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Saturday, July 25, 2009
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
Why I fly the coop
There's this foreign fellow I know that when asked about his favorite place in Japan, always answers like this . . . "The departure lounge at Narita."
I myself might give that very same answer — twice a year. During the school vacation months of March and August.
The rest of the time Japan is Home Sweet Home. But when school is out — so am I.
"Just once," my wife says, "I'd like to vacation in Japan. Why do we always migrate? Like geese? Can't we be more like pigeons? And just bob about here at home?"
Yet, I find that idea bird-brained. Years in the roost have given more than enough opportunity for journeys in Japan. We have taken those chances, too, and flocked to all the domestic highlights. Many more times than once. Why hang around now?
"Well, what about the lowlights?" she says. "What about those off-the-beaten-path jewels that you treasure so much in other lands? There are so many spots we haven't visited here. Why not do some out-of-the-way exploration in Japan?"
Why? I can think of a thousand reasons why. Well, OK. Four. Here they are: my four, itchy-feet reasons for flying my Japanese coop twice each year.
It's the money, honey: A week's jump somewhere in Southeast Asia beats costs here the way a dive in the pool beats a wet towel. They hardly compare. Sure, one can dig up domestic travel deals too, especially if you shop ahead.
But, depending on the destination and timing, overseas transport might not be much higher than that in-country. Added to this also come meals that can be savored by both palate and budget alike, not to mention economical lodging.
The final math isn't hard. With the right mix of time and place, a quick week overseas can be more viable than a weekend at home. And that's without factoring the current muscle of the Japanese yen. Which can make beyond-Asia destinations attractive as well.
Insecurity in numbers: Like anyone, I cherish my days off. But I would cherish them even more if mine were somehow different than those of the entire population.
As it is, when Japanese travel domestically, they all do it together, and in holiday seasons much too similar to my own — in the middle of August, at year's end, in late March, or in Golden Week. So, on their free days we find people seeking relief from the crunch of their commuter lines by visiting leisure locations that are twice as packed as the trains.
Sure, other lands have crowds too, but at least there the crowds are exotic. Yet here I end up pressed by the same salaryman faces I see everywhere. Not during vacation time, please.
My no-variety anxiety: Japan is as long as a banana and as such appeals to visitors in various ways — with mountains, beaches, cities, and so on.
But I find each Japanese city to be a noisy echo of the next. I also consider each mountainside view to more or less be a mirror of the rest, and each sandy beach to be just as miserable as the one before — if it is bad. Or just as crowded — if it is good.
Japanese festivals? Aren't they all one in the same, no matter the place? An odd twist here, a new photo-op there, the same crowds everywhere?
Food? Fortunately, I am not a gaijin celebrity paid to grovel in television ecstasy over distant regional delicacies. For I am not trained in groveling and in most cases, I can find versions of those same delicacies in my neighborhood supermarket, only two minutes away.
One can certainly argue that I might encounter the same tedium overseas. Yet for one week everything is fresh and original. And one week is all I am paying for.
My getaway dismay: Related to this drive to visit some place with richer spice than my day-in, day-out life is the simple desire to escape. And not only from the never-ending waves of work.
Just as much — if not more — I yearn to escape my stress as a foreigner.
True — unless I journey home to the States — I am a foreigner everywhere. Yet, a rose by the same name is not always a rose.
For out of Japan, I can put down my struggles with language and forget about the nit and grit of cultural nuances. No one expects me to understand and I need not strain to do so. I can also step from the spotlight — imagined or not — of always being a guest, one who has perhaps overbooked his stay.
For when abroad, I am a shiny new guest. And that small change makes all the diference, like the cool side of the pillow.
Japan is, so to speak, my pad. I am here to stay.
But at vacation time, it becomes a launching pad.
By then I am always ready for liftoff.