The Real Japan

Why Western tourists can't quite find it

| November-December 1998

For years I tried and failed to travel happily in Japan. If you travel to see the sights, of course, the place is a tourist dream—guided tours depart constantly for thousands of famous destinations where you can sate yourself on tradition, culture, refinement, ethereal beauty, fabulous food, and tourist trinkets. But if you live there (especially in Kyoto, as I do), the palate tires of this exquisite fare. You long to see the Real Japan. Astonishingly, it does still exist, and there is a way to find it—but you'd better be quick. It's on the edge of extinction.

It's one of the abiding beliefs of Westerners that you (unlike the others in your tour bus) aren't really a Tourist; you're a Real Person, and it is therefore your inalienable right to meet the Real wherever you happen to travel. Unfortunately, the Midas rule of travel is that whatever a tourist touches turns to gold, and the Real is always disappearing just as your delighted eye is about to fall upon it. Japan is particularly frustrating in this matter; it seems more determined than most to only show you what it believes you ought to want to see. And if you reject the packaged version, slip down a side street and look around, you will probably return shaking your head at the tangle of overhead wires, the shoddy, cramped, tasteless houses, and the infinite sea of unrelieved concrete that is, in fact, the real Japan.

That is everyday reality. So what do you do with your precious vacation, if you’re too poor to fly back to your homeland, and if you believe that somewhere out there is a Japan that is neither packaged tradition nor urban jungle? You head for the countryside, last bastion of the really Real.

The first time I tried this, I decided to get an express train to somewhere a couple of hours beyond the city limits, then hop on a local and get off at the first nice place I saw. I chose Ise, because from there the map showed a railway line running close to the shore through small towns. Ise (apart from the two shrines, which were stunning), was a terrible disappointment, being more shoddy, cramped, tasteless, and concrete than the urban landscape I'd just left.

The first lesson about traveling in the Japanese “countryside” is that it mostly doesn't exist, if what you mean is a rural landscape in which nature plays an important visual part. This is particularly so along the Pacific Ocean and Inland Sea sides of the Japanese coastline, but increasingly so in other areas as well.

Inaka is a concept that evolved from completely different roots than those of our pastoral-romantic “countryside.” To the Japanese, the Ise area is unquestionably inaka. This has nothing to do with natural scenery; it simply defines that which is not tokai, or city. This implies that it is lacking in all that makes the city vibrant, enjoyable, and convenient, a place where people who know what's good for them prefer to live. This belief was just as strong and unquestioned a thousand years ago; to come from inaka is cause for shame, and to go there to live is cause for gloom.

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