Freelance travel writer Beth Reiber knows Tokyo inside out — maybe much more than most Tokyoites.
Reiber, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, wrote the Tokyo version of the Frommer’s guidebooks — one of the best-selling series of guide books published in the United States — and has updated it for more than 20 years.
“I’ve been to about 50 cities and towns in Japan. I know Japan better than my own country,” she said.
Reiber traveled to Tokyo in late May for about a month to update the 12th edition of Frommer’s Tokyo, which is planned for publication early next year.
The guidebook covers different areas of Tokyo that Reiber has updated by walking around and visiting hotels, restaurants and museums, and a host of other places from morning till night every day.
“One of the good things about walking is that you discover things that you could never discover on the Internet,” she said.
After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, Reiber had to delay her trip to Japan by two months to gather information for the next edition of the Frommer’s Tokyo. But she is confident that things will get back to normal by the time the new edition is released next year.
At the time of the megaquake, Reiber was in the U.S., but she says that the disaster seemed like it happened just down the street, not in a faraway country. After traveling extensively in Japan, the country felt so close to home for her that she found the disaster very hard and depressing. “It felt like death in the family,” she said.
When she arrived at Narita airport in May, she was surprised to see the airport so empty. “The plane was full, but when we arrived in Narita, it seemed like 30 people got off and the rest went on to Vietnam,” she said.
She went to Ueno on her first day, only to see how few foreigners there were.
Reiber says that although the radiation problem at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is worrying and is keeping tourists away, that should not stop foreigners from visiting Japan.
“Japan extends longer than most foreigners think. You don’t have to go anywhere near where the problems are,” she said. “In fact, it could be a good time to explore other areas (of Japan) such as Kyushu and Okinawa,” she added.
Reiber’s first trip to Japan was almost three decades ago. In 1983, she was invited by the Japan National Tourism Organization in Chicago to write about Japan, and traveled to Kyoto and Takayama, in Gifu Prefecture.
Being charmed by the country, she wanted to stay longer than a few weeks, and found a job as an editor at Far East Traveler, a now-defunct Tokyo-based travel magazine. She worked at the magazine for three years.
Although it took her time to get used to some aspects of the Japanese culture, including, for example, the not-so-obvious Japanese ways of saying “no,” she says many other things attracted her to Japan.
“I like the safety, food, kindness and helpfulness extended to strangers. I like the way things work in this country — especially before the earthquake and tsunami — I feel I’m coddled in a way (in Japan),” she said.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Reiber lived in Florida before moving to Kansas. She later studied in Germany — one year in Erlangen and another in Tubingen for graduate school.
She went back to the U.S. to work for a small-town newspaper in Kansas, but after a few years she started freelancing as a travel writer, driving through Canada to Mexico. The new job took her back to Germany, from which she hitchhiked throughout Europe, and then went on to Japan.
She says that she does not make a lot of money as a travel writer, and that she is at “poverty level” in the U.S. as a single mother of two teenage sons.
She says that especially after getting divorced about 10 years ago, she was depressed by not earning enough money. Still, writing the travel guidebook is her passion and she rules out quitting the job.
“It’s my baby,” she said, as she lovingly stroked a copy of the guidebook. She says she wishes to continue until she finds a young successor who will take on her job.
She finds it especially difficult covering Japan, as she has to cover most of her expenses such as hotel accommodation, meals at restaurants and museum entrance fees.
“When I travel to other countries like Hong Kong and Germany, I’m usually offered accommodations by hotels that wish to attract business or have been in my guidebook and have received guests and want to return the favor,” she said.
As much as she loves her job, she says that she also needs time off to do something totally different. When she is not traveling and writing, she enjoys gardening, taking care of her 120-year-old Victorian house, and traveling with her sons.
Through traveling, she says that she has learned to appreciate simpler things. “(Traveling) forces you to look beyond yourself. If you stay in your own little life, you get swept up in the drama of your own life. Especially in the U.S., there’s so much consumerism. But especially if you travel to Third World countries, you realize you don’t need most of the things you have to be happy,” she said.
“I can’t imagine a better job for me. If I have a choice between money and adventure, then I choose adventure,” she added.