The Outsider

MANY OF MY MOST memorable experiences seem to find me when I don’t know what I’m looking for.

It’s uncomfortable to leave without a plan, without a guide or path to follow. But if we only go when we know what’s coming, we forgo one of life’s most wonderful qualities: serendipity.

I got on my bike and headed north. I’d follow the Sunday crowds through Osaka, turn where intrigued, and drift with the ocean into which the rivers of metallic alleyways would spit me.

My goal was to find a place to watch the sunset; besides that, my criteria lay open wide. A park, a step of steps, a bar? I didn’t know where I would rest; I took it slow and pursued the golden spires stemming from the sun as they dipped behind the sky-rise silhouettes.

Regardless of the city, I’ve found that people congregate by water. Find the river, the canal, the pond beside the grass; surely you’ll find company and the heartbeat of a people.

I approached the Namba Hatch, a music venue evocative of a space base preparing for launch. Osakans hung out sipping beers upon its slopping steps, gazing upon the river and munching away on takoyaki, okonomiyaki, gyoza and their sizzling, charred, pan-seared kin.

I found it; rather, it found me. Beside the intergalactic structure a courtyard opened up with stall after stall of beer vendors dishing out half-pints of golden ales and foamy, dark craft beer.

The Namba Hatch
The Namba Hatch

Sure, I’ll stay for a bit. I bought a ticket and ambled through the courtyard as the sun continued falling. Music played; groups huddled and laughed and clinked their glasses in cheers.

It’s bitter-sweet finding these sorts of things alone. I’m the outsider, the observer, the odd-looking fellow with his hands in his pockets, hesitant to approach as I don’t know what to say; if I could speak in English, that would be one thing. I simply don’t yet have the tools to spark a conversation. Still, I must try.

What does it mean to be the outsider… I approached a stall and smiled at the three friends by the draft; they paused their conversation.

Their cheerful smiles slowly digressed as I asked in Japanese, “Eigo o hanasemasu ka?” Do you speak English?

They said something to one another. One repeated, Eigo. English.

I felt intrusive; all I could think of saying was, beer? With a smile, partially stunned by the inability to explain itself, like a midnight racoon where it’s not supposed to be.

I couldn’t tell what they thought of me. I don’t know why it matters.

It shouldn’t but it does; deep inside we just want to be accepted. It’s awkward not to be, and that’s the wall we must push through, again and again, the walls of discomfort which break and crumble with our willingness to try.

This opens up the world — the world I want to live in.

I sat upon the steps and watched as boats and life drifted by. The air was cool, breezy, an ideal summer’s end.

The day felt satisfying, like one I’d have back home — I wrote, I read, I worked out; I cleaned my apartment.

I left in the evening not knowing what I was looking for — yet something exactly like this. It’s different moving to a place rather than traveling through.

Everything is new. Getting your mail can be the most stressful thing in the world. Grocery shopping takes months to master, weeks to even understand.

That challenge is precisely what I’m after. That feeling of unknown is the feeling of my soul expanding, my mind churning, my heart seeking answers to the universal questions of why are we here, what does it mean to be human, what’s a real friend.

On the steps, I noticed how happy a group of friends looked being there together, goofing around and sipping from their plastic cups. This, perhaps, is what they know. This city. This river. This time of year, when the heat starts to diminish, and the best thing in the world is to sit upon these steps as the light fades from the sky and the river sparkles and the air cools.

And they can know with confidence that this is the season shifting. Fall is nearly here. Me; I’m anything but certain.

I turned in my last ticket at a different stall. The vendor gave me an extra beer and we, for some reason, gave a howlish laugh in unison as I thanked him.

I stood on the bridge over the river, watching a group of teens recording themselves doing complex martial arts moves with glow sticks, from what I could tell. Awesome.

Another friend approached and one in the group charged him — the two of them jumped in the air in proximity, barely missing one another like some sort of ritual, landing fiercely.

Why the hell must I write this down? Why can’t I just live it? A perennial question that I can’t seem to answer — well, I suppose, because the question is the answer.

Because this feeling, seeing those kids jump in the air in friendship; seeing the group on the steps who look so at home, so Osaka; the mom on the steps taking pictures with her kids — this span of life digs at my core, gives me so much to think about and makes me smile.

And if I can convey that joy, or the confusion, or the peace which I feel in the moment through the words on the page, maybe I can shed a light on what it means to be alive. Perhaps I may impart how these ordinary moments mean the most, for they’re the ones which unify us, the ones we share, the ones which make it all worthwhile.

Underneath, we’re all just human.

That’s the story I hope to tell.

Back in the U.S., that would be me and my friends on those steps. But I’m here. Maybe, if nothing else, traveling gives insight into what others might feel, those displaced, those on the road, those just looking for a friend.

I hope that’s what I can be. I’m here because home is what I carry, and there’s so much left to see.

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