet-munching fish, not so much. But what the hell—I'd come this far on other people's suggestions. Why stop now? I had only one question: how to find a school of fish on call at 9 on a Friday night.

But that's the thing—once you realize you can ask people for help, it doesn't take long to find it. The owner gave the name of the spa to one of the businessmen, who made a call and found out the fish were not only on duty until 3 in the morning but were about a block from the bar. Excited, the owner led me around the corner and dropped me off in front of a glass window, through which I could see a tank full of fish nibbling on someone's exposed toes.

I bought my ticket, rinsed my feet in the locker room, and plunked them into the tank. Then began the most ticklish ten minutes of my life as fish swam beneath and between my toes, quivering as they flicked their tiny mouths against my skin.

I doubt many philosophical treatises have been written in the company of doctor fish, but as a Japanese couple joined me in the tank and we giggled at one another (like love, tickling needs no translation), I thought of a second point made by James Baraz that I hoped I could bring home. Learning to trust life, says Baraz, is like learning to swim. First you flail, convinced you're going to drown. Then you notice that if you calm down, it's possible to tread water. Finally, as your movements slow, you realize something much more profound. "When you let go completely and just relax, you find that you are magically held up by the water," Baraz says. "It was ready to support you all the time."

Anatomy of an unplanned adventure: Catherine's Tokyo travels in pictures


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