It should have been the perfect trip. I had been recommended the venue by my host family who were convinced that I would love it, and after doing some research I felt sure that I would too. I went early in the morning hoping to avoid all the crowds. Yet when I got to the temple in Japan known as Miyajima., I couldn’t wait to leave again. There was nothing wrong with the place, but the crowds of mostly Japanese, but also Chinese and American, made me feel that I was being led down a particular path, forced to follow a pre-ordained journey. Why is travlleing so ofen like this? Instead of allowing us the freedom to explore new places at will, we are sent along narrow paths and forced to buy particular food, watch a certain display and stop for photographs at such and such a stop. The feeling of being a tourist was so over-powering that I couldn’t breathe properly and it was only when I got back on the boat that I started to relax again.
I’m not saying that all tourist sites are bad, just that they tend to indulge in a kind of un-thinking mentality that is encouraged by eager tour operators wanting to squeeze as much money out of visitors as possible. Or maybe it’s Japan’s habit of being particulary rigid in its mandating of what you should do and see, where you should eat and so on. I don’t single out Japan here. I’ve been to many places which would benefit from being more relaxed, letting people decide for themselves what they would like to see and do.
I’m not sure I actually like travel all that much. I find myself doing it because it’s something one feels expected to do. To travel well is not easy because you have to spend so much time planning where to go. I’m sure that there are people who love spending hours reading guidebooks, then painstakingly finding accommodation and packing everything they need. Then there are people who go out and buy new stuff because they are going travelling and want to look nice in the photos. There’s nothing very satisfying about seeing new places for me, because a new place means getting lost, confused and is usually a place where I don’t know anyone. I don’t know if that’s bad or not. I also don’t really enjoy meeting other travellers. Maybe I should. But there’s something very tiresome when other travellers tell me about all the places they have visited and look down on me for not having visited them myself.
Here’s the thing: I have a fairly low impression of most travellers, yet as a traveller I always expect to be treated well. I’m aware of the paradox here I’m ok, it’s all the others who are the problem. IF I go to a particular place where there are lots of visitors, my enjoyment is compromised by the amount of travellers. Simply put, I don’t enjoy being around tourists. It’s not that I dislike them, I’m just afraid of becoming absorbed into the mass of tourists, losing whatever autonomy and freedom I would usually have in my own country.
Countries that have a lot of tourists must try to work out whether the influx of crowds is a good or bad thing. Tellingly, even once tourist-friendly countries are now limiting the large groups of travellers. Chinese tourists in particular have come in for a lot of criticism. For example, the government of Jeju in South Korea took the unusual step of banning all large groups of Chinese tourists for one year.
Right now I’m travelling in Japan and, most of the time I can enjoy the luxury of being one of the few foreign tourists. When I meet some Caucasians, it’s all I can do to cover my eyes until they disappear. Pretending that someone isn’t there is not easy when they’re overweight and are carrying a backpack the size of large child, however.
I also find it hard to imagine why someone would want to leave their home and go somewhere else to live. If I did that, it would have to be because of something that made my life very difficult in my home country.
Also the thought of having to cram all of my belongings in a small case, with the risk of losing treasured items is enough to put me off travel for good.
Not only that, but I’m going to have to get used to new surroundings, unfamiliar diets, and weather.
Neverthless, there are still a few things even I can appreciate about foreign travel. For example, airplanes. For many reasons, flying is sexy when other forms of travel aren’t. A train is probably most likely to be associated with comfort, long distance and scenery. Although you can’t necessarily find comfort or scenery in many flights, the comfort and elegance of first class is what gives flying its appeal. The act of flying is enough to change the body, so that senses become heightened. The lack of oxygen is enough to increase the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. The feeling of flying in a storm is scary and perhaps exciting in equal measure. As is both take-off and whenever the plane lands. Its almost as if the actual experience of flying is more exciting and so our body is made to feel the sensation more intensely. The possibility of a crash, is also something that makes air travel more exciting due to the possibility of death.
Hotels can also be a good reason to travel. Surprisingly they come in for a lot of backlash because they are perceived to be not good value for money. It all depends of course on what you expect to be able to have when you go on holiday. Being able to check in late, with 24 hours concierge, is one of the many benefits. The fact that hotels are often centrally-located is another benefit. Although with this comes the possibility that they will become too busy being on the main tourist track.
I think in general the tourism insustry has a lot to answer for, I really do. A lot of the time, you have people visiting places where they aren’t even sure why they are there. I know that for some people, they go to a country with a specific destination in mind, but most of the time tourists are wandering gormlessly from one site to another, ticking off a checklist as they do so. Most places that have signs, plaques and maps are of a little interest to me because I don’t require everything spelled out. If I’m looking at a beautiful tree or a mountain, I don’t need to be told that I’m looking at a tree or a mountain. But conversely, most tourists wouldn’t know what they were looking at or why they were there if it weren’t for signs and plaques informing them of the great significance of a particular monument, temple or building.
It’s telling that the majority of tourists want to visit places that they have seen featured on Instagram profiles, or in books such as ‘1,000 places to see before you die.’ These are not really personal reasons at all, more the idea that there are places that you have to go to because of something inherently special about them. The idea of ranking places, whether they are monuments, sites of interest or simply natural features strikes me as a fallacy. There is no reason surely why one place is somehow better than any other. My reaction to a place is based on how I feel when I am there, an entirely subjective response that could be affected by so many diverse effects. If I visit a place where the weather is fine, the people are welcoming and the food is wholesome, I naturally have a favourable opinion. Yet I could be less fortunate, finding that when I am there the weather is bad, the people are grumpy and I am given barely edible slop.
There are many reasons why people want to visit a particular country. A lover classical music might be happy to go Vienna, or a football fan to Madrid. These aren’t my reasons, and they aren’t necessarily mine. For example, I know plenty of people who visit Japan because of the ancient temples and beautiful scenery. Yes, Japan has these. Then again, you might just as well go to Japan because of the sushi. Or you simply love, adore and revere Japanese women and you want to be near as many as possible.
I am happy to visit many countries, but before I decide to go there I want to feel an emotional connection with a place. I want to make up my mind if I like it or not without being railroaded down a particular path of thought. Being told to go to a restaurant by a tourist is not always appreciated. I might go there and find that I am disappointed. In that case, have they then wasted their energy in suggesting that I should go there in the first place? On the other hand, I don’t want to have so many suggestions that I can’t possibly do everything, leaving with a sense of failure at missing out so many ‘must-see’ places.
If you visit a shrine in Japan, or Temple in Thailand, your reaction will depend on whether you subscribe to that particular religion, or if you understand anything of what that religion means for its followers. If you don’t, it can seem that you aren’t sure why you should be there or why so many people find it so important. I don’t need to be a muslim to understand that the site of Mecca is of such importance to followers of that faith. Yet, I have no desire to visit Mecca. Funnily enough, I don’t want to visit many places, outside of my country there aren’t too many countries I can imagine being comfortable in. I’ve been to Japan, and that’s because of a few particular things I can only do in Japan. I’m pretty sure that such things are not possible anywhere else, The minute they are, you can bet I won’t be going to the effort of taking time off work, packing and buying a whole load of new stuff.