Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.
October 13, 2022 at 13:11 JST
Foreign tourists are greeted by a tour conductor at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Oct. 11. (The Asahi Shimbun)
The first authoritative Japan travel guide written by a non-Japanese was published about 140 years ago.
Authored by British diplomat Ernest Satow (1843-1929) and titled “A Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan,” it was packed with information that must have been invaluable for foreign visitors of the time.
For example, the book explains Tokyo’s “jinrikisha” (pulled rickshaw) fare structure: 8 “sen” per 1 “ri” (0.08 yen, or 0.05 cents, per about 4 kilometers) in the day, and double the fare at night.
The book must have been useful as it also explains the history of tourist destinations.
It was not until the mid-Meiji Era (1868-1912) that foreign tourists became able to freely travel in Japan.
Even after Japan ended its isolationist policy through various international treaties, travels for non-Japanese citizens remained limited to within 40 km of their places of residence.
And although the restrictions were gradually eased, foreigners were still required to prove their “good health” to obtain the Meiji government’s “passport” for every trip.
The Japanese government on Oct. 11 substantially eased its border controls that were dubbed “coronavirus isolationist rules.”
The international community has reacted with exuberance, saying, “Japan has finally opened its borders.”
Amid such excitement, I was reminded anew of how long and difficult the isolation has been.
The busy scramble intersection near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station--made famous for masses of people all crossing from various directions at once without fear of running into one another--was already teeming with tourists when I went to look the other day.
I did not see a single guidebook in the hands that clutched selfie sticks, however.
In this day and age, people go online to gather travel information. I understand that. Still, as someone who has traveled for 40 years and read more than 100 travel guidebooks since I was in high school, I was saddened by what I saw in Shibuya.
There is something enthralling about turning the pages of a guidebook to learn about an unknown country.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a sci-fi novel by British author Douglas Adams (1952-2001), may be the ultimate travel guidebook.
A zany fantasy tale in which Earth has been destroyed, the protagonist travels through space. In the process, he comes across a guidebook that is filled with information about various heavenly bodies but describes Earth in just one word: “harmless.”
This infuriates the protagonist, but an alien says in defense of the guidebook that Earth wasn’t well known.
With its borders now reopened to foreign visitors, will Japan be able to reassert its presence?
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 13
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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