Tourism is huge in Japan. Back before there were cars, there were the great roads where travelers would walk between the big cities, stopping along the way at rest houses for food and sandal repair. In the days of the shogunate, the shogun required the daimyo (regional lords) to keep houses in Tokyo and to travel between their own Estates and houses. Whenever they traveled their families and retinues would go as well, creating whole industries around supporting the frequent travels.
In the modern age, the Japanese still enjoy traveling. Perhaps it is because Japan is an island nation. It is relatively small, with decent public transportation, which means it is relatively easy to travel domestically. Alternatively, Japan’s status as an island nation means that the vast majority of its population are squeezed into giant cities with little or no access to the countryside. Cut off from the natural beauty and wonder of much of rural Japan, it is no wonder many Japanese escape the city when work permits it.
Japan has long had a love affair with nature. Japan’s four distinct seasons are the muse for much of its poetry and art. Sure, in cities there are parks, but when you devote most of your life to your job, it makes the experiences of travelling all the sweeter.
The Japanese who can afford it travel abroad, experiencing the world in a swift rush before returning to work. The masses of Asian tourists at Disney Land in California easily attest to this. For those with less time or money there are still a myriad attractions in Japan. Okinawa is a premier tourist center for mainland Japanese, especially those that cannot afford the trip to Hawaii.
When you have little time to use for vacation every year, its extremely important to use it wisely. Tour companies abound in Japan to fill this need. Often they can provide everything from airfare to a guide for a set price. Tour guides can plan a busy schedule, getting you to every major attraction with time for a picture. Of course while you can still plan your own way, having a guide along keeps you from getting lost, and they are often extremely knowledgeable about the routes they travel.
There are many kinds of guides in Japan. The tour guide is usually someone who works directly for a travel agency. They coordinate travel and hotel arrangements, paying for meals and fees along the way. They may provide some information about locations, but are generally little more than very useful facilitators.
The tour guides will often employ bus guides. The bus guide is usually associated with a specific bus company contracted for the tour. The bus company provides the local transportation for the tour group while the bus guide acts as the local guide. The bus guide provides entertainment and information about local history and culture during the rides between locations, then provides in-depth information during the tour of locations. They often wear uniforms and carry flags to keep their charges going in the right direction.
The Shugakkoryokou (Field Trip)
The tourist industry is defined by no better phenomena than the Shugakkoryokou, the field trip. Second years in Jr. High and High School often go on a trip (5 days or more) to exotic locations with their classmates. High Schoolers in Japan often go outside Japan, as far as Australia and Korea. Junior High students often go on a trip outside their home prefecture, by either train or flight.
I’ve had the benefit of going on two of these trips with my Junior High Students. From Okinawa we traveled to Kyushu and spent five days touring around the island. In just a few days, we saw many sights, went skiing, ate local foods, and stayed in amazing hotels. For an idea of what my trip might have been like, be sure to read Jitsugen Samurai: Revenge of the Akuma Clan when it comes out. Much of what I experienced on those trips is in there.
So if you live in Japan, or want to visit, consider taking a tour. While you might think its cheaper to plan everything yourself, due to the way Japanese airlines work, its probably much cheaper to find a reputable tourist agency and book a tour for the place you want to go. Gone will be your headaches and scheduling difficulties. Simply arrive and the company provides you an advocate for all your needs. A great way to go in style.
For those on a budget, there are of course many options from hostels to cheap train rides that will get you to the same places, if a bit footsore.