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Tourists may not warm to Japan’s welcome


Special To The Japan Times

A former colleague of mine always made it a point to tell people coming to Japan for a visit to bring lots of handkerchiefs because the public restrooms didn’t have towel dispensers. I always took a more positive view and emphasized that public restrooms in Japan were everywhere and open to everyone, something I think would be more important to more people, considering how difficult it can be to find one when you need a restroom in other countries.

Nobody who travels with any sort of frequency expects the same things that they have at home. It’s the main reason people go abroad. Nevertheless, countries that want to attract visitors do what they can to make the sojourn smooth. Travelers with open minds will accept the lack of familiar comforts as the price they pay for new experiences, but then maybe most people don’t have open minds.

Ever since Tokyo was awarded the role of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, the media has been filled with stories about what the city — and, for that matter, the country — needs to do in order to make all the anticipated foreign tourists welcome. The biggest buzzword to emerge from the bid campaign was omotenashi, a word usually translated as “hospitality,” but which Japanese people tend to think has a special meaning that is difficult to translate. On a recent group discussion about the subject on NHK, the general explanation came down to “kindness” and “consideration,” but as one hotelier pointed out with a certain measure of condescension, the word comes from the tea ceremony and refers to a “spirit of service” that is unspoken but nonetheless “felt” by the guest. Naturally, this concept is “unique to Japan.”

Whatever you want to call it, hospitality Japanese-style is noted by everyone who comes here as indeed being special and appreciated, but there are also inconveniences inherent in this hospitality. Ryokan (Japanese inns) provide immersive experiences. You eat when your hosts tell you to eat and there is no choice with regard to the menu or volume of the meal. Before you go to bed an employee comes to your room and sets out your futon and bed linen. The idea of omotenashi here is that the guest does not have to ask for service and thus doesn’t feel as if he or she is imposing on anyone, but many people prefer to set their own eating and sleeping itineraries when they travel. Staying in a ryokan can be a rich and, yes, unique experience, but for most foreign travelers — as well as quite a few Japanese I know — once is enough.

The point is, many travelers want to be able to sample the attractions of a destination at their leisure, which is why so much attention has been paid to wireless broadband service. When NHK’s cameras went out to solicit comments from foreign tourists in Tokyo, almost all had mobile devices that they used to get information necessary for their travels. What made the technology invaluable was that it allowed them to forego extensive planning beforehand. A report last week on TBS morning information show, “Asachan,” showed visitors in Kyoto happily displaying souvenirs they had bought at ¥100 shops and other boutiques. Most had found them on their own, through blogs and travel sites on their iPads and such. When the Japan Tourism Agency surveyed foreign visitors in 2011 to find out what their biggest “issue” was, it was lack of free Wi-Fi.

The problem with the “solutions” so far is that they yield to commercial prerogatives, which is that Wi-Fi should only be free to people who have paid for it, so what you get is a grudging sort of compromise. Major media have lately celebrated the city of Kyoto and Shizuoka Prefecture for plans to provide free Wi-Fi to foreign travelers, but on a selective basis, meaning that the travelers have to somehow register or otherwise go out of their way to gain access to these services, and that defeats the purpose, which is to have it at your fingertips. Tokyo’s Sumida Ward took the idea to its furthest dead-end by offering free portable routers to foreign visitors, mainly in the vicinity of Tokyo Skytree, on the condition that they upload photos and comments about the area to blogs and social media networks. Other conditions that will likely make the plan less than a hit: a ¥5,000 security deposit and a completed form indicating the URLs where the photos and information can be found.

Because these ideas are treated as being in some way connected to omotenashi, the media doesn’t question their feasibility. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun about a new hotel at Haneda Airport catering exclusively to transit passengers breathlessly mentioned that the hotel “even accepts foreign credit cards,” which should be a given for any hotel that expects to cater to people from other countries. Maybe the Asahi reporter was thinking of Japanese bank ATMs, some of which still do not accept foreign credit or debit cards, which is probably more of a wanderlust buzzkill than lack of free Wi-Fi.

The Japanese and non-Japanese participants in the NHK forum offered some useful advice, recommending that in addition to the hallowed tourist traps visitors take in some of Japan’s “subcultures.” NHK’s own suggestions ranged from the admirable — more halal food for Muslim visitors — to the pointless. Though it would be nice if all service and retail employees in Tokyo became suddenly fluent in English, it’s not going to happen, and no visitor with any measure of common sense should expect it. Struggling with language is an inescapable part of international roaming.

But as with the public-toilet situation, the little things that make Tokyo special to outsiders mostly go unmentioned in the coverage of omotenashi, maybe because the hosts take them for granted. Fast, reliable, clean public transportation? That’s something the Japanese will point to with pride. Being able to drink alcohol on the streets? Not as much, though half the foreigners I know think it’s the greatest custom in the world.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    In as much as visitors to Japan come overwhelmingly from China, Taiwan, and Korea, signs, menus, etc. in Chinese and Korean and clerks who can at least muddle through in one of these languages are vastly more important than English equivalents. At least some Japanese companies recognize that even if Mr. Basor does not. For example, the Keikyu Railroad that serves Haneda has all of its important signage in Korean and Chinese.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The ATM situation is an absolute joke. So is the lack of acceptance of credit cards. Most rural hotels have no wifi free or not. Japan is still living in the 1970s.

  • Guest

    Korean and Chinese

  • Sam Gilman

    Welcome to the Japan Times and its comments section.

    I have friends visit and they’re typically bowled over by the hospitality, and clearly as I’ve chosen to settle here, I rather like it here too. Of course, not everything’s perfect, and it’s always important to look to change things for the better.

    Unfortunately, as everywhere, there is a subculture of resident expats convinced they’re living in the worst place in the world, and, in a bizarre way, they need it to stay that way, thank you.

  • blondein_tokyo

    I’ve traveled to many countries, and I have to say that Japan really is one of the easiest to travel in. Even my mother, who had never been outside of her small Midwestern hometown before she visited me here, found Tokyo easy to navigate. On her first day here she got up before me and had managed to find a supermarket and buy milk, even though she didn’t understand the money and had to ask “milk?” to make sure that is what she had. She was very impressed at how kind and helpful everyone was. You definitely have give people here due credit for service and hospitality.

  • Steve Novosel

    I visited Japan the first time when it actually was difficult to use credit cards, pretty difficult to find an ATM that accepted a foreign card. And you know what? It just wasn’t much of a hardship at all. It just required planning. Everything else about the travel was so, so easy.

    Nowadays it’s even easier to travel here, one of the easiest places to get around as a foreigner for sure.

    Some just like to complain all day about Japan as they are frustrated with their lives here and want to inflict that on others.

  • Sam Gilman

    Brasor’s assessment of ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) is quite weird for someone who is supposed to be an acculturated individual. Sure, some Japanese probably don’t go for them, but an awful lot do and relish them. They certainly can be a little outside the comfort zone of über-westernised international travellers brainwashed to believe that absolute, atomised customer freedom of choice is the only way to authentic happiness (my God! They have a set menu every night! Don’t they know Murrica won the Cold War?). For other travellers, it’s a strikingly different cultural experience, much as onsen visits with their shared nudity are: a bit disconcerting at first, but you get past that, and in the process open your mind to why it’s there and why it’s still patronised by millions of Japanese. Things like these are more of a travel experience than seeing a few temples in Kyoto. Demanding global homogeneity in tourism defeats the point of travel.

  • Timoty Sullivan

    i like to visit Japan, becouse you don’t need a credit card. you can walk alone, with cash. It’s not america or europe. in Japan the people don’t walk with gun. The Japanese people don’t use to drink on the train or on the road. It’ not america or europe. Thank you John from Melbourn. Please keep Japan free from ” foreign ” barbarians

  • GBR48

    The omotenashi takes a little getting used to. First time in Japan, jetlagged, shy and a little nervous, wondering whether it really would be like the YouTube videos and Jdramas, I was expecting the traditional ‘irashaimase’ the first time I set foot inside a shop. But it wasn’t a konbini, it was a supermarket, and it probably hadn’t actually opened for business. The door was unlocked (in the UK that means ‘open’) so in I went, seeking cereal and soya milk for breakfast. Hey, a supermarket is a supermarket, isn’t it?

    When I’d got my bearings I found myself to be the only customer amidst a dozen immaculately turned-out members of staff, each strategically positioned at different points in the store, standing perfectly still. Whenever I walked down an aisle looking for something that might be soya milk and got within a specific distance of a staff member, she would welcome me with honest vigour. The low shelving in Japanese supermarkets ensured that I was on the radar of every member of staff in the store. I’m really quite shy and found myself trying to negotiate a path of least welcomes between myself and the smiling face of Tony the Tiger. In hindsight, the staff were all really sweet, lovely people, and one addressed me in perfect English-I still regret not properly acknowledging that, but ‘first contact’ is never easy. Later visits were less eventful: everyone soon acclimatises.

    Dear Japan: don’t worry. Everyone will cope in 2020. Nobody expects to travel abroad and find everything like it is at home.

    For the short duration of the Olympics, instead of attempting to teach the population to speak English, the government might just print some little cards with useful phrases on them: the Japanese on one side, multilingual equivalents on the other, and disseminate them to those who need them, so that they could just show them to visitors. A set for shop staff, another for rail staff etc. It’s a low tech approach but low tech is sometimes best tech.

    Having six different languages on every sign may lead to a visual overload. English is a useful default as it remains a global second language, but multilingual support can be offered very easily using interactive apps. These may become almost universal and very geo-specific in the next couple of years, to the point where you can stand almost anywhere and obtain the advice you need in your native language using near field communications and local sensors.

    Most visitors to Japan are aware of the ‘cash economy’, and load up with Yen in advance. Most tourist areas seem to accept Western cards quite happily, but if money movement is an issue, Japanese retailers might skip a couple of decades of banking deregulation and accept payments by PayPal app. Many foreign visitors have a PayPal account and a tablet.

    As Halal has been mentioned, the government might usefully explain to everyone exactly what ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ mean, and maybe roll out some standard labelling.

    If by ‘Rest Room’ you mean a public toilet, they are typically safer and cleaner than Western ones, and some have so much on-board tech that they are a tourist attraction in themselves. The best I found was in the mall at the base of the SkyTree. I was so impressed, I photographed it. Public toilet flushes could be standardised though. I’m not sure I ever found two alike. Buttons, levers, pulleys. It can be a process of elimination. I think I pressed the emergency button in one by mistake, hoping it was the flush. Apologies for that.

    Maybe I’m just weird, but I use my technology to help me plan trips rather than to avoid planning them. A few notes and a map as an aide memoire scribbled on a bit of paper then allows me to take in the scenery as I mooch about. I did see a couple of tourists navigating the metro by staring fixedly at their iPad screens, ignoring the huge number of multilingual signs around them. Gaijin: crazy people.

    Tablets also offer a good deal of emotional security: ‘I Have StreetView Therefore I Cannot Get Lost’ is psychologically important for nervous Tokyo virgins, when in fact you are rarely more than a few minutes away from a station pretty much anywhere in central Tokyo and may find it impossible to get lost for more than about ten minutes.

    The tablets also help allay quake fears. When everything wobbles a bit, you can check things out on the Government website, scroll down to the ‘no tsunami’ bit and go back to sleep. A fair bit of tourist accommodation comes without a TV, and despite being one of the technological wonders of the world, 1Seg is not liberally endowed with English subtitles, so there is a fear that in an emergency, it might be difficult to find out what to do. I’m guessing the emergency PA network (and in an emergency, TV stations) broadcast advice in more than one language.

    On holiday, the internet becomes an umbilical cord, security blanket, personal translator, timetable, map and guide. Give your guests a pocket WiFi unit for the duration of their stay and they will be happy bunnies, able to update their Facebook entries at will.

    The PAYG SIM restrictions are a mild annoyance but e-mail and messaging can replace most phone calls. Anyone who feels more comfortable self-catering, can do so easily in Japan. Despite the consumption tax increases, food is cheaper than in many Western countries and you are never far from a well-stocked konbini.

    The emergency services already have foreign language support, the rail network is easy to understand and use, especially with a Suica card, everyone is polite, lots of places are ‘non-smoking’ (a fear for many Westerners used to the cinematic stereotypes), the water is safe to drink and Japan remains the safest tourist destination in the world to visit.

    If provincial areas wish to improve their tourist-compatibility they can always emulate the services offered in the capital, but for Tokyo in 2020, Japan doesn’t really need to worry. It will all be fine. Very, very crowded on the trains near the Olympic stadium, but fine.

    One thing I would urge. Retail staff in the shops and konbinis and rail staff are the folk who will be at the front line in dealing with hordes of visitors in 2020. They are amongst Japan’s most hard-working, polite and welcoming of citizens. Whilst everyone else is at work in their offices, they will be knee deep in barbarians from across the seas. Surely they all deserve a really good bonus as Japan’s ambassadors of first contact during the Games.

  • Danny Simion

    Wow, no free wi-fi services or credit card machines?! Oh no – what will we do! Its the end of the world. So carry cash and go to a cafe for the internet. Personally – leave things the way it’ll be.

  • Mansoor

    My first ever International Trip was Japan ( though I live in Dubai ). I had my best 14 days ever, I had no difficulty on VISA , never used ATM as we took cash, roaming was so easy, I had a unlimited Data plan, train passes.. it was amazing.. whoever did not like Japan probably didn’t plan well.

    People are amazing, helpful, country is clean and what amazing weather!!!

    I can’t think of going anywhere else for now

  • tiger

    I wish all Japanese people are like 福原爱 XP

  • http://www.myhappyenglish.com/ happyenglishny

    I’m in New York City. The only free wifi is provided by some businesses (like coffee shops) here. Can you let me know some other cities in the world that offer free WiFi?

    Also, there is an ATM in every post office in Japan that accepts foreign credit cards. It’s a great system.

  • Nishi Hundan

    Japan has great public toilets! They’re clean and they have toilet paper and they’re not vandalized. Believe me, try and find a public toilet like that in America!

  • jpr_2000

    Japan is a fairly convenient and welcoming place to visit for anyone that has traveled elsewhere. However, one thing is the lack of an international focus. It is the only place in the developed world where the major museums do not describe the pieces on exhibit in English (and several other languages). In NY, I’m used to being able to access information in several languages as a matter of course, in Japan, its practically non-existent. This is indicative of the attitude of disregard for tourists of China, Korea, and other nations that are very likely to visit the museums. I find it difficult to believe that not making an effort to provide greater access to others is done out of ignorance alone, at this stage in globalization, it seems willful.

  • cheeth

    One thing I learnt today is that Japan doesn’t have a place where tourist to make official complaints, I have suffered as tourist very dearly because of this, the Japan Airlines and treat their customers with no respect, Europe airlines are regulated but Japan airlines can pretty much get away with anything, when you try to make a complaint to an official body in Japan once they find out your a tourist they don’t have time for you, just a your feedback is very useful to us and we will add it to our database.

  • Bradley Temperley

    I have had staff in electronic stores print out product data in English and then attempt to read the printout to me, saving me the effort of reading for myself. Of course I bought the camera from his store! When a salesperson might have 6 months of training before they greet their first customer, it shows.
    Wi-Fi is generally freely available in hotels but you generally must pre-register for Wi-Fi in Combini, Starbucks, etc. That usually involves receiving an email confirmation before you can connect, which means connecting somewhere else so that you can connect.
    The other thing about public toilets is the ease of access, without doors and complex passageways to get in or out. In fact, the male toilets to the East of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto do away with three of the walls as well; privacy provided by a well-place hedge next to a taxi rank. And the cleaners aren’t shy about cleaning. Several times I’ve been standing at a urinal while a cleaning lady cleans the urinals either side of me. I was even at one in Aoyama when a cute waitress from the fancy cafe next door walked straight in to go to a storeroom. She stopped in her tracks, but by that stage it didn’t phase me.

  • Tomoko Endo

    In Japan, electric hand dryers are equipted,not papers.

  • Tomoko Endo

    In Japan, electric hand dryers are equipted,not papers.