Bucking tradition, young Japanese look for adventures in Asia
TOKYO (AP) _ Yusuke Ushioda just can’t imagine himself walking behind a tour guide, camera at the ready for each must-see landmark.
Like more and more of his peers, when he goes abroad he wants adventure, spontaneity. His answer: a journey into the backwaters of Asia.
Industry experts say a new breed of young Japanese thrill-seekers, traveling alone and on shoestring budgets, present a sharp break from the regimented group tours that are a hallmark of Japanese tourism.
The young travelers may also be a sign of a deeper change in the way Japanese view their place among the Asian neighbors they once looked down upon _ or sent their armies to conquer.
``For a long time, the Japanese admired the West and that’s where they wanted to visit,″ said Toshiharu Nishikawa, editor of the popular travel magazine Chikyu-no-Arukikata, which translates How To Walk the Globe. ``But many Japanese are finally beginning to realize they can have much more fun in Asia.″
Ushioda’s latest journey is typical.
The 22-year-old had no itinerary planned when he went off, alone, to India. Instead of recounting the wonders of Calcutta or the Taj Mahal, he came back boasting that the highlight of his trip was a sunset in remote Mysore.
``Awesome,″ he said with satisfaction.
And why India?
``I feel more relaxed and comfortable being around other Asians, and I don’t have to feel intimidated by big and tall Westerners,″ he said.
Banned for centuries by Japan’s feudal government, travel abroad became a Japanese passion just a few decades ago when the island country began to rise from the ruins of World War II as one of the world’s richest nations. The numbers have grown dramatically in the last 10 years.
In 1996, 7.5 million Japanese traveled to Asia, up from 2.7 million a decade earlier. Some 5.2 million went to the United States, up from 1.8 million; and 2 million went to Europe, compared to 580,000.
But Japanese tourists have tended to be timid _ most venturing abroad in groups on carefully orchestrated package tours.
In more recent years, they have also become notorious for voraciously gobbling up such high-price items as Gucci shoes, Armani suits and Coach bags.
A backlash against such rigid supervision and conspicuous consumption is central to the new Asia-on-the-cheap trend.
Another factor, however, is the popularity of a comedy duo who enthralled Japanese television viewers with a six-month, trans-Eurasia hitch-hiking trip. They left with just 100,000 yen ($850) between them. Travel agents say they have been deluged by young tourists looking to emulate the duo.
``The trend is definitely shifting toward Asia,″ said Hideki Kumon, a spokesman for HIS, a large travel agency. ``People can feel comfortable about cultural similarities but have exotic experiences at the same time, and they like both.″
Kisei Kobayashi, who recently completed a book on Japanese travelers in Asia, said holidays in America or Europe have lost much of their potency as status symbols and are even seen by many as passe.
``The kind of things people would see in the United States or Europe would not be much different from what they already have at home,″ he said. ``In Asia, economies are surging and people are smiling and full of energy. And yet, there are still a variety of problems, including poverty and political instability. That political hodge-podge is what makes Asia so interesting.″
The thrill of going into the unknown alone isn’t without its risks, especially for young people accustomed to the safety of Japan’s famously low-crime cities.
Enough Japanese are getting into trouble overseas that the Foreign Ministry has put out a video and pamphlet urging Japanese travelers to stay on alert.
Jiro Akiba, who quit his photo agency job to go on a three-month Eurasian jaunt a year ago, had his video camera stolen but says he learned a valuable lesson.
``I’ve always wanted to see the places I only knew from TV,″ he said. ``I could really see while I was in some of the poorest countries that there are more precious things than material wealth.″