Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 11 (Season Finale)

Cochin, Kerala (India) - Hiroshima (Japan) - Osaka (Japan) - Honolulu, HI (USA)

The last visit of The Amazing Race to Japan was broadcast on 6 March 2011, just days before the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown that disrupted infrastructure and scared away foreign visitors for many months.

A year later, the race returned to Japan in this week’s episode (for another mock TV game show), en route to the finish line on Oahu.

As I said about post-disaster tourism a couple of years ago in relation to the earthquake in Chile that occurred the same week as the broadcast of an episode of The Amazing Race 16 filmed in Chile just a few months earlier:

Tourists are typically scared away from a substantially larger area, for a substantially longer period of time, than conditions warrant and/or than local people — who are eager to get their jobs serving tourists back, and to start recouping their investment in reconstruction of tourism capacity and infrastructure as soon as possible — would prefer.

In my experience, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) is normally one of the best such government entities in trying to provide practical information to help foreign travellers including independent budget travellers rather than merely trying to sell visitors tours or other services they might not want.

For most of the last year, the JNTO maintained a polite and prudent low profile. Trying to overcome the pervasive newsreel images of disaster would probably have been futile anyway. The JNTO obviously didn’t want to say anything that would further embarrass the Japanese nation and people for being temporarily unable to provide the level of hospitality and service they believe all visitors to Japan deserve (and usually, in my experience, receive), and for being distracted from playing proper hosts by the need to deal with their domestic problems.

But in in March 2012, one year after the earthquake, the JNTO posted a gracious official welcome message from the JNTO that spring and the return of cherry blossom season signals the recovery of Japan’s tourism industry and its readiness once again for foreign guests.

One reason it’s hard to sell Japan as a destination for foreign tourists, even in the best of times, is the perception that Japan is an exceptionally expensive place to travel. That’s been more true in the last year than ever, with the Japanese yen (JPY) at its all-time high against the U.S. dollar, making yen prices almost 50% higher in dollars than they were five years ago.

As with travel in the Euro zone, travel in Japan can be expensive if you aren’t careful. That’s true in the USA, too: How much would it cost if you stayed at the first hotel or ate in the first restaurant you saw in New York, without looking at the prices first or seeking out less expensive alternatives? It remains possible to travel in Japan on a budget not much higher than what you would need in the USA or Australia, and possibly a little less than in Western Europe (more than in some parts of the Euro zone, less than others).

For example, the Backpackers Miyajima hostel that Amazing Race 20 winners Dave and Rachel stayed in when they missed the last ferry in Hiroshima charges JPY2500 per person per night for dormitory bunk beds. It’s only a little more, JPY3000, for a futon on the floor of a “Japanese style” dorm. You might or might not find the latter more comfortable, but it might be worth the slightly higher price to be sharing your room with travellers from other parts of Japan rather than with other foreigners.

JPY2500 is equivalent to USD33 — about the same amount as you’d pay for a bunk in a hostel in Chicago.

Japan won’t be as cheap for foreign travellers as China, much less India or Thailand. But cost shouldn’t scare you away from Japan any more than from Western Europe.

Lodging is the big bugaboo of travel costs in Japan. Japan differs from many other countries in that the numbers of foreign tourists are small compared to those of domestic Japanese travellers, so that a decline in foreign visitor arrivals has relatively little impact on hotel demand for prices.

Japanese workers actually get more holidays and vacations than the average in the USA, but all at the same time. So travel to, from, and within Japan is incredibly seasonal, much more so than in most countries. The single thing you can do that will most reduce the cost of a trip to Japan is to avoid the peak periods — Golden Week in the spring, August, Christmas-New Years — when prices can be three to five times higher than in low season and all beds, especially the most affordable ones, may be booked months in advance so that cheap or spontaneous travel is difficult or (during Golden Week) impossible. This episode of The Amazing Race 20 in Japan was broadcast (at least in the USA) at the end of the Golden Week holiday, but that’s the worst possible time to visit Japan if you have any choice.

Dave and Rachel found the hostel at Miyajima because it had a sign in English saying “Backpackers”, within sight of the ferry landing where they had been stranded for the night. In Australian usage, and increasingly elsewhere, the terms “backpacker” or “backpackers” refer to hostels, especially private, commercial hostels, as well as the travellers who stay in them.

You can’t hope to do that well, but you can expect that most facilities for foreigners in Japan, from hostels to train-ticket kiosks, will have a sign or section of their Web site in English. The trick is to pick out the small English telltale (usually the word “English” or a US or UK flag) from the distracting wall of flashing Japanese signage.

Vending machines may be intimidating, but have their advantages for foreigners who don’t know the local language: It’s much easier and cheaper to translate the user interface into English, once, than to hire English-speaking clerks at every point of sale. A clerk who, as was shown in the race, speaks no English but points to the touch-screen kiosk, may not be as unhelpful as they might seem, but rather may be trying to steer you to the available English instructions.

People will help you if they can. As in any place with a different writing system (Chinese, Arabic, etc.) you can make it easier for people to point you in the right direction by getting your destination written down in the local language whenever you find someone who knows enough English to do so. A pen and pocket notebook always readily at hand, and “Can you write that for me in Japanese?” should become second nature. Even if you think you’ve gotten good directions, get the person giving you directions to write them down in Japanese in case you need to ask again at a point along the way where you don’t happen to find an English speaker.

Having your destination written down in Japanese also makes it less likely that local people will feel obligated to go too far out of their own way to lead you where you want to go. The danger is greater that you will impose on local people unfairly, without realizing it, than that they won’t be willing to help you. Before you ask for assistance in a place with a culture like this, pause to think about whether it’s a fair request. Once you’ve asked, “Can you do ____?”, it’s too late to take it back or say “don’t bother” without both you and the person you’ve asked losing face.

You can’t, of course, expect to be so lucky as to spot a hostel/backpacker down the block when you’re ready for bed. In Japan, how do you find an affordable place to sleep?

Because Japan is a fairly self-contained travel market, dominated by domestic travel, and because most foreign visitors are business travellers, US -based or other general international travel services tend not to include many of the best options in Japan for foreign budget tourists.

Unfortunately, the excellent WIRC/ITCJ budget accommodations booking service I’ve used (both online and at their counter at Narita Airport) and recommended in the past was discontinued at the end of March 2012. My guess is that the government got complaints that this longstanding government-sponsored service was competing unfairly with more recent but increasingly large Japanese online hotel booking agencies.

In its place, the JNTO offers a variety of English-language information on more affordable accommodations including a directory of links to Japanese online accommodations booking services, including both online travel agencies and chains and associations of budget-oriented hotels, ryokans (Japanese-style bed and breakfasts), and hostels. As in the USA and Canada, some B&Bs in Japan offer an expensive boutique lodging experience, while others emphasize affordable home-style lodging.

Hostelling International’s Japanese affiliate has an excellent network of hostels throughout the country, and there are a growing number of private hostels of more variable quality and atmosphere. You are more likely to meet local Japanese backpackers at the HI/Japan Youth Hostels facilities than at private hotels more oriented towards foreigners, although some of the private hostels offer more extensive services.

Most usefully for anything other than hostels, the JNTO Web site includes an English-language hotel and B&B meta-search service. It doesn’t list prices explicitly, so at first it looks useless, but you can filter listings by price range to find links to the sites where individual hotels can be reserved. There are a significant number of listings in the least expensive category, JPY5000 (USD65) per room per night, many of which aren’t included on typical US or other non-Japanese hotel-booking sites. The consistent format and English-language user interface make it easier to use, I think, than trying to search multiple Japanese sites with erratic or incomplete English translation of menus, descriptions, and user interface elements.

I haven’t travelled around Japan enough to say much about specific destinations. I was pleased, though, to see that the race finally went to one of the memorials to the atomic bombing of Japan by the US military. People in the USA have, in general, spent much less time in national and individual reflection on our country’s and our or our ancestors’ role in the atomic holocaust (and the firebombing of Tokyo which killed even more people) than people in Germany and Japan have been required to spend in school — starting during the post-war US occupation of their countries and continuing, to a degree, even today — learning about the holocausts and atrocities perpetrated by their countries’ governments, and individual citizens’ roles in and responsibilities for those actions.

I haven’t been to Hiroshima yet, but I’m glad I went to Nagasaki during my first visit to Japan. Nagasaki gets far fewer “atomic tourists” than Hiroshima, and the bombing of Nagasaki presents different and perhaps more difficult questions for people from the USA than the bombing of Hiroshima. Of course the atomic bombing is and always will be an important part of Nagasaki’s history. But within Japan, Nagasaki is known for other attractions and other aspects of its history, and unlike Hiroshima most visitors come to Nagasaki for other reasons.

Have you been in Japan this year? When did you visit, in what part(s) of the country, and what was it like? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 6 May 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I have found the Rakuten Travel site a useful resource for booking low-end to mid-range accommodations in Japan. Often Y4000/night is sufficient for a basic single room -- always impeccably clean, always safe, and (in my experience) always with free Internet access. Could do a lot worse!

Posted by: Ben Edelman, 9 May 2012, 16:17 ( 4:17 PM)
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