No matter how many times I visit the observatory on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, I'm always struck anew by the city's surreal vastness, stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see. Yet despite its seemingly forbidding size, Tokyo is actually easy to navigate and explore. Everything runs like clockwork, Tokyoites will go out of their way to help strangers, and the entire city is strikingly clean and orderly. Although skyscrapers are definitely on the rise, there are many diverse neighborhoods with small-town atmospheres. And while the nation's capital takes a no-nonsense approach when it comes to conducting business, it's also one of the quirkiest cities you'll find anywhere (coffee in a so-called "maid cafe," anyone?). Like most destinations around the world, Tokyo is a product of its geography, history, and people. This chapter highlights how Tokyo came to be the way it is today, providing, I hope, some insight into what I consider to be one of the most interesting -- not to mention fun! -- cities in the world.

A Face in the Crowd -- My first morning in Japan took place more than 25 years ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.

Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. Back then, my Japanese was limited to phrases like "Where's the bathroom?" so all I could manage was a polite arigatoo. But my guardian angel's job wasn't over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.

Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness that I have to wonder whether it's because people in Japan are so nice or whether it's because I'm so inept (I suppose if I didn't get lost so often, I wouldn't need so much help). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.

But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under her wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn't know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land.

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