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Opening a ‘window’ to Japan

by Tomoko Otake

As a seven-year veteran at the Narita Airport Tourist Information Center, Yuka Tsujimura is at ease handling all kinds of questions and requests for help from inbound tourists who have just set foot in Japan.

With a disarmingly elegant smile, trilingual abilities and a wealth of knowledge on anything to do with Japan, Tsujimura is an iconic figure at Narita Airport Terminal 2, where up to 500 passengers stop by her desk every day.

Her expert service has been recognized. In May, the government’s Tourism Agency appointed Tsujimura as a Yokoso! Japan Ambassador, along with nine others honored for promoting tourism to Japan, including Benesse Corp. CEO Soichiro Fukutake and Bernard Delmas, president of Michelin Japan.

Tsujimura, 46, who now directs the Narita Airport TIC, is well aware of the expectations shouldered by herself and her 14-member TIC staff, saying they are literally opening a window to Japan.

“We may well be the first-ever Japanese that passengers meet,” Tsujimura, neatly dressed in her navy-blue uniform with a patterned yellow scarf, said recently in her office behind the counter. “I always tell my staff that we are not just the face of the airport; we are the face of Japan. If we don’t give a good impression to them, visitors could carry that image of Japan throughout the rest of their stay here.”

During my recent visit to the TIC, I was stunned at the speed and the intelligence with which Tsujimura handled a question from a Hong Kong family who simply asked where to go to take an express train. Tsujimura inquired — in flawless English — if they were heading to Tokyo, then recommended a special JR ticket only for foreigners, explaining the discount before directing them to the ticket center. As they thanked her and walked off, she slipped a map of Tokyo into their hands. The whole exchange lasted probably less than 30 seconds.

Shortly before that, she was helping a Taiwanese couple in Chinese as they asked about various tourism spots — a tour to the Imperial Palace, directions to Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo’s Tachikawa City, and access to the scenic Okutama region of western Tokyo. Again, she gave all the information the couple wanted on the spot.

To be ready for all kinds of inquiries, her office has created a database of as many events and as much seasonal information as possible (where and when cherry trees are in bloom, for instance, or which ski resorts are open), as well as keeping tabs on public transport links.

But being prepared doesn’t mean there are no surprises, and Tsujimura often runs into off-the-wall questions — such as one from a Westerner asking where he could “experience” the notorious rush-hour trains in Japan.

“The visitor was very curious and asked me, ‘Do train personnel really push people onto train cars?’ ” she recalled. Tsujimura’s advice: “Go to Shinagawa or Tokyo station any weekday between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.”

On another occasion, she recounted, a man from Macao said he had come to buy 10 boxes of very expensive Chinese herbal medicine, but he had no idea where to get them. And he was scheduled to fly out of Narita the following day. So Tsujimura and her staff interpreted for the man for hours as he made calls, through a public phone, to numerous pharmacies. Then she gave him directions to each of the pharmacies — where he managed to buy all he needed in time, she said.

Recently, too, a Norwegian journalist who said she was working on a book about Japan turned up asking for details on a walk she planned to make from Tokyo to Obuse in Nagano Prefecture, which is known for its original Edo Period buildings, by way of the hot-spring resort of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture. Obuse was where the famed woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) traveled to toward the end of his life, and the journalist told Tsujimura she wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Tsujimura called a Hokusai-related museum to find out the route, had the journalist buy an English-language map of Japan from an airport bookstore, and marked on it the route she should take for the 300-km trek. A month later, the journalist came back, delightedly saying she’d completed the journey.

Of course, not every visitor is happy and appreciative, and Tsujimura has also heard a few complaints — infrequent shuttle-bus services or misery at having been shuffled around by various other desks at the airport. There are also those who — for various reasons — are cash-strapped.

One panic-stricken Italian woman recently came up and and said, in very broken English, that she’d lost her wallet. Until the woman eventually found help from the Italian Embassy in Tokyo, Tsujimura and her staff worked hard to help, often communicating with her through writing. And during the woman’s stressful wait, the TIC staff gave her some of the sweets they had in the office.

Strangely enough, Tsujimura, a former housewife with two teenage daughters who got back to work after her husband died in a traffic accident 13 years ago, doesn’t appear to realize her own considerable abilities — despite the numerous letters that visitors have mailed to thank her. “I’m a typical Japanese, who is faint-hearted, maybe needlessly humble and serious-minded . . . and who speaks in a low voice,” she said. “I sometimes wish I could behave like a foreigner.”

So, from her experience dealing with tourists daily, what does Tsujimura have to say about Japan’s tourism policy?

“I think it’s time Japan got really serious about better serving inbound tourists,” she said firmly. “At train stations, for example, the most important piece of information is often hand-written by the train personnel — in Japanese only. And hotel names are often written differently in Chinese, as there are two ways of translating Japanese to Chinese — one based on meaning and the other based on phonetics.”

In addition, Japan is difficult for foreigners to travel by foot, because many streets have no names, she said, noting that other inconveniences include the confusion surrounding the difference between shinkansen bullet trains and express trains, the lack of a nationwide IC card system for public transportation and the scarcity of wireless Internet access.

And then comes the language barrier. For a solution, she suggests setting up more information centers across Japan that tourists can easily spot and pop into for help in English.

Despite such gaping flaws she sees, though, Tsujimura is committed to doing her best, whether it’s writing out visitors’ destinations in Japanese so they can show them to taxi drivers, calling ahead to make hotel reservations for them . . . or whatever.

“Every time I see visitors off, I worry about them, wondering if they will safely get to their destination,” she said.

As I finished the day’s reporting and left the TIC, Tsujimura ran after me, catching me midway on the escalator as I was going down. She handed me a few leaflets she’d given me earlier that I’d forgotten to put in my bag. Then, at the bottom of the escalator, she smiled shyly, bowed and took the escalator back up to her post as one of the nation’s key, but unsung, “windows to Japan.”