Such an odd encounter that we’re hoping it was a YouTube prank. 

Visiting a foreign country can be an unsettling experience, especially when you’re in a place like Japan, where a lot of the signage is written in kanji characters and most of the locals only speak Japanese. Our reporter Seiji Nakazawa, who’s travelled the world on his own, is acutely aware of the difficulties people can encounter on a trip abroad, and so whenever he sees a foreign visitor in Japan who looks a little lost, he’s always quick to step in and offer as much help as possible.

The troubles he’s usually assisted with are mostly related to directions or sometimes advice in a convenience store, where one person pointed at a product and asked him if it contained fish. However, the other day, a foreigner approached him with a request he’s never encountered before, and it shook him so much he can’t stop thinking about it.

The encounter occurred at around 10 a.m. in a sparsely crowded area of Shibuya in Tokyo. The person approached him in English, but Seiji was so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he can’t recall whether they began with something like “Hi” or “Excuse me”. Either way, it was clear they were talking to him, and when Seiji made eye contact with the individual, he realised it was a Western-looking man.

He was a lanky man of medium build, wearing sunglasses and carrying a backpack, and he had a casual, sporty vibe to him, with slight stubble on his chin and the look of a backpacker. Seiji was ready to give him directions, or something similar, but the request for assistance was nothing of the sort. Instead, the foreigner wanted to know…

▼ …”Is there any place where I can stay on the cheap?

He went on to say, “I don’t mind a place like a karaoke bar, if it’s cheap.” Seiji blinked as he attempted to process what was going on. First of all, he’d never had anyone approach him requesting accommodation information before, and secondly, where could this man stay on the cheap in a place as popular and central as Shibuya? Even karaoke bars in the area can charge a lot for a night, so perhaps a manga cafe would be cheaper, but in order to give him a good answer, Seiji would have to do a whole lot of research as it wasn’t something he could recommend off the top of his head in an instant.

▼ An 11-hour stay from 6 p.m.-5 a.m. at this karaoke joint costs 770 yen (US$4.95) on a weekday, but would that be cheap enough?

Seiji decided to give him the best advice he could in the moment, saying, “Maybe a manga cafe?” But then he was faced with more questions: “How much does a manga cafe cost? Can I stay there for the night?”

Before Seiji could say anything, the man thrust out his hand, saying, “This is all the money I have right now.” When Seiji looked at the man’s upturned palm, he saw he was holding about 660 yen (US$4.26) in his hand.

“Are you kidding?” Seiji felt like saying, because even a local like himself wouldn’t know where to stay for 660 yen. Super cheap accommodation would be closer to 1,000 yen per night, and Seiji began to feel concerned about where the man had stayed the previous night and where he would stay tomorrow, if this was all the money in his possession.

Seiji asked him where he would stay the following night, and the man said “Things will be resolved tomorrow“, which only threw up even more question marks in Seiji’s head. Still, he wanted to help the stranger, so Seiji took out his smartphone and attempted to run a search for cheap places to stay.

However, being a man on a tight budget himself, Seiji has the cheapest smartphone plan, which means loading pages takes forever and that’s what happened now, with his search results failing to load. As he struggled with his phone, Seiji asked, “Do you live here?” and the man replied: “Yes, but I just arrived recently so I don’t know much about things.

This is where Seiji began to get the feeling that what the man really wanted to hear was an offer along the lines of “Would you like to stay at my house?” After all, with just 660 yen in his possession, it would be impossible for this man to stay anywhere really, and the best option would be for him to stay somewhere for free, especially if he wanted something to eat as well.

▼ An oversized locker in the area costs 600 yen on its own, so an overnight stay for that amount is like a pipe dream.

Seiji knows what it’s like to be down and out so he wanted to help the man out as much as possible, but he still had to consider his gut instinct, which was telling him there was something fishy about this man’s request.

Turning the tables around, if Seiji were to approach a stranger in a Western country with the same request, only in Japanese to show he was totally out of his depth, he wouldn’t be surprised if the person he approached offered him a free stay at their house, which made Seiji think this is what the stranger was hoping for. But then again, Seiji couldn’t shake the feeling that this might be some sort of YouTube prank, where the individual sets out to test people to see if they will eventually invite him back to their place to stay.

In the end, the stranger just kept repeating, “I have no money” and didn’t directly ask Seiji to stay the night with him, so with no good recommendations to give him, Seiji figured there was nothing else he could do except bid him goodbye. While he hopes the stranger will be okay, he was glad to end the exchange, as it made him feel uncomfortable and slightly unsafe, but Seiji found himself thinking about the encounter for a long time afterwards.

Though he’s had encounters with homeless Japanese people asking for money or assistance, this was Seiji’s first time to encounter a down-and-out foreigner. He didn’t know whether to feel sorry for the man, if it was a genuine case of money troubles, or angry at him, which Seiji would be if it was all a prank. Either way, it made Seiji feel sad for the state of society, where the proliferation of pranksters on YouTube, especially foreigners visiting Japan, makes locals wary of people’s motives, and the rising costs of living makes getting by harder for everyone on the daily.

Whatever, the case, he hopes he doesn’t experience this type of encounter ever again, but now he’s wondering…is this something anybody else has experienced in Japan? He’s intrigued to find out, so if you have any stories to share, please sound off in the comments section below!

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