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Saturday, Nov. 6, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A journey on the road more traveled


Here's a little-known Zen puzzle for numskulls:

Which vacation would you choose?

A trip to Guam at 50,000 yen per person, including the 3 1/2-hour round-trip flight, four nights at a beachfront hotel and free breakfasts?

Or a two-hour train ride from Tokyo for one night in a resort hotel that provides a free breakfast AND dinner . . . for the very same price?

Tests have shown that -- yes -- even numskulls prefer option one. However, my wife and I recently picked option two. How we rate brainpower-wise is thus clear. But I will say this: We were not alone on our journey.

For Japanese love to travel. Even with a plethora of cut-rate tours to sun-kissed overseas destinations, domestic roads and railways are still jammed during holidays.

Some people stay because they cannot pry themselves from their jobs for more than a few deep breaths, others because they prefer the coziness of a home vacation over struggles with foreign language, customs and cuisine, and still others because no worthwhile tourist spot in Japan would be complete without throbbing hordes of people. Filling such spots is a matter of national pride.

A journey into crowds of thousands may begin with a single push, but the trip should include the following.

Though many travel by car -- in order to revel in the pure joy of bumper-to-bumper traffic -- the quintessential Japanese journey must be made by train. This is true not because of the nanosecond precision of departures, nor the airplane-smoothness of the shinkansen, but rather to pig out on food.

Most people ride the trains in order to eat, a moveable feast that begins the minute they sit down. Munchies, rice balls and mikan disappear in bulk, but the ultimate train treat is a boxed lunch, the renowned "bento bako," which will contain delicacies of the local area. Devouring these goodies begins with the bliss of picking away the stray grains of rice from inside the lid. Train amusement at its very best.

Until, that is, the train girl rolls her cart down the aisle to sell even more food . . . and to shove standing passengers onto people's laps. Even wilder train fun!

A favorite cart purchase is lukewarm canned beer, which vacationing men will begin to guzzle from early morning. Each train car thus becomes a multiple-purpose restaurant/bar, a sort of rocking, rolling picnic scene, minus the ants.

Upon arrival, the very first vacation highlight -- if you are traveling with a woman -- is to line up at the women's restroom. Of course, there are toilets on the train, but most women are too busy eating to notice. Besides, Japanese love lines, and my wife has joined many a winding toilet queue by mistake, just to see what the other women were waiting for.

Fortunately for her, the lines do not stop at the toilet. Each temple, shrine and scenic sight must be viewed in domino-style succession. Travelers tend to be polite, however, with most people patiently indulging all those who need extra space, like hop-skipping tots, cane-clutching graybeards and bimbo-laden yakuza.

But no matter the location -- whether a seaside panorama, a medieval castle or an ancient cobblestone bridge -- most Japanese see but one thing: a photo opportunity.

Couples take solo shots of each other standing statue-like in front of famous sights, while small groups perform a dance of sorts in which members rotate with each other's cameras to ensure that everyone has a photo of the same scene with the same crowd. I believe a Japanese law then requires each person to make the peace sign while being photographed.

All of this lining up is tiresome, but veteran travelers will wisely save themselves for the trip's chief highlight: the purchasing of souvenirs.

As far as the money lasts, souvenirs must be bought for family members, coworkers, friends, neighbors, acquaintances and any kind stranger you might suddenly remember. Most shops crawl with more visitors than the sights themselves, with everyone feeling compelled to buy.

"Look at this," says my wife. "It's a combination wind chime/nail clipper with the name 'Matsushima' smudged on the back. It's something I have never ever wanted and have no use for."

So we purchased a whole box because we figured our friends would have no use for them either, and anyhow the things came cheaper as a set.

The destination of our recent travel was indeed Matsushima, known as one of the three top views in Japan, along with, I believe, Miyajima in Hiroshima and Ryoko Yonekura in a bikini. I can now boast that I have seen two of the three.

But both -- it seems -- were surrounded by the very same crowd.

Basho, the renowned 15th century poet, has lines dedicated to the beauty of Matsushima that can be roughly translated as: "Ooh, Matsushima / Ah, Matsushima / Golly gee, Matsushima!"

A modern Basho might write: "Ugh, people / Drat, people / Oh, say, can you see anything other than people?"

The typical domestic Japanese journey ends with a night in a resort hotel where one again spies the same people, now lounging about in cheap robes. You can also see them in the bath, lounging about in even less.

Yet once more the travel turns to food. The hotel provides a sumptuous evening meal of culinary delights, which -- to the naked eye -- seems much like the same bored set menu served in any Japanese hotel anywhere. But the taste is . . .

"I can't tell," admits my wife. "Maybe I'd say 'mediocre' or maybe I'd say 'average.' It's that subtle. What do you think?"

"Oh, the beer is much colder than in the train. My compliments to the chef."

I should not, however, forget the group breakfast in the morning. Though I wish I could.

But generally we numskulls have short memories. If not, we'd start our second day on the beach, instead of riding the picnic train home.

Only to soon start planning our next domestic journey within Japan.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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