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Tourists may not warm to Japan’s welcome

by Philip Brasor

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.