‘So, where are you from?’ the bartender asked me at my first bar in Ishigaki Island (a western island in Okinawa prefecture).
‘I’m from Kanagawa,’ I said.
‘Hey, this guy’s from Kanagawa,’ the bartender said to one of the two customers – a guy and a girl – at the bar.
‘Really? Whereabouts?’ the guy said.
‘Isn’t that where there are a lot of seedy people?’ the girl said.
Before I knew it, everyone was in the conversation.
Similar things happened at the next bar. People talked to me and even shared food with me.
This came as a surprise to me. I’d never experienced this level of friendliness in Tokyo during my 20 years of living around there. I’d always thought that Japanese people simply didn’t talk to each other. The friendliest people I’d known in Tokyo were either not Japanese or were those who hung out with non-Japanese people. When it came to a purely Japanese environment, strangers didn’t talk to each other.
The next day, I ended up going out with three random Japanese people I’d just met.
How did it happen? I met a girl from Shiga prefecture at the first venue. She said she was going to another place where they also played live music. I went there with her, and she was meeting her friend from Osaka, who’d invited a guy from Shizuoka she had just met the day before.
After the show, the musician came to talk to us. He was called Toshiki. He was born and raised there and a very good singer.
‘Have you been here before?’ Toshiki said.
‘Yeah, I was hoping to see this musician, but apparently he was away. He should be back now,’ the Shiga girl said.
‘Oh, he’s actually my sensei. I didn’t know he was back,’ he said.
‘Really? Shouldn’t you be informed about that?’ the girl asked.
They bonded because of the people they both knew.
‘So, I haven’t asked your names have I?’ Toshiki said to us.
We told him our names. When he learnt the Osaka girl’s name, he said, ‘So you are that girl. I’ve heard a lot about you!’
‘Really? How come I’m that famous?’ the Osaka girl asked.
‘Well, I know these people and those people, and they all talk about you,’ he said.
‘I hope people are not saying bad things about me,’ she said.
They were networking.
‘Anyway, I should be going. I work as a bartender at a nearby bar,’ Toshiki said.
‘What bar?’ the Shizuoka guy asked.
‘It’s called Eden,’ Toshiki said.
‘I’d like to come sometime. Where’s that?’ the guy said.
‘It’s just around the corner. You go to Ooritouri and it’s on the left,’ Toshiki said. Then he left.
When we entered Eden, Toshiki was genuinely surprised.
‘Wow, you guys actually came! I didn’t think you were… Well, come and have a seat! What would you like to drink?’ he said.
We weren’t sure what to drink.
‘How about a bottle of Awamori (Okinawan spirit)? The listed price is 3,000 yen (about $30) but I can make it 2,000 yen for you,’ he said.
Then he joined us. We talked, played darts and sang karaoke together.
‘I’m supposed to be working but this doesn’t feel like work at all! I’m just having fun,’ he said.
Most of the Japanese people I met on Ishigaki Island had already been there several times. They kept coming back. Some of them were thinking of living there or already lived there.
Before, I didn’t understand why so many people were in love with that island, but I understand now. It’s not just breathtaking beaches and coral reefs. It’s also the connection with people. Once you visit the island, you make a lot of friends. Next time you go there, you know you will see them again. I think this kind of relationship is hard to find in Tokyo or other major cities in Japan.
On my way back to Tokyo, I was already thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come back to Ishigaki Island.