My Japan Totem

In the same way the different artists, designers, architects, anthropologists and other urban explorers invite you to look, read, and experience Tokyo differently and through their own lenses of expertise (as indicated by TOKYO TOTEM)- I got to live Japan in the way I experience my life and my profession, through people.

I didn’t get to read Tokyo Totem -the only guidebook I know that encourages you to “reach out into the world and connect to it”- before or while I was in Japan, it was rather a blessing that shaped my interpretation of Tokyo -a posteriori- as it did not come early enough to influence my direct experience.

I experienced, and loved Japan through my own lenses before considering those of others. For me, it all starts and ends with people: The people that welcomed me, that helped me, and accompanied me on the journey I took to discover a corner that was half the world away from my own.

Many of the people that we met were all of the above, and others were just passing through and gave us a minute of their time to read a direction and point us on the right way. It’s not a static categorization or valuation of people, but the descriptive tag does help me put my experience into a somewhat coherent narrative.

The people that welcomed me:

Standing on the line that guides you to border control I was as nervous as I’ve been since I first went through/into the US, this is the first border control line I have been in three years that isn’t a country away from my hometown. It all started in that airport, the Narita int. Where I was welcomed, respected, and treated as the curious foreigner I was rather than as a criminal until proven a tourist.

The hotel was no different, it showed me another side of hospitality. The language never seemed to be a barrier, if anything, the difficulty to communicate effectively through traditional language allowed me to see the effort people put into understanding me and being understood. At the risk of sounding cliche, one of my first realization about this country was that patience was truly a virtue.

To be welcomed by strangers with what seemed to be genuine care and appreciation was a special feeling, but being welcomed while half the world away from home, by one of your most frustratingly close friends is a thing of books and novels. Being in Japan -with the entire Pacific ocean between me and my comfort zone- with two of my favorite people on earth was incomparable with anything else I had ever experienced. And I knew, that these two human beings were all I needed to reach out into this new world and connect to it.

With a welcome like this, a 37 floor elevator ride and an apparent case of vertigo could not divert us from our vague plans and our overtly clear goals.

The people that helped me:

As much as language wasn’t an issue (mostly) in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. English began to lose footing the further away we strayed from the Trip Advisor hotspots and the closer we got to the Japanese tourists and the all-japanese train stations.

Having found out just how limited Google Translate really was and how internationally recognizable our question mark faces were, we came upon the assistance of strangers.

The willingness people had to help was astounding, most didn’t blink twice before responding to our (often) basic questions, and others didn’t even need to be asked and were immediately responsive to our “lost tourist” faces.

At first I assumed they were just used to so many foreigners that it was a daily thing for them to deal with confused and panicked looks and instant translators, after all, this was Tokyo.

But my simple rationalization was tested when we found ourselves off the beaten path, in a small town where everything was in Japanese and there were no other dumbstruck travelers, people were equally, if not more, willing to pause and to help us.

It seemed to me at that point, that it wasn’t just that they were used to it, but that they were openly and humanely curious, that they saw us enough to care, to ask, and if possible, to help.

Regardless of where we were, or whether we asked for it or not, it was my experience that there was always someone aware, observant, or curious enough to ask if we needed help.

The people that accompanied me:

As much as this trip was defined by those people of Japan that I met along the way, in transition through one of the many instances of their daily life, it was also defined by those other ones that were with me throughout all, or most. Peter and Nacho, my two corners of the world that have as much in common as they have differences.

Japan would have been different had I been in another stage in my life, but mostly, it would have been different had I been with any other people.


Over half of our trip was a success thanks to the assistance of people; whether it was their job, their culture or their education- Japanese people were very good to us, going above and beyond our expectations. And maybe sometimes i didn’t take enough time to thank them or to make myself understood on just how much it meant for us, so I would like to thank some of them here:

  • Thank you to Yuka and Juan Carlos, to Luisa and Kayoko for taking the time to give us the advice and guidance to make the most off of a short trip. For sharing your own experience and helping us create the roadmap to our personal exploration of this beautiful country.
  • Thank you to the Shiodome receptionists that helped us read a letter in japanese and called on our behalf, not once but twice, and never made us feel like an annoyance.
  • Thank you to Nacho’s friends, who welcomed us to your impromptu birthday celebration and offered to order for us or translate if we needed it. (and we would have if not for the english menu!)
  • Thank you to every single bus driver, in Tokyo, in Kyoto, in Tendo and everywhere in between for helping us find our way and understand the intricacies of the Japanese bus system.
  • Thank you to the ticket attendants for nodding us through to the right direction.
  • Thank you to the train conductor in Uzen-Chitose Station that recognized us running to the station and waited, therefore saving us a 1 hour wait for the next train.
  • Thank you to the Yamadera station manager that helped one of us figure out the price of our train ride, helped us decipher the tourist map and gave us actionable directions, and thank you for taking interest and asking where we were from and surprising me on our way out with two simple words “Gracias señorita.”
  • Thank you, Micky (the concierge at Takinoyu) for your joyful welcome, the excitement you had all day over our “not Japanese names” and your help finding the best restaurants in Tendo.
  • Thank you to the concierge at Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo for your humor (about Peter’s height), your impecable service, keeping our overly heavy luggage safe and waving us goodbye from your scooter late at night.
  • Thank you to the lady in the subway platform for taking the time to make sure we were in the right train to daikanyama.
  • Thank you to the guy in front of Tenoha&Style for pointing us to the train station.
  • Thank you to the wonderful people at Tokyo Station for finding, storing, and returning our lost items after a long weekend.
  • Thank you, thank you, thank you to Mr. Kouji for waving us off the street and into his Izakaya in the middle of the day because he wasn’t going to let a serendipitous encounter pass by. Thank you for inviting us to have delicious homemade coffee and matcha tea, for being curious about other cultures and trying to get to know us despite obvious language barriers, thank you for talking to Nacho and praising his Japanese, thank you for hanging our names in your wall with pride as if our existence and presence in your small town was an occurrence to be commemorated and celebrated. Thank you for being, in many ways, the epitome of what japan meant to me.
  • Thank you Peter for being the most perfect traveling companion, for being patient and understanding, thank you for saying yes to an unexpected and surprising adventure. Thank you for navigating this country with me and being open to learn more about each other outside of either of our comfort zones. Thank you for adapting and re-calculating each of our roles as we learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses, for being the strength to my weaknesses. Thank you for holding the fort when I had to have a little freak out and for feeling comfortable enough with me to let me hold it for us when you needed me to. Thank you for appreciating nature, culture and philosophy with me and for teaching me to appreciate other things too. Thank you for trusting me and thank you for knowing when not to trust my sense of direction.
  • And last but not least: Thank you Nacho, for being the inspiration and the impetus to go to Japan. Thank you for facilitating our communication and unexpected encounters throughout the country, thank you for giving us the insider tips of the urban explorer. Thank you for being my wasabi philosopher and appreciating moments of contemplation. Thank you for pushing us to not rely on you and to define our own experience and choose our own sights (thank you Peter for Tendo!). Thank you for watching out for us and being patient with our touristy gift buying. Thank you so much Nacho because there is no other friend I would prefer to hangout in yukatas with. Thank you for forgetting the A in Guatemala and for being my Tokyo totem.

*I strongly believe that homogenizing a country or a culture through assumptions or generalizations is not only counterproductive but also damaging. Thus when I write that the people of and in Japan were helpful or kind I do not mean, in any way, that they were all the same or even remotely similar in the ways they displayed this helpfulness or kindness. I am not assuming either that only people with these qualities live in Japan, my intention is not to portray an idealistic vision of a whole country or to stereotype it. What I present in this reflection is nothing other than my experience in the country and with its people: my interpretation, and my impressions. Japan- Tokyo, Kyoto, Yamagata… all these places are as diverse and contradictory as the world itself, but my short and limited experience allowed me to see an evident thread through all these differences, and this thread is the one that guided my experience traveling the country.*

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