Saturday, January 18, 2014

Going on a Guide Tour? Think Again!

The Asian Tourists – that trope of visor-wearing, peace-sign-picture-taking, bus riding, leisuring group – are no more charming in Asia than they are anywhere else. Like pigeons, they’re generally passive and nice, until put into a setting where they have to fight for food – or perhaps souvenirs and middle-of-the-road picture spots. Led for seven days through the Kansai region in Japan on a guided tour, I learned about the industry that produces this particular type of irksome consumer, and why I will never go on a guided tour again.

In my trip with SuperValueTours, a professional and well-liked company, I saw the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe. We traveled by bullet train and bus, spending a substantial fraction of our daytimes in air-conditioned transit to and from tourist locations. As grandiose and historic were the sites of the Daibutsu Buddha statue, Kiyomizu temple, and Nijo Castle, we walked the path of drained, insipid uniformity.

It was the same in each location: our tour guide would lead us to an establish tori gate, sake brewery, or bamboo forest occupied with a host of tourists and middle-school students. We shuffle through the funneled walkway to observe, take pictures, and receive information through a guide or earpiece. At the end of the tour, we were given a small amount of time to “explore and relax” on our own, which meant looking at different souvenir stands selling identical post cards and plastic memorabilia.



The most shameless episode of my trip took place touring the Golden Pavilion, a temple in Kyoto covered in gold leaf. It was a spectacle to behold, as was the clamor of tourists trying to get a decent picture. On the side of the walkway, a stone pot was surrounded by vague idols and covered with coins. People gathered close to the fence, digging in their purses and pockets to throw money into the bowl. In my earpiece, the tour guide said, “Somebody once put that bowl there. A person started throwing coins, and other people followed. There is no meaning to it.”

For a business that is based on the “consumption of others,” the interchange of culture occurred on mostly superficial levels. There were few opportunities to speak with the people outside of an empowered-guest/disempowered-host dynamic, and our tour guide, though genuinely kind, was primarily concerned with repeating the facts of historic sites than providing her perspective as a Japanese citizen.

The tourist industry markets the commodity of a history already-written and dead. It provides luxury hotels, choice meals, mass produced souvenirs, and the ability to keep an absolute distance from the authenticity of a place. It might not mean anything to you or anyone else, but as long as you throw your money their way, they’ll gladly take it.

While I found the tourist industry problematic, I nonetheless enjoyed my time in Japan. The cherry blossom trees, clean streets, stylish young people, and ramen were all fantastic to be a part of. The bustling urban landscape is one of the most unique in the world. I would simply recommend travelers to take time to plan their own trip, with space to explore and get lost, rather than buying one already commodified and prepackaged.

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