Stereotypes. There’s a part of them that seems to be somewhat true for major cultures around the world, and yet time and time again when I visit different countries, in one way or another those stereotypes are shattered. Japan was not an exception. Growing up watching Karate Kid and being forced to take martial art lessons from probably seven till I was twelve, I had the impression that Japanese people were disciplined and honorable, but very serious. We also had a Japanese nanny named Emma Yamamoto; she had been my mother’s nanny and she sometimes terrorized us when we misbehaved by chasing us around waiving her cane or throwing her flip flop with deadly accuracy at my giggling sisters and I. She was definitely the stereotype of what I thought Japanese people would be like: disciplined. More than once she decked me from across the living room by throwing her sandal in my direction after many a warning. Japanese are precise! Yes, they are. However, after a week in Tokyo and the surrounding areas, I was left with a new stereotype to add to my overall impression of Japan and its people: friendly.
Japanese people are incredibly friendly. At least they were to me and to all my friends who’ve visited since. Let me tell you a quick little story. Before Global Child was distributed worldwide on major airlines and Amazon Prime, it was a dream that we pieced together through the help of many friends and the power of social media. I remember I wrote on Facebook that I would be visiting Japan to film for my new travel show project and asked if anyone had recommendations to please let me know. Before I knew it, my friend Mauricio had introduced me to Tiffany who ended up showing me around the Tokyo nightlife and has remained a great friend to this day. Then, another friend introduced me to a Japanese attorney named Minako. Minako who quickly created a group chat in which she included four more Japanese friends including Akiko. One said I should see the fish market and volunteered to take me. Another mentioned that we needed to see the Tokyo Sky Tree so she volunteered. Before I knew it these friends had divided the touring, assigned days in which to hang out and unbeknownst to me had prepared a marvelous itinerary to show me around. I was just some random guy from Miami who knew one of their friends! But wait, it gets better…
Minako calls me once I’m in Japan and tells me that she had been doing research and they only allowed 500 people to visit the Tuna Auction at the Tjuskiji Fish Market, the oldest in the world. She said we had to be there at 2am and wait till 5am to make sure we had a spot. I immediately declined because I hadn’t met this person! Make a stranger wait from 2am to 5am? Just so she can show me around? I couldn’t accept. She insisted that it would be her pleasure and a great dishonor if I didn’t let her do that for me. I tried but she would not budge. Wow. I accepted and hours later there we were, Minako and I waiting for the famous Tuna auction. We made it in, heard a lot of shouting over giant frozen fish and had a great time exploring the market. Afterward, we had traditional Japanese breakfast which includes Miso Soup and Raw fish and before I had a chance to pay she had already taken care of the bill. Unbelievable! We shared stories and a great moment and exchanged a hug at the end. That type of generosity is not normal anywhere in the world by any standards. That’s generosity reflects the warmth of the Japanese culture and people often over shadowed by their discipline, honor and hard work.
My friend Akiko showed me around Tokyo, the Shibuya crossing and the Sky Tree. She then introduced me to her friend Toshi who came with me to the Robot show for a drink and to enjoy that technological glow stick madness and great times. The Robot show is a must for any tourist that visits Japan. You’ll never forget it… the same way I won’t forget laughing with Toshi who took time out of his busy family life to share a great evening with a stranger. All these friends of mine helped me to discover this phrase I now love to use: “a stranger is just a friend I haven’t made yet.”
The biggest awe and contrast we’ll find during our lives is how much our own perspectives will change as we travel with a purpose. Japan is wonderful and its people are honorable, disciplined, generous and friendly. I’m sure the next time I visit I’ll be able to add another positive adjective to my ever-growing list.
By Augusto Valverde