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Kumano Kodo guide unfairly singled out

I am writing regarding Amy Chavez’s Japan Lite column published online on Aug. 27 (in print Aug. 28) entitled “Blame for ‘bad tourists‘ to Japan lies with the advice they never receive.”

I am a licensed English-speaking guide for the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range UNESCO World Heritage site, including Mount Koya and various communities in Wakayama Prefecture.

Let me first say that I agree almost entirely with the article Ms. Chavez wrote. As a guide, English teacher, consultant for the city and guide trainer, I emphasize and share the belief that understanding the diversity of the guests who are coming to visit Japan while trying to assess their traveling needs, as opposed to unfairly “grouping” them into “good/bad” stereotypes, is infinitely more productive for all parties concerned. Thank you for making that important point.

However, I was surprised that Ms. Chavez made the short-sighted error in judgement of using the limited availability of the new “Official Guide Book” published by Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau as an example of a poor effort of a local community to reach out to the traveling community. I believe this was mostly due to Ms. Chavez’s misunderstanding of how funding for smaller communities works, and limited knowledge of the ground-breaking efforts the tourism bureau has made to turn the 1,000-year-old pilgrimage site into an accessible and understandable destination for the 21st-century tourist.

Let me address certain parts of the article directly and share what I know about why the Kumano Kodo is a worldwide destination in the first place.

1. Ms. Chavez described the “Guide Book” as “a free publication that includes bathing and general pilgrim etiquette.” Obviously, after having read the book, she would realize it was so much more. It includes maps, descriptions of key sites and flora and fauna, rituals, bus schedules and fees, travel tips, and so on. In short, it is not a “how-to” freebie pamphlet but a massive collection of useful information garnered from over 10 years of hard work by the bureau, and by the author particularly, Brad Towle, international tourism development and promotion director. It is a treasure that uses Blippar app technology to make images in the book come alive with augmented reality videos of the sites featured in the book.

2. “Couldn’t they offer a PDF version?” No, probably not. It would be a rather massive file indeed. If Ms. Chavez were only interested in bathing and general pilgrim etiquette, however, a quick search on Google would have more appropriately and immediately provided her with the specific information she needed. (For example, I entered “Kumano pilgrimage etiquette” into the Google search engine and at the very top of the search was this Tourism Bureau link: www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/etiquette.)

By the way, almost all of the information in the book is available online. Browsing through the website (www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo) answers many of the questions guests who visit have about the Kumano Kodo. Yes, there is a lot of information, but localized specific searches will immediately address your concerns.

3. “Many of the government booklets aimed at foreign excursionists are only available after they arrive.” Actually, this is a major concern. Having information available and handy before a possibly life-changing experience is essential. Tanabe is a small city managing a major world site. It took years of planning and coordination among at least five rural communities, none of whom spoke English, to make the Kumano Kodo an annually world-ranked destination.

Has it meant big bucks to the city and locals? Well, not yet. The city has had to work with the prefecture in acquiring national grants and funds to do limited projects to promote, maintain and support locals in the area — a very expensive undertaking. The grant that paid for the publication of the book Ms. Chavez refers to was only enough for an initial 500 copies. However, it was given out free to those who visited the Tourist Information Center or used the Kumano Travel Reservation System. To make more, the guide book has gone on sale to cover its costs and distribution.

Personally, I don’t think making extensive travel books such as this free solves the problem. One way the Tourism Bureau will be providing more accessible free information are a number of how-to videos on YouTube to address concerns — just like Ms. Chavez suggested — such as about bathing and pilgrimage etiquette. The point is, the Tourism Bureau recognizes the concern and is trying to address it as best it can with limited staff and funding.

In short, I thought singling out Tanabe city’s efforts didn’t fully appreciate the hard, trailblazing work the bureau has done. Mr. Towle, for example, has attended many Japanese committees promoting the increase of English signage, online presence, English-speaking staff, unification of spellings in English of Japanese traditional sites, and sits on the national council for promotion of Japan.

Listing the book implied that the tourism bureau was lumped into the group of “good vs. bad” thinkers, which it is not. None of us invested in the success of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage believe that. And frankly, we wish Ms. Chavez had recognized that fact.

MIKE RHODES

CrossRhodes Kumano Journeys

Tanabe, Wakayama Pref.

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