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To tap tourist yen, think train-packing, plastic grub and sumo

by Thomas Dillon

Japan, like most travel destinations, offers tourists a rich variety of hands-on experiences. Visitors with enough money and time can usually find opportunities to practice flower arranging, calligraphy or tea ceremony — or perhaps learn some Japanese cooking, get fitted for a photo in kimono, and so on and so on.

All tried and true. Yet, I think it is time for some more up-to-date experiences — ones that the waves of tourists due to flood Japan up through the 2020 Olympics might savor more than those that revolve around traditional Japanese culture.

After all, culture is ever evolving, blossoming and transforming. Sometimes it creates something beautiful and endearing. Sometimes it comes up with Hello Kitty.

My point is that tourists might enjoy the swirling surface of the cultural cup as much as the creamy depth. And they may also pay hard coin to give it a try.

So here is a hands-on opportunity wish list. Fess up now: Some of these ideas sound tempting, don’t they?

Train platform engineer

This is my euphemism for those railway employees with the white gloves who make sure all goes well on the busy train platform. In low gear, this means shouting incessantly for people to be careful. In ultra-drive, it might involve the pushing of wayward bags and body parts, to make sure everything fits just right before the doors close.

How many tourists have braved rush hour with their cameras, just hoping to score that classic shot of commuters being packed on a train? Think how many more might like the chance to do the actual packing!

Orientation would be led by platform professionals, who through translation would explain all the nuances of shouting and shoving.

Tourists would then be dressed in spiffy train caps and white gloves (available for purchase) and practice jamming each other’s size-10 bodies into size-8 compartments. They will also learn to scream several lines of useful Japanese, such as “Hey, watch your feet!” or “You there! Stop running!”

Learners all get certificates and perhaps those who can master that wild-eyed train-packer gleam will get a gold star.

But we’re not done. Next is game day: Properly trained, our new engineers — with expert guidance alongside — will then get to experience an actual rush hour on a crowded platform. Of course, there might not be much action (all dressed up and no one to pack!) or they might work up a real sweat from cramming stubborn backs and bottoms into the carnal abyss of the train.

And we finish with . . . a platform engineer group photo, what else?

Plastic food chef

Every tourist experiences ordering food by pointing at the plastic items in the window display. Many also like to purchase such items as souvenirs.

Well, how about the chance to make one’s very own plastic food?

For plastic food is indeed art; it is concocted by craftsmen who, believe it or not, slice and dice genuine plastic food items — carrots, zucchini, beefsteak and whatnot — arrange it all just so, splash on some delicious-looking acrylic sauce and then give it all a brief cook in a microwave. I have seen it done.

In this hands-on plan, tourists would be given a quick factory tour and meet plastic food artists at work. They would then undergo a rudimentary lesson in plastic culinary art.

Next is a question of “What’s cooking?” Participants could perhaps challenge two or three “target” dishes coached by the staff — say curry rice, spaghetti with meat sauce or pork cutlet with cabbage. Or . . .

Or invent something of their own: chocolate bar tempura, sashimi sandwiches, Coca-Cola soba.

How bad it sounds doesn’t matter. For in this case, no one will ever eat it. Or even try. And it’s not waste; it’s art.

The only drawback to plastic food art is the odor. The combination of paint, acrylics, plastic and heat can make this a very smelly endeavor.

Yet what a souvenir: a plate of Japan-style plastic food, home-made!

Rikishi for a day

Sumo might not be for everyone — especially girls — but the chance to wrap on a genuine mawashi and grease back one’s hair with sweet-smelling bintsuke oil might make some guys slap happy.

After all, some Thai gyms offer tourists a chance at kickboxing. As long as one’s backside is not broadcast on NHK, sumo might provide an equal draw.

Participants get some basic training, of course, in both fighting techniques and rituals. They might even get their own sumo name — Onakayama (Belly Mountain), for example.

After this, they square off in the ring in a mini-tournament. The purpose is to have fun, so gung-ho types will need to tune things down. And in the end, all participants get their shot at a real rikishi (wrestler), perhaps someone lower-ranked who could use the extra yen.

Last, a meal of chanko nabe and beer, with perhaps a wrestler of renown in attendance. What a day!

And then, who knows, maybe Onakayama can pack some trains!

More fun than paper-folding? You bet.

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