- CouchSurfing is an online community that connects travellers with locals for free lodging.
- I rediscovered the CouchSurfing app on a trip to Tokyo, Japan, last year.
- Instead of using the app for lodging, I used it to meet locals and had a wild night out.
On a trip to Tokyo last year to help launch Business Insider Japan, I found myself like many business travellers – alone in a foreign city.
My BI Japan colleagues couldn’t have been more inviting, taking me out to their favourite noodle shop and izakaya, but, for the most part, I was on my own. I spent my nights wandering the alleys of the bustling and colourful Shibuya neighbourhood.
By the time the weekend came, I was getting stir-crazy.
That’s when I rediscovered CouchSurfing, the online community that connects travellers with locals for free lodging.
I’ve used and been around CouchSurfing for years. When I moved to New York, my brother was something of a superhost. His apartment was an endless carousel of interesting, wild, or curious characters passing through while I too crashed in the living room. It was a formative introduction to adult life.
As Airbnb became ubiquitous, the CouchSurfing app fell into disuse for me, as it did for many others.
But bored and lonely in Tokyo, I opened CouchSurfing and found it had changed considerably. The company found a way to make the community, the best part of CouchSurfing, accessible.
Tapping into that community led me to a wild night with Tokyoites that I never would have had otherwise – here’s how it all went down:
When you open the app, CouchSurfing encourages you to “Travel Like A Local.” Instead of opening on potential places to stay, CouchSurfing now opens on “Hangouts.”
To use Hangouts, you simply turn on your availability. You can either start your own hangout by typing in what you want to do, or browsing the hangouts other travellers have already started in your area. In Tokyo, there were a lot of options.
Each Hangout has a person’s profile and what they are looking to do. Activities range from simple things like grab dinner or beers to “visit Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum” or “attend an underground rave in Bushwick.”
Once you join a hangout, you are entered into a chat where you can arrange the plans or just get to know each other. Best of all, multiple people can join hangouts so “grabbing beers” doesn’t turn into an awkward date if the person turns out to be a dud.
On the night I tried it in Tokyo, I noticed a group talking about going to see the ambient rock band Tycho at Stellar Ball, a concert venue in Shinagawa. I decided to join up and headed to the venue after work Friday night.
I found the CouchSurfers gathering near the bar at the back of Stellar Ball. Tycho hadn’t started playing yet so we got to know each other.
Some of the CouchSurfers had arrived solo, but many had brought friends with them. It was a mix of a few Tokyoites with varying English fluency, a couple European travellers, and one other American traveller, a chatty Army vet from Texas.
To my surprise, only one had ever used CouchSurfing to stay at someone’s apartment while travelling. But all had been using the app to meet up with people regularly.
Within a few minutes, a few more locals joined the group, meeting up with the woman who had organised the “Hangout.” The woman worked at a Japanese e-commerce site with the locals, one of whom was American but had living in Tokyo since graduating college.
All in all, it was a pretty seamless experience. Tycho was excellent, one of the CouchSurfers had snuck in a bottle of shochu that we passed around, and before long we were all lifelong friends for the night.
After the concert, one of the CouchSurfers suggested we head to an izakaya they liked nearby.
The izakaya was on a narrow alleyway in Shinagawa, seemingly in the back of another separate restaurant. It would have been an impossible place to find on my own. And the restaurant didn’t even seem to have a menu.
It didn’t matter. One of the Japanese CouchSurfers ordered a few bottles of beer and shochu and some plates of food for us to nibble on.
Before long, a table of rowdy salarymen – Japanese-slang for overworked, hard-drinking white collar workers – had burst into drinking songs. When they settled down, an old man turned the TV from a soccer game to karaoke and sang a song that sounded like a national anthem for a country I’ve never heard of.
I suppose karaoke is an option anywhere in Tokyo. The host suggested we head somewhere else.
We caught the last train of the night around 1 a.m. and headed to Sangenjaya, a maze-like locals area of pubs, shops, and tiny restaurants.
One of the organiser’s friends – not a CouchSurfer – wanted to go to his favourite bar in Sangenjaya. I hadn’t heard of the neighbourhood before, but it looked just like the yokocho,or narrow chaotic alleyways, that I imagined made up Tokyo before I arrived.
After spending most of my time in Tokyo’s clean and sterile business districts, seeing this side of the city was a welcome change.
The bar we went to was a place one can only find in Tokyo — and which I will probably never find again.
Tucked deep in an alleyway, the host pointed out a narrow door and directed us upstairs into an impossibly small bar.
There was barely enough room for two or three people to stand in front of the bar, which was no bigger than a kitchen counter and the sitting area made New York apartments look spacious. No one was sitting, anyway. The tables had mostly been pushed to the sides and a raucous group of a dozen Tokyoites were taking turns loudly belting karaoke tunes.
Every minute or so, the entire group shouted “Harmonica!” and the bartender stopped what he was doing and did a short harmonica solo, before pouring more drinks.
Our host told us that the very drunk man singing was the owner and the bar’s gimmick was as you paid for one drink, you could drink as much Jägermeister as you wanted for free.
Needless to say, we stayed the whole night.
The people singing karaoke were pretty good, particularly the couple that decided to do a Japanese language version of “A Whole New World.”
Once the other locals realised that there were two Americans present – the Army vet and I – they decided we should sing American songs. Without asking, they put on Red Hot Chilli Peppers and handed us microphones.
Twenty or thirty songs later – including “Wonderwall,” “Semi-Charmed Life,” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” – we realised it was 5 a.m.