Archives for category: travel

Our local bar is a small Irish pub, a two-floor place converted from a traditional soba noodle restaurant that generally attracts only those living in the vicinity. It lets us bring our dog in, so we often end up there for quiet drinks. One recent night, we headed upstairs and there, sat in the corner, were four new people, two Japanese women and two British men, one heavily tattooed. The guy with ink looked like a dubstep producer or some other sort of young creative, new in town and here for a limited time, getting shown around by assistants that would later take him to his gig. The Japanese women were behaving like assistants.

When we sat, our dog, Baz, kept wandering over to be fussed, and it became clear they were not creatives in town for a gig, or whatever, but tourists, plain and simple. The women had met them in a bar in Shibuya, presumably a Hub, and invited them to go for a drink in an area off the general tourist circuit. Here they were, in what I assume the women thought tourists would consider the Real Japan … a suburban place for foreigners to drink in an Irish or British sort of atmosphere.

Me and my wife kept to ourselves as the evening continued. The other guy, the one who didn’t look like a dubstep producer, became increasingly vocal, in an accent that can only be described as student — definitely British, but of an indefinite place, with elements of northern, southern and public school, likely the result of the diversity of kids from all over the country who get together at the same time at the impressionable age of 18 or so.

His voice grew in proportion to the number of pints he had drank. He began describing his favorite comedy to the two women, complete with quotes of parts of the script he had memorized. We had a warning against this in the late 90s, when the Fast Show’s I’m an Alien Guy made everyone aware of the dangers of quoting their favorite TV shows. Tragically, by 2016, the Fast Show’s message has been lost. These are the dark times we live in.


Tourists such as those I endured in my local have brought to me revelation: I have given in to the sort of Not In My Back Yard thoughts that I once associated with only Daily Mail reading Brits and the whitest of white America. Those conversations I once sneered at, about saving the British sausage and serving only the freedom fry, I am now having. The tourists have arrived in Japan, and they brought me out in a rash of nimbyism.

We left the bar, commented on how annoying the tourist was and wondered what motivated the women in bringing the two guys there. Would a Japanese place not be better? Whatever. We were moaning about tourists coming into our area and disturbing the peace and quiet. We are not alone. Japan is finally on the tourist map, not somewhere that simply talks about attracting visitors without ever bringing them in, and all residents face the consequences.

About 20 million or so visitors are coming through Japan’s airports annually, and that is the beginning. The government aims to attract 40 million tourists a year by 2020. This is having effects that with hindsight should have been predictable.

Ginza, once a shopping district for the well-healed, today throngs with Chinese seeking out bargains; coaches for shipping the tourists in and out line the bottom of its main drag. Other areas face a similar fate. Golden Gai, which has been a “secret” place to go for a drink since at least 2002 when I arrived (do people think because the bars are small they are secret?), increasingly is talked about by long-term expats lamenting the decline of the area. Business hotels, once the refuge of stinky middle-aged businessmen in town for short stints, are now tourist spots as beds at higher-end places are snapped up early.

Dragging out the old cliche that Tokyo is changing really isn’t enough to explain what is happening this time. Tourists are revolutionizing the city. This is touted as one of the few policy successes for the current government. That’s fine, but if the rise to 40 million is to happen, there are a number of areas where improvements in policy will be needed.


In tandem with the growth in tourist numbers, Airbnb and other minpaku (unlicensed short stay accommodations) have emerged. They operate in a legal not-so-gray area. Any residence in Japan accepting people to stay for fewer than 30 days needs to get a license by law. Most landlords are ignoring this rule, which has led to a problem of enforcement: How do you shut down so many places, or choose which ones to put out of business? Do you want to be the person that does that? Where will all the people staying in these places sleep instead? Osaka recently prohibited one apartment from accepting tourists. Weather balloons fielded to the Japanese press have suggested that Airbnb residences will be able to operate legally for 180 days per year. 

Other issues include the use of credit cards. When and where can they be used and when is cash necessary? Most of us long-term Japan residents know to carry a couple of ten thousand yen notes if going out for a big night, but tourists do not. They are used to living in places where cash long ago lost out to plastic on Friday night drinking sessions. One moaning person on the Internet was berated by most of Japan’s foreign social media community when he complained about a bar in Kyoto not accepting credit cards nor his foreign currency. Of course, the guy comes across as a stupid tourist, trying to hand over dollars to pay for a bill in Geisha Central, but his problem is real. How many times have I come unstuck over the years because of the weird rule that bans ATM transactions on Sunday nights? And the reality is, the increasing number of tourists in no way means that small and medium size businesses will be moving over to plastic payments any time soon. They will still be run by the same older people. And tourists will still feel uncomfortable wandering around with hundreds of dollars in yen stuffed in their wallets. Old habits die hard.

Tourists also face issues with communication and accessibility. Shibuya Station was in the last couple of years refurbished and now is as difficult to navigate as a complicated level of Donkey Kong or an MC Escher painting. Locals find it difficult to get around the station, and despite apps offered, tourists also struggle. Taxi drivers often do not know their way around the city as well as their London counterparts, strictly tested on The Knowledge, do. This is all on top of the language barrier that is impossible to overcome during a year or two in the country, never mind a short stay. I wrote about recent efforts to improve accessibility and the potential for going further here and here. Still, the city is not there yet though. It can, and will, do more to open up to tourists, but as it does, the intangible contours of Tokyo will change and residents will feel the effects.


Back to the bar and my nimbyism. I was a douche. Anyone should be able to drink where they want. But we all feel it when our places are visited by outsiders. Is it the start of a coming invasion? And like me, we all know we need to calm down when we start fretting about these things.

Tokyo though, is made up of tens of millions of people who manage to get by in spite of the complicated nature of the urban space they reside or work in. I love the city in part because the way it manages to function defies the odds. But tourists are slowly eroding Tokyo’s smooth operation and leading many areas of the country to show an uglier side. Handbooks teaching foreigners what not to do are among the worst manifestations so far of the increasingly difficult relationship between locals and visitors (it is noteworthy the plenty of Japanese people violate the national etiquette and always have, just as people do anywhere in the world). Complaints about bakugai — the act of buying up everything in sight — come a close second. Improve your logistics and leave the tourists alone. 

Japan’s bureaucrats have an answer: omotenashi. This catch-all term describes the way Japanese are supposed to act around tourists. Roughly, it translates as a combination of politeness and hospitality. A celebrity called Christel Takigawa used the term to describe why Tokyo should host the Olympics, media spread the word and bureaucrats decided it was a solution.

What is omotenashi in real life? The mind boggles. Officials have tried to explain it to me, in both English and Japanese, and ended up confused themselves. But as one admitted, Tokyo does not have the cash to become the sort of accessible city that the Olympic Games and tourist boom require without all chipping in and helping others in need. Public transport facilities outside the center of Tokyo cannot all be upgraded, for example. So omotenashi it is.

The omotenatshi solution has a problem. At root, it relies on the majority of Japanese accepting a request from officials and following it blindly for as long as the tourists keep coming. It needs people to buy in to the idea of a visitor-heavy Japan and accept that this comes with duties. It also requires people to look at what their government has done by attracting the tourists in droves, and view it is good for them and good for the country. Even in their own back yards.

Japan is by no means Afghanistan, tourists here face no Taliban. The police are not going to start asking backpackers for bribes. And the pickpockets of Europe are unlikely to emerge. But as visitors grow in number, so will the nimbyism. More and more will tire of being welcoming to tourists as they effect their everyday lives.

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Yamagata Prefecture in inland Tohoku is my second home in Japan. My wife’s family live there. On a Dec. 8-10 visit, I got to see a side of the area often hidden in the most unlikely of venues.

Every morning during stays at the family home in Yamagata, me and my wife head to the local onsen hot-spring public bath. A long held tradition in many parts of Japan, segregated bathing with others in piping-hot water pumped straight from volcanic streams is a true pleasure. It’s a chance to meditate, endure the heat, and refresh the body and mind.

But on Dec. 10, circumstances dictated me and my wife did not bathe until after lunch. The onsen we entered was the realm of the elderly. A place unknown to most.

I stepped into the bathing room and showered before heading to the bath, in the same steaming hall. The room was relatively empty apart from two men, a cheerfully plump man in his 60s and his father, clearly ravaged by aged-related disease.

As I dipped my legs, hesitantly, into 43C water, and winced before lurching my gut in, the son turned to me.

“It’s bloody hot today isn’t it?” he said in a thick, Tohoku dialect. For an idea of the dialect, think broad Yorkshire.

“Yes,” I replied, concentrating on getting more of myself in the bath without too much shock.

“Where are you from?” There would be no reflection today. I was, like it or not, having a conversation.

“England.”

“You must be happy. Princess Katherine is having a baby. English people are happy about this.”

“Hmm.”

“I read. I know. You’re country is a mess. It’s divided. I saw.”

“That’s true. But what can be done?”

“Yes. How long have you been here?”

“10 years.”

“Wow. That’s a while. What do you think of Japan’s politics? Why are you in Yamagata?”

“I’m married to a local.”

Another man enters the room. A rightist.

“Great,” the son says.

“And Japanese politics is a mess,” I continue.

Such a comment speaks volumes in Yamagata. The effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the inland area were not necessarily direct on a large scale, but they were existential.

Everybody in Yamagata felt the sheer power of the earth on that day, even if they were mercifully distant from the sea. Friends were lost and businesses were destroyed, refugees from the devastation first flooded the prefecture’s public halls and later skewed the local property market as they left the coast forever to start new lives.

Markets were destroyed overnight for Yamagata’s small businesses, which lost many loyal customers. An unjustified guilt, as toxic as the chemicals left in the air by destroyed factories and nuclear reactors on the coast, lingered through the prefecture’s towns. Outlooks on life changed, but little else did.

Politicians bickered, money failed to get through to those that needed it and old views came to the surface. Yamagata was a part of Tohoku. And Tohoku was a part of Japan, but different. The city boys cared when they wanted to, but Tohoku was Tohoku. It faced the modern city types in the same way it faced its bitter winters: with resilience, pride and a cynical defiance. The city boys did little for them, and they expected no more.

Politics was a mess.

“Exactly. We don’t know what to do.” This was a lie. The man, and his elderly father, like most across Japan, had already decided how they would vote in the coming election. They just weren’t telling.

“That’s the truth. Nobody knows what to do,” I said. I got out of the bath to cool off, and while under a shower was approached by the rightist.

“Where are you from?” the rightist asked.

“England. I’m married to a local girl. The bath is hot,” I said, hoping for peace.

“Don’t you want to go home?”

“Not really, but we may move somewhere else in Asia. This is where the global economy is centered now.”

“You should go home.”

The first man jumped in. “You are an idiot. Quit the right-wing nonsense.”

The four of us stood, naked, in a standoff.

“He’s ‘menkoi'” the son told me, using local dialect and pointing at the rightist.

In Yamagata, “menkoi” is in many way the equivalent of the rest of the country’s “kawaii,” which means “cute.” But there is a difference. In Yamagata, “menkoi” is used as a term to look down on those less fortunate, the brain-damaged, the disabled, the simply stupid. This type of “cute” person is similar to the kindergarten “winner” that came fifth in a running race.

I took this moment to jump back in the bath while the son argued with his “menkoi” friend about his idiocy. The rightist defended himself quite well.

As the father and son left, the menkoi bather sat down beside me and again demanded I go home. He explained his logic.

“I have read the books. People with different skin don’t mix. You’ve seen the problems in England. You know about what the blacks did to your country, don’t you?”

“Ummmm…”

“They were bad for you. I’ve read it. People don’t mix. Go home.”

I am naked. I am in an onsen. I am listening to this?

“They weren’t bad. They came to support the economy, they brought culture, music, food, brains and good with them. I’ll see you later.” In broken Japanese and naked, explaining the benefits of immigration for contemporary British society is a challenge.

I rinse a final time, stand up and walk off.

Drying myself in the changing room, the son approaches me. We are still naked. “You are special.”

I continue to dry myself and say “thank you.”

“No, no, you are. You understand Japanese. I couldn’t understand English even if I lived there as long as you have lived here.”

I laugh, say thank you and continue to dry myself. “Isn’t he special father?” the man says. His father agrees.

“Thank you.” Nearly dry. “You’d be surprised, people pick up languages when they have to.”

The man comes over, stands in front of me, looks me in the eyes and gives a deep bow. I thank him, after he thanks me, holding my towel close.

“You celebrate New Year in your country? You pray at New Year?”

Jesus.

“We are Christians generally, so we celebrate Christmas,” I reply.

“You go to church?”

“We did. We don’t anymore. We place priority on science.”

“Japan should do that.”

“It has consequences, there is less sense of community, more crime. But it might be better.”

“Do you have yakuza, you know, Japanese mafia?”

“No, we don’t. But there is random violence, and young gangs. It’s … Different. And it might not be better.”

“It’s difficult isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

He puts on his clothes and leaves with his father. A couple of minutes later, I am changed and in the onsen lobby. As I am waiting for my wife, the rightist man walks out of the changing room.

“Thank you,” he says, and pauses. “But I have my beliefs. I should speak them.”

With a Dec. 16 election so close, ain’t that the naked truth.