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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010
An insane asylum for tourists
By AMY CHAVEZ
As the world spins faster and faster on its axis, threatening to cut off our supply of gravity and fling us into outer space, Japan is left wondering what to do next.
At this very moment company presidents around the country are scratching their bar code heads thinking, "What can we do to keep our place in the global economy? How do we maintain our gravitational pull in the world?" And though the answers are there, staring them in the face, the answers are hard for them to see. Take our small island of 651 people. Once a popular sea side resort, it has been abandoned by the Japanese who nowadays prefer air conditioned shopping malls and movie theaters. The islanders complain that no one comes to the beach anymore. This year I often heard Japanese people say, "It's too hot to go to the beach." Go figure.
But the young people still come to the beach. The 10-year-olds, that is. Parents still bring their children to swim in the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea. But the parents themselves don't swim. While the children swim, the parents watch on the stifling hot beach, the women hidden behind layers upon layers of specially lined UV protective umbrellas, arm covers, gloves and wide-brimmed hats, all performing in sync. If you could buy burkas on the beach in Japan, they'd be very popular.
Even with all the heightened awareness of damage sun can do to the skin, and the strong link between the sun and skin cancer, the foreign tourists still lay on the beach scorching their skin all day until sunset. Foreign tourists of all ages swim in the sea and it is not unusual to see a 60-year-old woman in a swimsuit. The Japanese just cock their heads. I asked a Japanese university student why her friends don't go to the beach anymore. "They prefer to go to the pool because it's covered so they won't get sun tanned," she said.
For the modern Japanese, one day a year on the beach is nice, but three or more days? With just the Internet and nothing else? No convenience store, video arcade or shopping mall? The "nature-loving" Japanese are tethered to their cities. Only the old and retired enjoy the countryside.
In the meantime, depopulation in the countryside and the islands is a nationwide problem. There are numerous NPOs trying to help revive the Inland Sea islands, but these attempts, though sincere, affect few people. Most NPOs are run by outsiders who don't really understand how island populations and economies work. Government programs and NGOs limp along, all attempting to bring something elusive to the islands — an economy. But, as fast as the Japanese are vacating our island, foreigners are happily filling their footprints in the sand.
"Wow, the whole beach to myself! You can't find anything like this in my country," says Tatiana, a tourist from Spain who has come to the island to stay seven days. "Wow, no crowds! This is better than the Mediterranean," says Monica, a German taking a few days off after touring Japan with the ska band "Nu Sports."
"Wow, no cars! This is our kind of place," say Pasquale and Fulvia from Italy, staying six days. Our little island, like a recovering alcoholic, is rediscovering the good life it had before everything fell to pieces. And this time, it's the foreigners who are reviving it. It's the foreigners who are loving it back to life.
Foreign tourists like undiscovered places, and thus our oasis expands. They arrive with smiles of appreciation, exuding good vibes. It is not unusual for the frazzled, templed-out tourist to immediately pass out on the beach in a blissful state.
"Finally — I have found what I've been looking for!" says an English guy as he flops himself down on the beach as if he had come here especially to expire. I tell him I feel his pain, set a margarita down next to him, and quietly walk away. Others come and disappear into a hammock for days, only waking up long enough to drink another banana daiquiri.
I'm beginning to think that what we really run here is an insane asylum for tourists. They come here crazy and leave normal. Pity — all they needed was a quiet beach.
While the island people are very happy to see the foreigners coming, to make it continue to work, we have to make things a little more foreign tourist-friendly. For example, there are eight accommodations on the island, all named after their owners or something equally esoteric to a foreigner coming to Japan for the first time. Our accommodations are named things like Minshuku Harada (could be anywhere in Japan), San-chan's (the equivalent of "Johnny's Place"), or Nakanishiya (place in the middle of the West?). Pity the poor tourist looking for a place on the beach!
It would be nice if, like most other places in the world, foreigners had a feeling for what kind of place they'll be staying at: Harada's Seaside Accommodation, San-chan's Sunset Beach Restaurant and Accommodation, or Ocean View Bed and Breakfast.
Little things like this can make more of a difference than any government programs or NPOs attempting to "save" our island. We can see the answers. Indeed, we are saving ourselves. Just be sure to stop me when I suggest adding flashing neon "Vacancy" signs.