I was fascinated by YouTubers claiming their best places to go in Japan on their travel channels. I browsed travel photos from the famous lonely planet and found myself mesmerised by tranquil, majestic Arashiyama bamboo grove, and even the dawn at Senso-Ji temple, only from looking at their photos. I wanted to be there right away if I could. Those photos are enticingly captivating. I succumb to Japanese tradition, culture, and modernism as the professional travel advisors describe in their guide books read by millions of people worldwide. So I decided to travel solo to Japan six months ago but what I found was a disappointment.
Japan tourism is booming. According to the United Nations, the World Tourism Organisation from 1995 to 2012 tourists visiting Japan increased from 3.3 million to 8.4 million. 6% of growth rate is undoubtedly an achievement. In 2017, there could be 28.7 million tourists visiting the rising-sun nation. The number will continue to grow following the Tokyo Olympics games 2020 followed by Paralympics in the same year.
The ANA staff from the check-in desk at Sydney airport even hung a little note on my luggage, wishing me a safe and pleasant holiday to Japan. When I arrived in Haneda airport Tokyo, as soon as I walked out of the customs-exit, I was already impressed with Japanese punctuality, attention-to-details and efficiency. I was the only passenger at the last stop at the Hilton hotel in Shinjuku — I stayed at the hotel nearby. The bus driver bowed as he wished me a pleasant trip and to look after myself. I didn’t walk out of the airport with a flower garland on my neck, but Omotenashi, Japanese hospitality, gave me a natural, warm welcome. Kyoto is probably the city with the most hospitable customer service of all the three cities I visited — Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The shop assistant carried my shopping bag and escorted me to the shop front at one of Kyoto’s shopping centre. This kind of customer services, while the west sees it as unnecessary; on the other hand, I feel privileged — the type of treatment and privilege I don’t have back in my home country, Australia. I was even amazed by their convenient stores, such as seven eleven and Lawson. Attractive packages of lunch boxes, snacks, and even a banana beautifully wrapped in beautiful packaging. They are freshly prepared and quite affordable for a budget traveller like me. There’s nothing like it.
But no one told me I need to queue for almost everything. I started my day earlier than usual because, on that day, I travelled to Arashiyama bamboo grove then followed by Kinkakuji temple and Nanzen-Ji temple. It was 6:30 am, but people have made a long queue to get a seat at Honshu coffee at Kyoto station although it opens at 07:00 am. On Miyajima Island, I was looking for the end of the queue only to get on the ferry back to the main island. The lines started from the ferry terminal down to Itsukushima shrine main entrance — about 5.6 kilometres long. There are ridiculous long queues for almost everything; temples, museums, restaurants, cable cars, train station exits, markets and even bamboo grove. Not to mention the time when I got in the wrong queue after fifteen minutes of waiting because I didn’t understand what the staff said to dozen visitors of Mori Art Museum in Roppongi and had to start all over again on the next queue. Japan drove me mad.
Though most restaurants and cafes welcome foreign tourists by putting on the sign ‘English Menu Available’, there was one time in Hiroshima, the restaurant denied my entry. The female staff showed me the cardboard sign in English. It says ‘We are fully booked. Sorry, we can’t serve you’. I looked around, and the restaurant had many seats available. Though I explained, I was alone, and it would be a quick one, the staff escorted me to the front giving me no-means-no head shake. I can only assume the English sign is the gate to reject non-speaking Japanese visitors.
As a first-time solo traveller to Japan, I needed a professional travel advisor to guide me and a few travel tips. Relying on youtube channels, travel website to Japan, blogs and social media travel influencers seem like an easy way, but the problem is, they are ubiquitous. All of them claim the ultimate experience of the best places to go in Japan. It takes time to research here and there, and I didn’t have much time left. I made a brief stop at Kinokuniya bookshop, and I found Lonely Planet Japan. I browsed through pages of the book. The Arashiyama bamboo grove photo on the welcome page captured me. I couldn’t stop looking at it, admiring the scenery with two elderly were seen walking on the brown, dirt footpath. On the other page, there was a photo of Senso-ji temple at dawn. The golden sunrise looked stunning. It was how I imagined Japan would be for the rest of my trip: tranquil bamboo grove, beautiful morning at a temple, and Cherry blossoms raining on me as I walked along a quiet river. Unfortunately, when I was there, those photos didn’t do Japan justice. There was no tranquil bamboo grove and spectacular sunrise at Senso-Ji temple. Arashiyama bamboo grove is nothing more than a tourist circus; tourists, with selfie sticks taking their snapshots as many as they could here and there, rude tourists approached you only to make you a camera self-timer plus tripod and walked away, man-powered rickshaws shooed people away, blocked pathways reserved only for those who sight-see the grove on a rickshaw. Tourists jammed Senso-Ji temple that you could barely walk. Visiting a temple is nothing more than a sight-seeing of endless souvenir shops.
Don’t get me wrong. Japan is a beautiful country with endless possibilities of discovery, but my disappointment is with professional travel photos and travel guide books. Some travel advice only seems to fit for other expert travellers who are paid to wake up early in the morning to skip the crowds. A professional travel photographer to capture the best snapshot when no one is around then editing it by laying many filters and colour adjustment to make it more appealing. I will revisit Japan for sure, but only this time, it’s time to put down my travel guide book and let myself explore Japan as the way it fits me.