Hauling in the souvenir binge


An Australian friend and I recently had the opportunity to show two of our good Japanese friends around Australia. Even though my native country is the United States, just being a gaijin who can speak Japanese was good enough for my Japanese friends, a couple (both 53 years old) who had traveled to other countries in Asia but had never been to Australia.

When we went to Sydney airport to pick them up, they came out of the doors with just a backpack each. This didn’t surprise me. Japanese people tend to travel light.

“We have to buy souvenirs,” they said, taking out of their backpacks a fold-up sports bag that would fulfill their luggage allowance for the plane trip home. “We need to fill this with 50 souvenirs. Take us to a supermarket!” So we took them to a Coles supermarket where they took part in binge souvenir shopping: 20 tubes of toothpaste (in dispensers not available in Japan), 20 boxes of Australian biscuits, 20 packs of vacuum-packed soups, 20 packets of instant food and 20 packages of cookies.

Whereas Westerners tend to think of gift-buying as a process of choosing individual gifts for each person depending on their tastes, Japanese think of souvenir shopping as just an obligation, so they look for cheap things that can be bought in bulk so everyone basically gets the same thing and no one is left out. Not seeming to mind that they had, in an instant, doubled their intended souvenir count, we went to the check-out counter.

One of the Japanese timidly held out his credit card and the lady cashier charged a couple hundred dollars on it. My friend seemed fascinated at how easily his credit card was accepted and he eagerly signed on the dotted line. Once we were out of the store he said, “That’s the first time in my life I have ever used a credit card!”

We showed our friends all over Sydney and the next day drove them up to the Blue Mountains. The hardest part, however, was answering their questions.

While driving by a pasture in the countryside, for example, they asked “Why are those horses wearing clothes?”

“Clothes?” I said. “Oh, those things that look like pajamas that hang down to their knees? Those are horse blankets.”

“Blankets! But it’s 35 degrees today!”

“No, not that kind of blanket. These are light blankets to shield the horses from the hot sun and to keep the flies off of them,” I said. Many of the horses were also wearing masks made out of screen material to protect their eyes from nasty blow flies.

My Japanese friends laughed at how people just threw anything out onto their front lawn with a “For sale” sign hung on it: cars, trailers, tractors, boats and motorcycles. Even harder to explain was that the abbreviation “4-Sale” doesn’t mean you have to buy four of them.

And, should you have a marketable skill such as carpet cleaning or truck towing, you can just tack a sign onto your front gate or on the nearest telephone pole and advertise your services. They must have wondered why people would need so much truck towing in their lives. And I couldn’t tell them because I had forgotten about all these things that are no longer relevant to my life now that I live in Japan.

After sight-seeing in the Blue Mountains, we stopped at a Woolworth’s supermarket where they bought 20 containers of lanolin cream for souvenirs.

But towing proved an enduring theme. “What’s that car towing, a mattress?” they asked, pointing to a collapsible trailer a motorist was towing behind his car.

“Not a mattress exactly,” I said. “But the trailer pops up into a tent-like compartment with beds and a cooking area in it.”

Soon I was launching into an explanation of camper vans and caravans, concepts paramount to Australian culture. This concept may demand some restructuring of the brain for the Japanese to understand.

To the Japanese, a vacation is a short period of luxurious comfort, self-pampering and indulging in fine restaurants. They were fascinated that Australians would, instead, hook up what looks like a playhouse for kids, and drag it behind their cars where it would then follow them around for weeks at a time.

We continued driving around the east coast of Australia and eventually, five days later, returned our guests to Sydney airport where, just for good measure, they bought 20 koala key chains and stuffed them into the sports bag.

What they really needed to haul all those souvenirs in was a caravan.