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What do Western tourists want from Japan? Try asking one

by Amy Chavez

I often sit on the beach with my husband and discuss all the things that could be done, with little effort, to help revitalize these Seto Inland Sea islands. Although we run a successful island business and work hard to attract foreign tourists, still, if we had just one more pair of hands, a few more legs to run around for us and a tad more yen to invest, there is so much more these two Western residents could do to help.

So when our local City Hall reached out to solicit my opinion on a plan to bring more European, North American and Australasian travelers to these islands, I felt optimistic.

Our city doesn’t have the best reputation for putting their money into worthwhile tourism pursuits, so the charms of this particular area of the Seto Inland Sea remain hidden. In fact, Shiraishi Island is often called a “hidden gem” by those who wander off the beaten track and hoof it out here. Due in part to our invisibility, this small dot on the map with just 500 people is in danger of losing its unique culturebecause it is not being preserved. Sadly, I seem to be one of too few people wanting to do something about this.

In the meantime, the rest of Japan is profiting, at least economically, from Asian tourism as Chinese, South Koreans and Singaporeans fill bus tours and shopping malls, and comprise large anime and manga markets.

I sat down on the tatami mat and the low chabudai table at the island’s meeting room set up for these purposes and spoke with the City Hall employee, who was also an old acquaintance.

“You know Shiraishi Island has many rocks,” he began.

I nodded my head. In fact, the island’s name means “white rock,” referring to the granite peaks, many of them with boulders precariously poised on top. We have power stones, spiritual rock worship celebrated with Shinto ceremonies and we even have a pilgrimage with 88 stone statues, each of them placed next to a hulking spiritual boulder.

“The island next door is known for its rock too,” he continued.

I nodded my head. Kitagi Island is famed for its masonry, and samples are on permanent display around Japan in the fortified walls of Osaka Castle, parts of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and the torii gate at Yasukuni Shrine. The Inland Sea’s Shodoshima Island has also contributed its stonework to various historic buildings in Japan.

“So, we want to apply for Seto Naikai stone mining to become a designated part of Japan’s National Heritage,” he explained.

“The rocks or the stone mining?” I said, a little confused.

“We plan on offering tours of these mining facilities so Japanese tourists can observe how we cut and extract the rock. We are proposing to the Japan heritage committee three islands in the Seto Naikai with which we can connect, so people can visit all three. Stone craft has a long history in Japan. We’re hoping Western visitors will also join the tours. Perhaps you can help us promote it.”

I nodded. “Some people would come to see rocks,” I admitted, “and there would definitely be some who would like to witness the mining techniques.” I said a lot of other nice things too, in order to soften the blow. “But, I don’t think most vacationers would be very interested in a tour of stone mines.”

“Really?” he said.

“Westerners like natural rock,” I explained. “Like minerals or big sacred rocks. We don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to destroy nature on the scale stone mining does.”

“Aren’t they interested in stone cutting as a craft?” he asked, clearly puzzled.

“Look,” I said. “There is nothing wrong with stone masonry per se. And Western tourists will enjoy looking at products fashioned from rock such as torii and intricately constructed castle walls, especially at famous historic spots. Their interest may even be piqued by a coffee table book demonstrating the craft. But the process of raping the land of its natural resources, or voyaging to see picturesque islands that are scarred with gaping cuts into their mountainsides is not something we find alluring. Entire swaths of islands in the Inland Sea have been excavated of their bedrock! We think that’s ugly. We wish you wouldn’t do that.”

Crestfallen, he tried to parse the logic of my thinking.

“Sightseers come to see Japan’s beauty, not her destructiveness. We want to see nature worshipped, not annihilated,” I continued. “We are shocked when we come to Japan and see bulldozed mountains against the azure sea or gigantic concrete jacks and sea walls ostensibly installed to keep back the forces of nature. We find this intrusive and impolite, with no regard for Mother Nature. Japan is quick to back such public works projects that sacrifice the beauty that Westerners come to see. We believe the great sculptors, artists and aesthetes of stone are nature herself.”

As his brow furrowed while grappling with these concepts, I sensed large-scale defenestration pass before my eyes: months of Power Point presentations chucked out the window, discussions with district authorities gone to the birds, hours of nemawashi (laying the groundwork) tossed into the wind and unneeded reams of English translations fluttering to the ground. Lastly, a mammoth drinking session with colleagues would be in order after closing the window and bolting it shut. All because they had applied the same homologous assumptions about what travelers want.

Now they were left scratching their heads about the enigmatic ways of the West, perhaps for the first time ever, but surely not the last, as Japan becomes more and more dependent upon us to increase the tourist dollars spent here.

While he tried to understand the mind-set of these inscrutable Western travelers, I was left wondering: Had the chabudai tables turned? Had Nihonjinron (theories of Japanese uniqueness) become gaijinron?

I wondered how many other countries would attempt to lure Western tourists without asking specialists or consultants — or at the very least having a preliminary tete-a-tete with a woman in their target audience who has lived for over 20 years in the very place they’re hoping to attract people to.

“Westerners don’t think like Asians,” he concluded, good-humoredly.

I apologized for giving bad news and offered some bonus hints on what Westerners expect from a visit to Japan. But he seemed disinterested and instead boarded the charter boat that would take him back to City Hall — back to the mainland where he had come from.

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