I have just completed 10 weeks of Japanese language lessons. Even though the course was at ‘starter’ level (simpler than Introductory!) I have to say I struggled to retain too much. And the final assessment conversation? Well, lets just say my practiced blank stares alternating with stupid grins seemed to work a treat.
So what started this crazy adventure? It wasn’t doing Japanese lessons at school, nor any family members traveling there. In fact, I had no great interest at all in Japan. Until: in 2009 there was a Football World Cup game between Australia and Japan, coinciding with cheap flights celebrating the start of discount airline travel from Sydney to Tokyo.
Five trips later, all the time I am asked something like: why do you keep going back? There are many good reasons, but is it unusual to keep returning to one country as a tourist? To some it may represent a lack of risk-taking or absence of an adventurous spirit, safety in repetition.
I can’t say that anything I have done is outrageous or unique. And like many, I did start from a very conservative viewpoint with extremely limited experiences of people and cultures beyond my own.
I have looked back on theses trips to Japan, and notice now how the structure of the visits has evolved.
In the first trip the focus was the football in a foreign land. That place could have been literally anywhere, it happened to be Japan. With an extended family group of 11, each of us made our own arrangements for flying in and out. While the young people enjoyed the rich night life of Tokyo and Kyoto, and took in Disneyland, my brother Andrew and I ventured out to experience the rich culture and history in the main tourist destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto.
I think the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was the place where both Andrew and I decided we wanted to share these experiences with our others. Most of our traveling group dd get to Hiroshima. Separately we traveled back to Japan in the following 12 months, showing off the best of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima to our partners.
Now with 2 trips to the main tourist destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima under the belt, interest in wider Japan grew. While there are 100’s of places a visitor could go to in these primary destinations, something else was needed. And that something was the discovery of the colour and pageantry of matsuri (festivals). The Takayama Autumn Festival in October 2009 was the first, and many have followed since.
In the first trip, K’s House hostels in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima were the choice for accommodation. Later trips included temple accommodation and K’s House at Ito Onsen with traditional tatami mats and futons. In the last trip cheap and convenient business hotels were discovered (Toyoko Inns being one of many chains).
A group of 11 one time, 4 another, and with my partner once. I have been twice on my own, and a third solo trip is planned for June 2013.
While the traveling group has varied, the consistent approach has been to stay a minimum of 3 nights in one place. There is always too much to see and do, so its better to take in 3 or 4 locations in greater detail than scratching the surface of 2 places a day.
In most places there are local volunteers keen to share their culture and history with visitors. Having fallen upon this free Systemised Goodwill Guide service at Matsumoto Castle in trip #2, I have taken up these services again in Matsumoto, as well as Ueno, Asakusa and Nikko. I highly recommend this service. I have also been able to link up with governments on professional interests, also via SGG.
All along, I have organised everything myself. While having a rough itinerary, leave space for flexibility. There is no need for tour organisers – trawl local government websites, or seek out the tourist centre at most large railway stations.
With venturing out of Tokyo and Kyoto comes the opportunity to go to less traveled places. Get the JR Rail map. Look at where local buses go. On many an occasion I have been the only westerner, no English signage or menus. This makes the experience more exciting and rewarding, and often quieter!
Travel is a privilege, and I am lucky enough to have the family support and financial capacity to do it. I certainly don’t take it for granted. So in part, starting to learn Japanese is my way of ‘paying back’ the hospitality and kindness that I have received.
And so why are you going to Sakata, or Niigata in 2013?
The train goes there and I haven’t been there before. Simple really.