So the Japan Tourism Agency will be giving away 10,000 airline tickets to foreigners to spread the word that the parts of Japan that aren’t under water or radioactive anymore are worth visiting. As a former gaijin who spent 4 years there in the mid ‘90s, I can confidently state that the airfare will be the least of one’s worries. The foreign exchange rate is the killer.
By my reckoning the cost of the 10k tickets will be around $15 million US – or a shade under ¥1.2 billion. That’s a very cheap program by Japanese standards.
I’ve traveled to and from Japan a few times, and you have to assume you are going to lose a full day arriving and a full day departing to jet lag. Consequently I wouldn’t travel there for less than 10 days. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to travel there alone simply because you will miss a lot; another pair of eyes will help you take in the sights of the country as well as share the experience with you. I doubt the Japan Tourist Agency will float you another free ticket for your companion, although maybe they will. For argument’s sake let’s assume if you are selected you get one free ticket estimated at $1,500.
A quick check of hotel prices in my old stomping grounds of Kyoto finds that a decent hotel (one with a private bathroom – not shared) will run about ¥15k a night for a twin two person stay. The current exchange rate is ¥77-$1, making that room just under $200/night. I’ve lost touch with Japanese prices, but it was very expensive living there when the dollar was at ¥115, so it’s got to be about 40% worse now. A Japan rail pass is a must, so that will cut down somewhat on cost of travel inside Japan, but I would budget at least ¥50k per couple per day for hotel room, meals, taxis, buses, etc – and that might be way too bare-bones. An older person like me can’t crash in the youth hostels and “gaijin houses” the way I could 20 years ago, nor would I be happy hitting noodle shops for food. I left Japan with a serious appreciation for its food, and a deep respect for its rice. There is no way in hell I would waste my time there eating bad food.
Assuming a 10 day trip for two people with paid airfare for one person, unpaid airfare for another ($1500), and $1100 for 2 JR passes, that’s $2,600 before you board the plane. Then there’s the in country budget of ¥50k per day for 10 days, or ¥500k. You will never get the current exchange rate is ¥77 to the dollar. The closest you’ll come is when you use a credit card, but that limits where you can shop inside Japan because not all shops accept foreign credit cards. So you’ll have to exchange money, and the best rate you’ll find is within Japan itself, preferably at a large bank in a major city. If you’re lucky they won’t charge more than ¥1 or ¥2. So for our purposes let’s assume ¥2, using the exchange rate of ¥75 to $1 you’ll need $6,700 in spending money while in Japan. Total cost of the trip: $9,300 for a 10 day, two person trip.
That’s a lot of money for a stressful, bare bones trip. For that money one could take a cruise or go someplace and be pampered for 10 days. At ¥50k/day per couple there’s no pampering, and experience has taught me that Japan is without a doubt the most stressful place on the planet. You’ll need a vacation to de-stress after the vacation for sure.
I have many personal reasons for going back, but the earthquakes and tsunamis don’t scare me: the exchange rate and resultant high cost of living does. What I would like the Japanese government to do is let me buy my own airfare but subsidize my exchange rate. Let’s say the Japanese government gave me an exchange rate of ¥250 to the dollar, subsidizing the current exchange rate by ¥170. My 10 day budget in Japan suddenly becomes a very reasonable $2,000. Add in two tickets and two JR passes and the trip becomes $6,100. That’s not too bad for 2 people and 10 days. The problem is that subsidy for 10,000 people would make the program much more expensive.
There’s simply no way around it: Japan is far away and it’s expensive. I believe it’s a great place to visit because the Japanese are unique, but logistically it’s not an easy trip.
And that’s the problem with the Japan Tourist Agency’s program. It doesn’t recognize the problem is not fear: it’s economics.
If someone paid for my family’s trip there I would go back in a heartbeat. Our son was born there and the Wife is fluent in Japanese. Living in Japan was an overwhelming experience for a kid from the American Midwest, and I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. But living there taught me a lot about not just Japanese history, culture and the Japanese themselves, it taught me more about what it meant to be an American. The Japanese showed me that the idea that “people are the same all over the world” is a complete fantasy based on ignorance and selfishness. The Japanese are Japanese; they aren’t Americans who eat more fish. They think differently than we do. They see the world and themselves differently than we do. I don’t claim to know how they think or feel because I am not Japanese, nor could I ever be, but I can tell you with certainty that they do it differently than you do – unless you happen to be Japanese yourself.
“Different” doesn’t mean “bad.” They have many qualities that I like and find endearing, but they also have a dark side and I have seen it up close and personal. Even knowing what I know about them, and seeing what I’ve seen I have a deep respect for the Japanese people as a whole, though I wish the younger generations had more respect for their own culture themselves. While there I often thought that foreigners took Japanese culture more seriously than the young generation of Japanese who seemed content with getting drunk and watching porn on their latest gadget. I saw so many foreigners studying Buddhism, flower arrangement, paper making, and a host of other traditional Japanese arts. My students were amazed at how much Japanese history I knew (in that respect they were very much like Americans who concept of history stretches back a maximum of 5 years).
Japan needs to open up; it has a tendency to become isolated and weirds-out when it does so, but the economics of traveling there just makes opening up that much tougher. I hope that this plan works; I believe everyone should go to Japan at least once in their lives – especially in Spring or Autumn. The experience is truly unforgettable.