This is Part III of a five-part interview. For Part I as posted on The Inductive, click here. For Part II, click here. Or scroll down, or click the link on the right.
Christopher Carr: Tell me about your travels since you came here. Japan is not all that popular with tourists these days, although it's leading the world in English teachers who come and live here I think. Most of my friends, if they make it to Asia at all, skip the neon of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto for more adventurous tours in Laos or Thailand. Can Japan compete? I've heard a lot of seasoned travelers say that touring Japan for the most part is an academic experience, and you'll get much more out of if you speak Japanese and really do your homework before going somewhere, or else you'll have just no idea what it is you're seeing. Would you agree with this assessment? And how would you characterize your travels around the archipelago?
Kevin Kato: It’s funny, when I first got to Japan I was on the street in Tokyo, maybe Shibuya, and my overriding impression was that it looked a lot like certain parts of Manhattan; big buildings, lots of traffic and people and, what was by far the most astonishing thing, if that isn’t too strong a word, was that almost everything was in English. Store signs, restaurant menus, everything on everyone’s t-shirts, it was all in English. Not always correct English, but English. It was disappointing, really. I was expecting to walk into a world that didn’t make any sense to me. That’s how I wanted it to be. Probably the most exotic experience I’ve had here is using the toilet in someone’s old farmhouse – where they still lived – and finding a floor made of loose boards sitting above a big hole in the ground. In Laos or Cambodia or Malaysia or Peru, outside of the major cities and tourist areas this is almost what you can expect. Japan is extremely developed, so I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that permeating primitive, exotic experience though I’ve never been to the Okinawa island chain.
I tell people my first “real” experience as a traveler came after I’d been in Japan a year and a half already and went to Cambodia. My first day there I found myself in the middle of Phnom Penh with no money, not a word of the language in my head, no idea where to go and no sign of anyone who could help me even if they wanted to – which, to be totally honest, they didn’t. I never felt so utterly lost and hopeless in my life – yet I have to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I’ve never felt even remotely lost like that in Japan.
As far as travelers skipping Japan, I’d see several reasons for this. One is quite obvious; the place is brutally expensive, both relative to other Asian countries and simply to anyone who comes in not knowing how to get by on the semi-cheap. The second goes along with my first experiences in Japan and Cambodia; I felt much more like I had stepped into a different world when I reached Phnom Penh, and although from what I’ve seen the majority of the backpacking crowd seems to prefer hostels and bars with an English-speaking atmosphere, I sense they’d like to at least feel they are somewhere exotic – or at least pretend. As developed as Japan is, that sensation is not as readily available as it is in much of the rest of Asia, even in the cities, where most backpackers still seem to migrate. On top of this - and I don’t think I’m making any news here either – Japan isn’t, can’t or perhaps won’t make that concerted effort to drive up tourism. The underlying sense is like ‘Yes, we have tons of history here, evidenced by our impressive array of World Heritage sites, come take a look if you like but otherwise we’re busy.’ There may be some of that fear, or at least aversion, to the outside world at play here, but that’s a whole new can of worms.
As for Japan being an academic experience, I may be the wrong guy to ask, I’m not particularly academically-minded when I travel. But really, whether you are looking at a temple in Kyoto or Luang Prabang, you’re likely to get more out of the experience if, as you say, you do your homework. The difference is that in Kyoto, you turn around and you see traffic lights and convenience stores while in Laos you get a woman in sandals and a baby slung over her back lugging a bucket of cans of Coke around. So while Japan has this reknown for its juxtaposition of the old and new, or ancient and modern or whatever, in a sense, while this makes Japan a wildly interesting place, it can also take away from the overall travel experience, i.e. the sense of being in a totally foreign world. Maybe this is a big reason travelers would tend to skip Japan. But I really think it’s the first reason – economics.
As for my travels around the archipelago, I’ve been able to do a lot of touring by bicycle, so I think I’m fortunate to have gotten a fairly extensive close-up look at the Japan beyond the guidebooks or off the beaten path or whatever hackneyed expression you like. And I’ve seen that so much of Japan is neither neon nor elaborate temples. Japan, away from the places people in general have heard of, is a world of serenity, industry – in the sense of devoting oneself to honest, productive work – and simplicity. Anyone who has taken the train from Narita to Tokyo has seen a hundred rice fields, but it wasn’t until I rode through Ogata-mura in Akita that I could begin to comprehend how they could grow enough rice to feed 125 million people every year. Down in Saga, along the coast, there are terraced rice fields built into these huge hillsides; I’d never seen anything like that anywhere else in Japan. I’ve not seen a whole lot of Hokkaido but I know there are some amazing campsites overlooking the Sea of Japan which, like the terraces in Saga, no person or book had ever told me about.
Tourists in Tokyo often go to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which I hear is quite an experience, and one that I have regrettably missed so far. But I’ve ridden through countless tiny fishing villages, and I never tire of them. One could say no one’s work is purer than that of farmers and fishermen. Without turning too esoteric, I’d like to think that I get something from putting myself in their world, something that a visit to Tsukiji or Kinkaku-ji could never afford. I mean, so I imagine at least, since I’ve never actually been to Kinkaku-ji either. It’s true, I even lived in Kansai for a year, went to Kyoto a few times but never the Golden Temple. I actually wrote a travel piece for the Japan Times that revolved around the fact that I didn’t feel an overriding need to go see Kinkaku-ji because I’d been to Shimamaki, a coastal town of 4,000 in Hokkaido (on the day of their annual summer festival which certainly added to the allure of the place) and how could you beat that as far as what it means to be here in Japan?
I mean sure, I’ve visited Kiyomizu-dera, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Meiji Jinja and Ise Jingu, seen Sapporo’s Snow Festival and Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri, and this is all great stuff. Japan’s culture and history is rich as any other Asian country, or any other in the world. But the places and moments that have stuck with me the most have been the out-of-the-way experiences that traveling Japan’s back roads have brought me. Luckily, this kind of travel doesn’t require an academic approach!