pirate ship in Hakone

Thoughts on Japan as a destination for foreign tourists

When I arrived at Narita this summer, one of the first things I noticed was that the new (they still have that new car smell!) Narita Express trains into the city have displays not just in the usual Japanese and English, but in Korean and Chinese too. Ah, I thought, another sign that Japan is making itself easier to navigate for foreign visitors.

Alas, that thought didn’t last long. Traveling this time with my husband who had never been to Japan and doesn’t speak Japanese, and with a much more touristy itinerary than my usual business-focused one, I had the chance to think about Japan’s friendliness as a destination for foreign tourists. Japan would dearly like to expand the number of people from other countries who travel there. But to be honest, what I saw didn’t make me feel sanguine about its ability to do that. I’ll present my thoughts here on why that is. Others have pointed out many of these same issues, but it may be helpful to give my own take on them based on my experience.

One problem is that Japan has, as my father would put it, crapped up some of the places that should be its most attractive. Take for example the walk from the ryokan we stayed at in Tonosawa in the Haokone resort area, along the road to the nearby Yunomoto business district. This walk is along a lovely stream – the reason that many ryokan are located there – and should have been an enjoyable one. Yet the scene has been marred in a variety of ways. First there was a truly ugly concrete retaining wall on the other side of the stream. Hey, this is a resort area I’ve spent a lot of money to visit – if they absolutely had to have a retaining wall couldn’t they have tried to make it a little less ugly? (The original and nicer brick retaining wall apparently needed repair, so rather than making the repair consistent with the original, or redoing the whole thing nicely, a bunch of boring concrete slabs had been un-artfully applied.)

Walking further there was a dam across the stream, with an old rusty contraption on top. Closer inspection revealed this to be a mini hydroelectric power plant. Yes I know Japan needs power but did they really need to put this thing right here in a resort area? Then came a bridge, which someone had apparently tried to make look nicer by topping it with a concrete arch. Sorry, with the exception of works by architect Tadao Ando, concrete is going to be ugly no matter what shape it’s in. Especially old concrete like this that’s not ageing well.

Thus what I’m sure was once a lovely walk was really quite depressing and I couldn’t help but think “why am I paying to stay around here? This is the beautiful Hakone that everyone talks about?” (Later fortunately I got to some better spots.) In his excellent book Dogs and Demons (which I thought of often on this trip), Alex Kerr mentions that there is even an expression in Japanese referring to this phenomenon of lovely places whose natural beauty has been marred – keikan mondai (disturbed scenery problem). Unfortunately, Japan has a lot of them to work on.

Writing about the challenges to foreign tourism, I would be remiss not to mention the inconvenience of not being able to use one’s U.S. bank cards at any ATMs other than the Post Office (thank goodness for them!) From what I’m told, Japan seems to be the only country where U.S. bank cards can’t be used widely. I have no idea why Japanese banks are reluctant to sign up for the system that would make this possible.

Fortunately, post offices are plentiful and easily found. However, the other day I happened to be somewhere that wasn’t convenient to a post office, and needed to top up my cash supply. The woman I had asked about the post office suggested that I try the 7-11 down the street, which had an ATM that she thought might work. I wasn’t very optimistic, but decided to give it a try. I chose the ATM’s English option, which ironically flashed “7-11 supports the Visit Japan campaign” right before it told me that I couldn’t use my card there.

The main barrier for foreign visitors to Japan, of course, remains the language – both the lack of English signage and English speakers. Even when the main printed signs are in English (such as in a train station), often the most crucial information has been added later or is delivered orally, and is only in Japanese. And I would not be the first to comment on the generally low level of English speaking ability (or confidence) on the part of the average Japanese who comes into contact with tourists. There were even several times when someone was attempting to speak English to us but it was so poorly pronounced or worded that my husband had no idea what they were saying, so I had to translate the “English” into English.

In my case, since I speak and read Japanese fluently the language wasn’t a problem. But it meant that my normally competent husband was rendered nearly completely helpless in most situations, increasing the burden on me to be his constant translator. It was similar to traveling with a small child – I had to complete most transactions myself and couldn’t ever ask him to help with any tasks like buying tickets or communicating with someone. Although my husband was appreciative of my being his constant interpreter, I can’t say that this added to my travel experience (this is my vacation, not my work!). At the end of the trip I asked him if he thought he could have done the trip on his own without my navigation, and he said that due to the language barrier he thought it would have been “very painful.”

A particular annoyance was the fact that most museum exhibit plaques and explanations on historical markers are only in Japanese. Even though I read Japanese, this is a very different set of vocabulary from my normal business dealings, and in many cases required knowledge of place names or historical figures that I lacked. It was often a lot of work to read these, and even more to translate them for my husband, and I couldn’t always get everything since I wasn’t carrying my dictionary with me. Plus there are only so many plaques that one can read at several minutes apiece if you are trying to keep to any kind of schedule.

Another thing I noticed is that even though I could read the plaques in Japanese, they often seem to lack the kind of information that I wanted to know. For example, according to the written explanation in the museum, evidently in the Tokugawa period some women (held essentially as hostages of the Shogunate) bribed their way through the Hakone checkpoint on the Tokaido road out of Edo. Sounds like there’s a good story or two there, but alas no further information given. (My husband also noticed that what English explanation there was referred to the checkpoint looking for women, but didn’t explain why they were doing so – one would have to be familiar with Japanese history, or be able to read the Japanese plaques, to know that.)

Similarly my husband and I had wondered about two large mound-like structures on either side of the trail near the beginning of the old Tokaido road that we walked, so later I was delighted to discover an exhibit plaque about them in the small museum midway through the trail. But although the plaque described at length their size and listed every place they could be found, it didn’t explain what their exact purpose was, why they were made in that particular shape and size, or why they were in the places they were. After I had stood there several minutes reading through the whole thing my husband impatiently asked, “so, why are they there?” and I couldn’t give him a good answer.

Also, I read the entire museum pamphlet carefully, but could not discover who had decided that Kyoto’s Arashiyama was the perfect place for a music box museum, and was able to put up the significant amount of money that must have been needed to buy the large collection of antique examples thereof. (I can only surmise from the fact that it seems to be approximately 20 years old that it was Bubble Economy money – but whose, and why music boxes?). Or, why are the sightseeing boats in Hakone pirate ships, of all things? I have to admit that the pirate ships are very attractive and I found them quite charming, but couldn’t help but wonder how they came to be there. Inquiring minds want to know.

One thing that I often discuss with Japanese participants in my seminars and explain to readers of my books for Japanese audiences is that the Japanese communication style often leaves out the “why.” This is one of the reasons non-Japanese often feel frustrated with the communications they receive from Japanese colleagues and customers. It seems that Japanese tourist site explanations share that same quality, as I was left wondering “why?” all too often. Yes I suppose that I could have asked someone, but there isn’t always someone handy. Also, I have a feeling that my questions might just perplex people (since probably Japanese never ask them), and hey I’m on vacation here folks and maybe I don’t feel like working quite that hard (especially having just spent time slogging through the unhelpful Japanese language pamphlet or exhibit label).

Now, don’t get me wrong, I had a great time on our trip to Japan, and my husband and I will likely travel in Japan again. But as Japan seeks to promote tourism, the kinds of issues I mention above will need to be addressed if success is to be achieved.