My wife and I have always enjoyed travelling and it has been a pleasant part of our lives from the time we began our working careers in 1960. During the past decades, we had left our footprints in Asia, including the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia.
After our retirements from an active career some years back, seeing the world is now one of our chief delights in life. No longer constrained by the limitations and hectic schedules of business travel, we can now afford the luxury of time to savour the disparate allures that each chosen country has to offer and to gain a deeper insight into its culture and society, than would have been possible in our younger days.
Reading up extensively on different countries and ferreting out the less frequented but nevertheless significant places of interest for us to explore had made each of our overseas trips a more stimulating adventure and often aroused our interest in wanting to make a return visit in order to traverse the other parts of the same country. Our criteria for choosing a travel destination are influenced mainly by its depth of history and cultural appeal, including its wealth of ancient monuments and other relics of antiquity, varied scenic beauty, ease of communication and the glorious achievements of its civilisation. Of importance too, the richness of a country’s cuisine, which is often regarded as a hallmark of its civilisation, would certainly enhance our travel experience.
Out of the many countries that we had already visited, those in Asia and Europe have remained our favourite destinations. However, to widen our horizon further, we would very much like to see the vast continent of Africa, Central and South America, other ancient civilisations in the Islamic world, New Zealand and Eastern Europe. We hope to visit some of these in the foreseeable future. Are there any cities or tourist destinations that we had visited which are, in my view, quite unique and are therefore in a league of their own? Yes, ten of them have left indelible imprints on my minds. These are, in alphabetical order, China’s Beijing, Xian and its Silk Route,Egypt’s Cairo and the Nile cruise, France’s Paris, Italy’s Rome, Japan’s Nara, the holy land of Jerusalem and last, but by no means least, Turkey’s Istanbul.
Which is my favourite country so far? Based on my criteria mentioned earlier and also because of my familiarity with its language, customs, way of life and its fascinating history and civilisation, China gets my vote. No other country can surpass it in terms of both the scope and diversity of tourist attractions to cater to visitors of varying tastes and discernment. We had visited many parts of its extensive territory no less than 15 occasions in the past 25 years.
Since its opening up to the outside world in the mid 1970s, the whole world has been flocking there to experience its 5000 years of continuous civilisation and multifaceted splendour. In a little over 3 decades, China has earned its rightful place as the third most visited country in the world, after France and Spain. International tourism experts have confidently predicted that, if its increasing popularity continues, it would overtake France as the world’s number one tourist destination around 2010.
Although China is a magnet to tourists world-wide, there are, regrettably, still weaker sides in its tourism and hospitality sectors which, if not corrected soon, would certainly adversely affect its image and mar the enjoyment of its visitors. Fortunately, these problems are now being tackled more earnestly compared with the 1990s.
Another Asian country, Japan, is taking over from China as our new favourite country to visit, now that we have set foot on the principal regions of the world’s most populous country and savoured many of its foremost attractions. We have come to appreciate Japan more and more as we get to know it better. It has lots of delightful places to excite us, in addition to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, which are, of course, must-see cities in that country.
In our newly awakened enthusiasm for Japan and its people and as if to redeem our past neglect, we had, in recent years, made several trips that covered parts of its three main islands, namely Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido, which is sparsely populated but has the best seafood and ski resorts in the country. Just a month ago, we also toured the less-visited and largely rural Tohoku region, which is at the north-eastern tip of Honshu and very close to Hokkaido. There the traditional Japanese lifestyle is still being preserved and its inhabitants still retain their peculiar and confusing accent, which often makes them a butt of jokes to other Japanese. They lead a simpler and seemingly more contended life, relatively free from the hustle and bustle of the more stressful life in Tokyo and Osaka.
Tohoku is the agricultural hub of Japan and produces the best fruits and rice in the country. The world-renowned Fuji apples come from there. It is therefore not surprising that many of the natives live off the fertile land as farmers and fruit growers. It is also reputed to have the most beautiful women in Japan. It has natural charm all its own, and everywhere one travels one sees rugged but majestic mountain ranges as backdrop, still active volcanoes, meandering rivers, beautiful lakes, some of the deepest and the most picturesque in the country, famed rustic hot spring inns and resorts, like those so vividly and appetisingly portrayed on the popular long-running Japanese television serial, “Japan Hour”, which has inspired many Singaporeans to visit Japan. Besides these, it has several famed historic towns, replete with period samurai houses, ancient edifices, a nationally renowned castle, many old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The Chusonji Temple is the proud custodian of the nation’s number one national treasure, the perfectly preserved 12th century Heian period gold– Buddha and other deity images, which were commissioned by the powerful Lord Fujiwara. Many cultivated Japanese will make a special trip to Tohoku in order to gaze and marvel at these extremely rare masterpieces of Buddhist art.
Tohoku’s largest city is Sendai, which was flattened by American bombs in WWII, but has since been rebuilt into a modern thriving industrial city. However, It lacks touristic charm but is a convenient springboard to several attractions close to it. The people of Tohoku are generally warm, friendly and welcoming to foreigners, who are not a common sight there. For those with East Asian appearances, you would often be taken as a Taiwanese or Korean, and hardly anyone there would guess that you come from tiny Singapore. However, once they found out your nationality, you would be complimented as a representative from that clean and green city.
Our well-organised 7-day tour of this region was made all the more enjoyable because we were fortunate to have a very charming, vivacious, caring and knowledgeable Hong Kong-born multilingual local tour guide, Annie, and a safe and skillful Japanese driver. She anticipated our every need and would make every effort to make tour members feel relaxed and comfortable. They, ably supported by the Singapore tour leader, Ang Poh Teck, is an unsurpassed team for any conducted tour to Japan.
Our growing enchantment with Japan is far from skin deep. The more we have seen of it and having had the opportunity to become better acquainted with its disparate attractions, culture, people, traditions and way of life, the initial fascination has now turned into deep admiration and a firm desire of wanting to return there at regular intervals.
I would now make a few general comments on the Japanese society as I see it , as well as sharing with you later in my commentary my impressions of its people, culture and their everyday life through a Singaporean perspective, with their warts and moles included. Japan was devastated after its defeat in WWII in 1945 and had to start from scratch to rebuild the nation. Their children were dying from the same health problems that the African children are dying nowadays. Fortunately, it received financial and technical help from many countries, especially the United states, and is now the world’s second largest economy, after the US. While some Japanese might claim that “we did it by ourselves”, this would not be true. It desperately needed and did receive aids from others initially. However, one undeniable fact is that, without the patriotism, indefatigable industry, intelligence, skills, sacrifices and cohesiveness of its people, no amount of outside help would have enabled it to rise from the ashes of defeat to become a newly developed nation within a short space of 20 years of the war disaster.
I can still recall vividly that when the first Japanese cars were being marketed in Singapore in the early 1960s, it would take a brave Singaporean to buy a Toyota or a Nissan at substantially lower prices than the then popular British cars, like the Austin and Morris, as Singaporeans were conditioned to believe that these British cars were more reliable and superior. Today, the reverse is true, as these hitherto popular British cars have largely disappeared from the local market and replaced long ago by the technologically more innovative Japanese makes.
Despite being a very affluent country, Japan is essentially a middle-class society, and the monthly income between a university graduate or a professional man vis-a-vis a technician or clerk is far narrower than the case in Singapore, or in other newly developed economies like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some latest official statistical information on its politicians’ pay versus certain elite private sector earnings make interesting reading. For instance, the Japanese Prime Minister makes 1/2 million Singapore dollars annually, while an established lawyer draws 50% of the PM’s salary and a comparable doctor earns half that of the lawyer. The remunerations of dentists, accountants, engineers, architects and university professors are a little lower.
Japan is, perhaps, the most homogeneous society among the the world’s great nations. Out of a population of about 130 million, only just above 1.5 % are non citizens. Even naturalised foreigners, including those of Japanese descent, will find it difficult to be fully accepted into the conservative Japanese community. It is a common Asian misconception that racial discrimination is predominantly a Western problem. They will be surprised to learn that it exists in Japan too, with its warm, hospitable and cultured population. Let me elaborate. Many Japanese genuinely believe that they are superior to other Asians and that they are the equal of the most advanced Westerners. Hence, there is a tendency for them to look down on other Asians, including the Chinese and Koreans, notwithstanding that the Japanese civilisation owes an eternal debt to these two venerable nations in its earlier development. Among the Japanese themselves, the overwhelming majority are of the Yamato stock. For historical reasons the indigenous Ainus, the Ryukyuans and the Burakumins, are generally despised and considered second class citizens. Even among the Yamato Japanese, those from Tohoku are socially less acceptable to their more sophisticated and snobbish compatriots from the other regions of Honshu, like Tokyo, on account of their peculiar accent and rural background.
Japanese Koreans, many had emigrated to Japan between 1895 and 1945 when Korea was its colony and who have contributed significantly in various fields, still face discrimination today. It is therefore hardly surprising that many were compelled to conceal their ethnicity in order to survive in an otherwise hostile social environment. Those who did not would , invariably, pay dearly for their pride. However, their plight is gradually being ameliorated as the younger Japanese are more open-minded and would champion their cause fearlessly.
Why are my wife and I so captivated by Japan and its people, and what do they have to offer visitors that very few other countries are able to match, besides being endowed with great places for sight-seeing?
Our first indelible impression is that it is, perhaps, the most well-ordered country in the world. The Japanese are disciplined people, public littering and jaywalking are virtually non-existent. The traffic, though congested during busy hours, are orderly as drivers maintain lane discipline and generally observe other road courtesies , unlike their impatient counterparts in Singapore and other Asian countries. The taxi and bus drivers, too, are a well-behaved lot. Hardly any Japanese use mobile phones in public places like in subway trains, buses or restaurants, much less would they do so in cinemas, concert halls or places of worship.
Second, it is a very safe country for both locals and visitors alike, and unaccompanied females can walk the streets of Tokyo and other big cities without being harassed , assaulted or robbed. Pick-pocketing does happen in very crowded places, like the weekend flea mart at Ueno, but the culprits are most likely to be foreign residents!
Third, the politeness, efficiency and professional pride of the Japanese services personnel are renowned throughout the world and their reputation is well-earned. From lift attendants, sales girls to restaurant waiters and other services providers they all play their part to make you feel comfortable and relaxed when being served by them. In all my visits there I had yet to encounter a rude or incompetent services personnel. The old saying that the customer is king has true application there.
Fourth, although corruption in the corporate world and among politicians are quite common, honesty and integrity at a personal level is generally quite exemplary. For example, If one loses a wallet or camera in a crowded public place, chances are its finder will take it to the “Lost and Found” kiosk from whom you can reclaim your lost article. This happened to me when I got back my camera at the Toshogu World Heritage Shrine in Nikko. Also, overcharging tourists in shops or eating places is anathema to their culture. Locals and tourists are charged the same price, whether or not you speak Japanese.
Fifth, the standard of public hygiene is easily one of the highest in the world. The public lavatories wherever you go are invariably clean and well-kept and their misuse is rare. Food hygiene too stands up to scrutiny, from the modest to the posh eating establishments. Hence, few tourists suffer food poisoning through partaking in contaminated food.
Sixth, like Chinese food, Japanese food comes in wide varieties and regional specialties abound and they are so delectable and aesthetically presented as to make Japan a true foodie’s paradise. While the cost of eating there is high compared with many countries, but if you look around or consult your hotel people you can eat more cheaply and well at places that the locals frequent. For the budget conscious tourist, one good and economical way to enjoy a delicious regional speciality is to buy a bento lunch at a railway station and eat it during the train journey. Another way is to buy a box meal at a convenience store and the staff will automatically microwave it for you to be eaten in the comfort of your own hotel.
Seventh, staying in a top traditional Japanese Onsen (hot spring) inn or Ryokan, with a idyllic setting to complement it, and indulging in a soothing bath is good for the body and soul and offer a supreme enjoyment that no modern six-star hotel can hope to match. However, the best of these can make a hole in one’s wallet but as an once in a life time experience, perhaps during one’s honeymoon or golden wedding anniversary, it is worth it. The cuisine is always heavenly, the service impeccable and you will feel like a king or queen while it lasts! On a more realistic plain, one should, perhaps, just settle for a cheaper version, like those so attractively featured on the “Japan Hour” TV show.
Finally, the average Japanese are generally warm , friendly and welcoming to tourists, and treating everyone with politeness is a way of life perfected over the centuries. If you take the trouble to learn a few useful Japanese words and phrases it will ease the language problems. However, with the younger Japanese, quite a few do speak some simple English and, occasionally, you may even come across someone who can converse with you in Mandarin. With the rise of China, more and more Japanese are now learning Chinese for their own career prospects, if not for its intrinsic value.
Despite my generous accolades for Japan and its people, there are certain Japanese traits that may seem peculiar to some first time visitors or those who are unfamiliar with the traditions and culture of this country. The Japanese are a conservative people and few would reveal their true thinking or feelings to others unless they know you intimately. This is true even in the man and woman relationship and the instances of people falling in love at first sight are rare, or if it does happen it will be difficult for the other party to become aware of it until the relationship has deepened. Be that as it may, if a foreign tourist or friend were to criticise their country, they would most likely become very defensive and would vehemently try to correct your views out of pride or patriotism for Japan. Deep within them, they believe that their country and culture are unique and that it is therefore difficult for foreigners to truly comprehend them.
The Japanese are generally poor linguists and are often ill at ease in the company of foreigners, especially if they are compelled to converse in their language. Hence, they would much prefer to be in the company of their compatriots. This can be seen when the average Japanese tourists travel abroad. They would invariably join a Japanese tour group, shop in a Japanese-run establishment if possible, eat in a Japanese restaurant and feel secure in doing so. Those who are more adventurous and travel independently frequently get fleeced by some unscrupulous business operators overseas because they tend to be too trusting, believing that these people would treat them like their counterparts would do in Japan.
Do be forewarned that eating snacks or drinking while walking on a street, though acceptable in Singapore and in the West, is frowned upon there. For a lady to do so, you will unwittingly become a center of attention. I am told that this is only permitted at fairs or festivals. Getting drunk in public is taboo in many cultures and the Chinese would regard it as a disgraceful behaviour reflecting on one’s lack of family upbringing. However, the Japanese tend to take a more liberal view and regard it as human frailty and therefore excusable. It is not uncommon to witness drunken Japanese walking along Tokyo’s entertainment areas, gaily dancing or singing but behaving in a non-threatening manner, without others taking any interest in their display of exuberance. Some would even ease themselves at street corners visible to others, and the male and female passers-by would hardly take any notice of them.
So the Japanese too, are vulnerable human beings when they let their guards down, just like you and me, despite their otherwise dignified mien. All in all, it is truly a delightful country with warm and hospitable people and my wife and I look forward very much to returning there again and again until we have seen enough of it.
Lam Pin Foo