What are the ways one experiences a foreign culture in the short term? And furthermore, to what extent are you really experiencing that culture? Can the degree to which one experiences a culture even be defined? Is one person’s travel to another country just as fulfilling and eventful as the next? Can your travel to somewhere be objectively better than someone else’s travel to the same location?
This sets an interesting precedent, and I believe there are arguments for either side. One on hand, preparing for your trip by laying out sights and destinations beforehand to maximize your time is a good approach, whereas traveling with little to no plan can provide for some very unexpected and unique experiences you may have missed of you were buried in your guidebook the whole time. At the end of the day however, if it is a short term engagement, you are a tourist, and you have to think about what sort of tourist you will be.
What does it really mean to be a tourist? And what does it mean to go sightseeing? The image surrounding sightseeing in my opinion has always contained a fundamental disconnect with the cultural substance of a destination. Sightseeing in terms of its own definition sums it up very concisely: we are here to see, look, and observe, without getting too uncomfortably close. Of course, sightseeing is just a term that has stuck with the greater overarching concept of tourism, which extends the travel experience past just seeing; to smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting. Tourism campaigns from travel agencies attempt to break down the notions of simple” sightseeing”, and bring us closer to the cultural substance of a country, by facilitating an experience, to allow us to break into a culture and truly get our feet wet.
But there is still a disconnect with the culture of your destination if you are allowing your “experience” to be facilitated on your behalf. Tour companies will not give you the tools to function smoothly on your own, as that would be counterproductive to the tourism industry. Many people thus opt for the unguided, backpacking adventure through a foreign country, which of course is all well and good, especially in terms of cost. This is where the real question I want to ask emerges: how much legwork are you willing to do in terms of actual cultural research before you travel? In other words, what can you do to become a “better” tourist, such that your short time spent abroad can be full of not just sights and smells, but true interactions with the cultural ecosystem?
Many sites and guidebooks give a brief overview on things such as manners and customs, and then bombard you with activities to fill the duration of your trip with. However, the most fulfilling moments of a trip are not necessarily the breathtaking moments when Mt. Fuji opens up to you in the cloudless autumn evening sky, but perhaps the moments when the Japanese people who have randomly joined your outing laugh benevolently when you know to hold your cup low with two hands while they pour you a drink. Or perhaps that moment when you understand what this image means on the train and give your seat to a woman who thanks you with a smile.
That is not to say that your whole visit to Japan should be spent worrying about how to fit in better, or how to adapt to local customs perfectly (because that takes a lifetime plus), but there are certain tidbits of info that will give you an edge in your travel. Not necessarily from an arrogant standpoint, but many of these tips will be taken for granted by Japanese people, as it is common unconscious knowledge, so it is up to those of us living and working in Japan to dig deep, and figure out how to redefine and furthermore enhance the stale definition of “tourist”. Think about what you would have loved to know your first time you stepped off the plane…