V is for Vacation

A lot of folks already know of the infamous work culture in Japan. It’s so ubiquitous in day-to-day life in Japan, even on days off, that nearly every other post on this blog alludes to it in some way or another.

But make no mistake, the Japanese aren’t all work and no play. They do go on holiday, and they to go on full vacations. “But PJ!” you cry, “That’s not true! I have stories/anecdotes of Japanese people who haven’t taken a day off in years!” Well of course you have. It is something a Japanese person would proudly boast about, while the ones who dare vacation would only meekly admit to it in private. The streets of Kyoto and the slopes of Mount Fuji aren’t exclusively filled with tourists from abroad, after all.

“I can see my house from…oh.”

And there’s also a cultural dissonance here: when I say ‘vacation’ to you, you’re probably thinking of a week or two in the sun, on a beach a million miles away from your desk. And while some Japanese people definitely do take vacations like that, to them a one-week or two-week holiday is something that may happen once a decade. No, to the Japanese vacations happen in shorter, more frequent bursts, meaning a lot of their trips end up being domestic or at most a short-haul trip to somewhere like Guam. So when you ask a Japanese person who lives and works in one of the metropolis ant’s nests where they’d like to be escape to on a dream vacation, don’t be surprised if they say Okinawa or Hokkaido. It’s not that they have no vision or ambition of the wider world, that’s just what’s practical and possible to them. Thankfully the huge number of public holidays make these short bursts of vacationing quite numerous, so it almost balances out.

Unless you lose the specific post-it note that reminds you to take your mandatory holiday of spontaneous fun. Then all balance is lost.

And this is why I said that you may be surprised at the number of Japanese people you see in Kyoto or on Mount Fuji.  I mean, 90% of Brits have no burning desire to visit Stonehenge or Hadrian’s Wall. In stark contrast, domestic tourism is big, big business here. Turn on the TV in Japan and at least one channel will be showcasing a certain area or a local speciality. Bookshops devote whole areas to area guides for each and every prefecture. Hotels in even the more obscure areas are frequently booked to capacity on 3-day-weekends. Every nook and cranny of Japan seems compelled to have a ‘famous’ thing, be it a dish, a claim to fame via a celebrity or an all-out kitschy tourist trap. Heck, there is a city in Saitama Prefecture called Hanyu which is famous for its highway service area. I’m not joking.

Presumably it’s famous for it’s…CAR-Nation? Ok I’ll leave…

There are some advantages to these smaller, closer-to-home vacations. Personally I prefer them to the longer holidays where the shine and ‘wow’ factor wears off, they are gentler on the wallet and easier to plan. But something is lost in them, and it is plain to see if you have ever been caught up in the sea of bodies on the streets of Gion or waiting patiently with phone in hand to take a photo of that cherry blossom tree without any people in the background – you and the six dozen other photographers around you. Yep, the crowds can be so overwhelming that it actually turns what should be a fun or enriching experience into a stressful chore that you just want to get over with.

Not that a Japanese person could ever hope for a relaxing vacation in their three days, anyway (unless it’s a glorious onsen town). There’s a pervasive sense that your holiday must include a sampling of the local foods, seeing that famous pavement slab that that famous Shogun once spat on…oh, and buying local snacks to distribute to your co-workers when you return to your desk. In such a short time it reduces the trip to a whistle-stop tour, where everybody is doing the exact same thing as you because the guides and TV shows told them to. At the very worst, people go to the extreme and book themselves in on a tour group, led around by a lady with a flag in a group of fifty other tourists. I could kinda understand what would motivate someone to join a pre-packaged guided tour if they were going abroad, but to this day I can’t understand why anyone would want to do such a thing in their home country. You aren’t even on holiday if you do that: you’re on that boring train ride at the theme park that goes slowly around the rest of the park where you can look on at all the other, far better rides.

“Haha, oh boy! You loser! HAHA! Hey Minnie, come check out this loser! OH BOY!”

If this sounds overly cynical then I should be clear that this the Japanese-style vacation at it’s worst. There has been more concerted efforts in recent years to peel the Japanese away from their desks and to take longer vacations, and folks are becoming more travel-savvy as they step away from the busy tourist areas and into the backstreets to find the ‘real’ town and forge their own routes and schedules, not just the one prescribed in the handbook.

As for the buying of omiyage snacks, well, that won’t be going anywhere soon. But it is nice when the shoe is on the other foot and someone plonks a tasty treat on your desk when they get back from their journeys. Not so great if you’re dieting ,mind. Then you’ll do the unthinkable and curse the sheer number of holidays people take in Japan.


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