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The best part of traveling? The friends you make

This is Taka. I’ve been meaning to write about how we met him but I wasn’t sure I could do the story justice … I’ll try.

It was our last night in Tokyo and we were wandering around the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku, trying to decide which of the dozens of little pubs that make up Golden Gai we should enter. When I say “little,” I mean, there’s literally enough room for six or seven patrons inside these mini-bars. Each of the little bars are on the bottom floors of ramshackle two-story buildings that sit on a half dozen, narrow, dimly-lit alleys.

Before Tokyo’s industrial and technological boom, a lot of Tokyo supposedly looked like this.

The pub we picked had two women inside — the owner behind the bar and a patron. It looked friendly enough. However, neither of the women spoke English. And you could count the number of Japanese words Lamia and I knew on two hands, and that’s counting saki and shōchū. And shōchū didn’t really count since I had just learned about it that night. (It’s a native spirit often distilled from sweet potatoes, barley or rice. I had it served with hot tea and it was quite good.)

Soon, another woman and a man arrived and both took places at the suddenly full bar. Everyone knew each other. No one spoke English. My wife and I sat there exchanging smiles with the other patrons, but not much else.

Then magic happened.

I had noticed a French phrase was up on the wall in a couple places. I pointed at it and asked the owner, “Parlez-vous français?” She shook her head no, but then her face lit up as she pointed at the older woman who had recently arrived. That woman, it turned out, spoke French, which meant she and Lamia could communicate! They spoke French to each other and then Lamia translated into English for me while the woman translated into Japanese for everyone else.

When they found out that Lamia had been born in Lebanon, our new friends pointed to the younger woman who had been at the bar when we first walked in. She was studying Arabic because it was her dream to travel to the Middle East. She was too shy to speak Arabic with my wife but we had made another connection. That’s when the owner started sorting through her CDs until she found the disc she wanted. She held it up proudly to Lamia — it was an album by Fairuz, one of Lebanon’s most famous singers.

In a few moments, the bar was filled with Arabic music and patrons speaking French, Japanese and English. And it was about to get even better.

Two men in suits walked in and as we all shifted to make room for them, our Japanese friends were quick to point out that we were Americans.

Taka took a stool next to me and introduced himself. He was an architect and the other gentleman was his “master,” a fellow architect who was Taka’s teacher and mentor. Taka, it turns out, had attended school in the U.K. and the U.S. He spoke perfect English, though he admitted it had been awhile since he had needed to.

Taka told us all about Golden Gai and its architectural significance to Tokyo’s history and culture. He told us about the bar owner and her love of documentary films. It wasn’t unusual to come in here and see a famous director or actor knocking a couple drinks back, Taka said. The conversation and shōchū flowed late into the night.

I’ve retold this story to friends several times since we returned. Years, from now, I’ll probably still be telling it whenever talk turns to why travel is so rewarding. Seeing exotic sights and visiting places you’ve only read about or seen on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show are great. But the best part of traveling are the moments like these when the stars seem to magically align in places you least expect it.

Images © Joe Newman

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Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

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