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The helping hand of travel

by Stephen Mansfield

Travel Guide To Aid Japan. WAttention, 2011, 159 pp. ¥1,000 (paper)

Tourism is the world’s foremost industry, one that Japan, until very recently, has been rather slow to take advantage of. Sophisticated travel writing has never been a significant component of Japanese literature, the country failing to produce writers of the caliber of Norman Lewis, Colin Thubron, or Bruce Chatwin.

Nor has it succeeded in generating much more than the functional, commercial travel guide, where in other countries, the search for original formats in the genre has resulted in some innovative publications, such as the Insight, Eyewitness and Bradt guides.

The new Travel Guide To Aid Japan has the Tohoku calamity as its reason for being, an effort to revive the flagging tourism industry as its purpose, so addresses a rather different potential readership. An attempt to lure back foreign visitors, it faces a daunting challenge.

There are few phenomena capable of clearing out a region of visitors as quickly as radio-phobia. But the salient fact for any prospective traveler to Japan is, just how much of the country has actually been affected by radiation? The answer, of course, is very little. Grave as the accident has been for the people of Fukushima, there persists a tendency among elements of the foreign media to disseminate misinformation, or at the very least, to exaggerate. I recall even some globally respected broadcasters confusing international audiences by showing images of members of the Japanese public wearing face masks that were actually intended to combat hay fever, the clouds of pollen that circulate annually in Japan.

This book attempts to steer the visitor to areas that are both secure and immensely rewarding as cultural subjects and destinations.

A book of recommendations, the contents are not geographically or thematically structured, but rather a collection of personal comments and observations from an eclectic sweep of talent, 41 contributors, described as “top international celebrities,” from countries as far afield as Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Britain.

Paul Smith, Jane Birkin and Tommy Hilfiger need no introduction; many other names you will not know, though each has some special connection or fondness for Japan. Among the contributors to this sleek, pocket-sized guide are a former Miss Korea, an American news anchor, a Chinese politician, Indian conductor, and a professor of geophysics.

Others, like the Singaporean film director Eric Khoo, write about their own passions, in this instance, Japanese comics and toys. We are inveighed to visit Kyoto gardens by Henry Scott-Stokes, a sage and seasoned writer and journalist, who has resided in Japan since 1964, and knows a thing or two about this country. The actor Denis Lavant, has only visited the country once, and sensibly confines himself to recommending Tokyo in early winter. The Korean actor, Im Ho, has found a home from home in the town of Kurume in Fukuoka, and describes it with affection. We know we can trust the judgment of French visual artist, Florence Deygas, when she rhapsodizes over the French potage at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. Some of the briefer comments are helpfully supplemented with hard facts and data from the editor.

A useful Destination Directory casts its net beyond the locations cited in the book, and includes listings of hot springs, restaurants, museums, world heritage sites, temples and shrines, and accommodation around Japan. The final pages are titled Tohoku Earthquake: How you can help.

Don’t expect in-depth analysis; these are empathetic tributes to a country that is going through some hard times and desperately needs the support of inbound tourism.

This is not a book, however, that should be confined exclusively to the foreign reader. Having just returned from a 25-day trip to western and southern Japan, whose residents appear increasingly detached from the events of March this year, this book is a timely reminder that we should do our utmost to keep the plight of Tohoku residents in the public consciousness. We don’t always have a chance to contribute to good causes. Here is the opportunity to do just that.

Editor’s note: The introductory essay is written by Alex Kerr, an expert on Japanese traditional culture and art.