by Pim Kemasingki
When real estate titans Sansiri invited Citylife on a press junket to Tokyo, I exercised my editorial rights, amidst much jealous whining, and put my name down. You see, for no particular reason, Japan had never been on my radar. So a free trip of “Four Nights and Five Days” would be a first for me and sounded marvellous.
I began imagining myself reclining under a sakura tree as baby-bottomed pink petals rhythmically undulated in the wind around me, or perhaps sitting lotus positioned in a zen garden, contemplating stones and their deeper meanings. I anticipated perched on a bench, cold beer in hand, gawking at teens in cosplay as street bands entertained me with the latest pop hits and generally taking in the many template-tourist experiences I had heard so much about. Caught up in my fantasies, I didn’t actually get around to looking at the itinerary until the day before I left.
Frankly, once I did, I nearly pretended to have the flu, dengue, appendicitis…anything.
Why? Okay, read on.
We met at the airport at 3 p.m. on a Thursday; a rather rag-tag looking bunch of slovenly media types – myself firmly included – and after faffing around for awhile, finally left Suvarnabhumi at 10 p.m. that night. I have fear of flying, so of course I spent my time watching (with great resentment) everyone else sleep, while maniacally wiping the sweat from my palms and wondering when my accelerating heartbeat was just going to give up of exhaustion.
Plane landed at six something…in the morning. By seven we were on a tour bus with an overly chatty guide who proceeded to talk non-stop for, well, every moment we were on the bus for the rest of the trip.
On day one, we drove off into the mountains to some lovely lakes near Mount Fuji, and, as you do, took a pirate’s ship – arrr – across deep blue waters, flanked by alpinesque hills and vales, to continue up a telecabine to some seriously smelly hot springs. It was nice. Then we wended our way up Mount Fuji, startling a roadside deer. It was cold. We then drove around some more and finally checked into our lakeside chalet-like resort around 8 p.m. There was an onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse, in the hotel, so without further ado I headed there to unclench my aching limbs, unclog my filthy pores and unwind from the marathon that was our da(ys/ze). As myself and a handful of rather nymph-like naked Japanese women allowed our troubles to ooze into the welcoming waters, we were rudely interrupted. There, sticking their giggling little faces through the door, were about five of my tour mates, fully clad and ogling the naked Japanese ladies. Needless to say, I ignored their calls to me and pretended that I didn’t know them, rolling my eyes in indignant effect.
After a late night sake or five in the hotel lobby, we managed to get a few hours sleep before being rudely interrupted by the 6 a.m. wakeup call. I had a slight sense of humour failure, but I put on a brave face and went strolling around the lake before our departure, watching Japanese campers throw frisbees for their designer dogs, kayaking in the morning sun and roasting fascinating looking breakfast items with very trendy-looking kitchenware around campfires.
Finally, all herded onto the bus, our perky guide started off on his soliloquy again, a stream of consciousness chatter on which buttons to push on the toilet to spray tepid water up your bum (and how to control not only the temperature, but the squirt pressure), what Japanese handbag brands were favourites amongst Thai shoppers (Issey Miyaki, darling), what condiments to put with which ramen, which side of the escalator to stand on so others could pass by (which turned out to have been very useful, considering the jam we had embarrassingly caused the day before on the Suvarnabhumi walk-belt), and all sorts of things I never thought I needed to know, but was nonetheless oddly riveted by.
Quick detour: Indeed, the toilets are fantastic. You walk in and the only thing you actually touch is the door. The seats clean themselves, there are buttons to activate gently sprinkling fountains, hardcore jets to get rid of anything, even your insides, if aimed (im)properly, and even warm (or cold) air to blow dry your botty. Put your hand in front of a sensor to flush and another sensor to open – yes, open – the toilet bin to get rid of any garbage. Once done, sensors dispense soaps and water as well as dry your hands. Hours of entertainment…if only I had them to spare.
Waste not want not being the motto of the trip, after leaving our resort we headed off to a massive outlet mall with views of Mount Fuji, where thousands of people strolled around checking out hundreds of brand name shops. Of course, we poor press couldn’t afford anything more than the ramen and Coke our 1,000 yen stipend kindly given by Sansiri could buy; outlets my arse, most items were in the tens of not hundreds of thousands of baht! I did manage to pick up a pretty pink ceramic knife on sale for 800 baht, but that was where my shopping spree ended.
Three hours later, we were bussed into Tokyo’s Shinjuku district where we were told where the “gift” shop was. It was only when I encountered a gaggle of my female tour mates entering its dark doors that I realised they were talking about a sex shop. “No one ever buys anything for themselves here Pi Pim,” my tour guide winked. “It is always a gift.” Interestingly, everywhere we went, we encountered masses of Thai people; even the sex shop had a welcoming sign in Thai and was playing Thai pop music.
And so it went: shopping, dinner at a traditional (tourist) restaurant with the “just-flown-in-for-the-evening” Sansiri execs, a few beers in front of the hotel’s 7-Eleven (the price was right) and finally, bed.
On our third day, we schlepped off to Kawagoe. My fellow members of the press were finally ecstatic! No more shops making us feel poor and deprived, but tonnes of gorgeous old architecture to take arty photos of and share with our readers. This was what we were looking for. There were no sakura blossoms (something about it being the wrong time of the year) but we did indeed sit in zen gardens and look at stones. We roamed tatami-covered floors admiring the simplistic genius that is Japanese architecture, and wondered at its homage to nature…for all the allotted forty minutes.
Thankfully, there was no embarrassing umbrella to lead our way, but our guide then pulled out a massive banner and we were all corralled from our peaceful meditation to pose for the requisite group photo. “Everyone press like!” our guide shouted as the camera made a clicking sound with everyone’s thumbs up, and me looking slightly bewildered. Oh, Like!
After a delicious shabu-shabu lunch in the business district, we got to spend quality time along with the thousands of other tourists at Senso-ji, an imposing ancient temple. A quick walk around the grounds, a must-eat ramen frequented by Thai tourists, a quick shot at luck with some religious rituals, numerous Kodak moments and off we were shuttled for a half-hour (30 minutes!) run-through of Harajuku where we did indeed gawk, well, gawk-and-run, as teens walked by in cosplay and other fabulous outfits.
By eight in the evening we were lining up at the new airport in a queue of about 20 Thai shoppers buying Tokyo Bananas (read James Austin Farrell’s story on bananas and porn – a story partly hijacked from my very own trip to Japan, I may add – on page 24). Next thing I know, I have four boxes of Tokyo Bananas (mum wanted one to give to her favourite monk and one for herself and two staff members wanted a box each). I had not a clue what they were, but with every single Thai person boarding the plane carrying a box or a bag of boxes, it seemed de rigueur.
By 1 a.m. I was sitting wide-eyed on the plane as my fellow journos snored their way towards a Bangkok dawn. After numerous delays, we crawled out of Chiang Mai airport mid-morning on the Monday, exhausted.
“Four Nights and Five Days” was a tad misleading. We slept two nights on the plane and had two nights in Japan. Two of the days were also spent travelling. I was shattered, foggy with information and sensory overload and aghast that this is exactly what many, if not most, of the 30,000 Thai tourists who visit Japan every month happily do.
Sarcasm aside, three cheers to Sansiri! It was an incredibly generous invitation and a wonderful experience. But why on earth would anyone pay to expose themselves to such an itinerary? Japan would be better served, and appreciated I am sure, if Thai tourists took a moment away from their set agendas and, season willing, smelled the sakura blossoms. Do they even have a scent? I may never know…