Less is more for Japan travel buff

Simple destination list allows goal-oriented travelers to fulfill their wanderlust with imagination

by Mizuho Aoki

Harry Cheng, a globe-trotter who travels about 320,000 km a year, believes a simple list of names is enough to stir people’s interest in scenes they haven’t seen before. With this belief, he will soon launch a unique travel guide dedicated to recording travel experiences in Japan.

“The world we are living in today is overloaded with information. If you want to learn more about something, you can by using the Internet and other things. I believe by minimizing information, you can see more about it,” said Cheng, 39, president of La Ditta Limited, a company that offers consulting and marketing services to private- and public-sector firms.

The company plans to publish the Been There Done That — Japan checklist on April 1 for people traveling in Japan. The one-sheet index-reference guide, folded like a road map, is basically a collection of checklists and a map of Japan with recommended places and experiences written in both Japanese and English.

From “onsen” (hot springs) resorts like Shuzenji in Shizuoka Prefecture and Kurokawa in Kumamoto Prefecture, to such seasonal delights as cherry blossoms, fireworks and “momiji” (fall maple leaf) festivals, the 26 different lists present the beauty Japan offers.

“Japan is a small country, but if you look at the lists, you realize there are so many places you haven’t been,” said Cheng, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2004.

Each list comes with four check boxes that read, “wish, done, again and love.”

After drinking a cup of Kikusui, the famed sake from Nagano Prefecture, for example, one would check the “done” box, plus the “again” box if one cup wasn’t enough.

If the chance to take in the Aomori Nebuta festival has eluded but is nonetheless desired, merely check the “wish” box.

Although taking in all of the places listed or experiencing all of the cultural peculiarities, including “bowing” and “lighting incense at a shrine/temple,” they can still be imagined or planned by going through the lists.

Unlike ordinary travel guides, however, no phone numbers or addresses accompany the lists, which range from merely naming the prefectures, to itemizing various dishes to heritage sites, to castles and scenic routes. The lists would serve as reference points for subsequent Internet searches.

“It’s like a tool for adults. The beauty of this is that it’s so simple. It’s not information. It’s more like a list of just titles,” said Cheng. “When you tick the boxes, it gives you a sense of achievement. It tickles your curiosity.”

Cheng plans to sell the guide for around ¥1,000. He hopes it enhances people’s travels and moves them to become repeat travelers to Japan.

The maplike travel guide is actually based on his first publishing success, a diary titled “Been There Done That,” in September. The book is filled with useful lists for travelers around the globe.

From the names of all the countries and territories in the world to all of its wonders, the diary simply lists their names alongside check boxes, just like the Japan version.

And despite its price tag of ¥3,990, the diary has sold about 2,500 copies so far and won the Good Design Award 2010 to boot.

“Guidebooks are filled with words and there is no space to make check marks. And travel diaries are usually made of blank pages, which I think is only for very creative people,” Cheng said.

Born and raised in Kobe, the Oxford University graduate now heads four venture companies in India and Japan that mainly do business with the Japanese government or companies to promote Japanese culture in India.

As a frequent flier who lives half the year in Mumbai and the other half in Tokyo, Cheng said it has been his dream to create a notebook where he can keep all of his travel records.

“I didn’t have a record of where I’ve been for the last 10 years. I had to look at each page of my schedule notebooks to see where I was,” he said.

On this directive, all of his four companies collaborated to produce the 348-page pocket-size diary that debuted in September in Japan, Singapore and the U.K.

Noting travel changed his life, Cheng hopes not only jet-setters, but also young people who haven’t left their home countries, will use the diary.

“Travel changes your way of thinking. I learned so much about Japan by being outside Japan. Travel is more about imagination and realizing that there are different perspectives. There are other cities than Tokyo, like Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. All different,” he said. “I want to give this to people who just reached 20. For them to realize that the world is big. I want them to go out and challenge.”