Off to Japan (Qualms or No Qualms)

I had waited all these years to go to Japan. China and Japan, we don’t exactly have a history of being bosom buddies that makes mutual visitation easy. They make it hard for us to get tourist visas (unless it’s through one of those travel agency group tours), probably afraid that if visitor requirements weren’t so stringent a billion of us would rush over to work as illegal restaurant dishwashers. And we, well, we Chinese can’t forget WII. Coming from Manchuria, where the Japanese Imperial Army set up Manchukuo and conducted their biological warfare experiments on Chinese inmates they called ”logs”, I can’t seem to shake the weight of all this history when considering a simple holiday in Japan.

Like most young Chinese, I have inconsistent and mixed feelings about Japan. I love its nifty gadgets, I crave its cuisine, and I have a cousin who’s in his teenage J-pop obsession phase. But when I started seeing my half-Japanese boyfriend (now husband) years ago, I found myself telling my family in the back country that he’s “just American.” Not that my grandmother would’ve disowned me for dating half of a descendent of “historical aggressors” (although my grandfather might’ve had he been around), but it was just easier this way. Besides, it was a small white lie made to older folk who think all foreigners look the same. Why bother with explaining his complex genealogy?

This time, I was headed to Japan at last because the timing worked out, the price was right, and even my mother was gunning to go. So, I put aside my muddled cultural-moral qualms and signed myself up for – get this – a group tour. Yup, there’s no good deal without a caveat. In exchange for someone arranging my visa quickly and planning a trip cheaply, I would have to subject myself to following around a chirpy tour guide wearing a fanny pack, waving a bright triangular flag, and herding tourists like cattle.

The tour was a sort of “Japan lite.” We would spend five days on Kyushu Island, home to the gods of Japanese creational legends. In its extreme southwesterly position, parts of Kyushu are closer to China and Korea than to Tokyo. It would be a week spent in nature: visiting one of the world’s most active volcanoes (Mt. Aso), seeing valleys and gorges, and soaking in the famous onsen (hot springs) of Beppu.

I felt a little silly going to Japan for the first time and not seeing Tokyo or Kyoto. I was a bit afraid of what kind of embarrassments my tour group of (potentially all) retirees would get up to in a foreign land. But mostly I was just excited to be casting aside my hesitations and visiting Japan.

Mom was excited too. It would be the first time in a long while that we allowed ourselves the luxury of a “girl’s trip”. The last one we had been on was during my year at grad school. I took her to Las Vegas with plans of seeing Cirque du Soleil and other musical acts. But when we got there, my mother discovered her inner “Chinese tai tai who loves to gamble.” You can imagine how that trip started and ended – in front of a slot machine with a giant cup of quarters that dwindled to zero.
I did some research before we set off, trying to understand the geographical implications spelled out on my tour itinerary. It looked like we would be visiting Fukuoka the Prefecture (what’s a prefecture anyway?) and Fukuoka the city. Similarly, there were the Kumamoto’s (prefecture and city), Miyazaki’s, and Kagoshima’s. Google told me that a prefecture is basically a province and all of these namesake cities are provincial capitals. I also looked up some Japanese phrases, taking care to copy and practice useful ones, like “Toire doko desu ka?” (“Where’s the bathroom?”).

From what I’d heard about Chinese tour groups going overseas, I guessed that there wouldn’t be much free time to independently explore. There’s actually a cheeky rhyme that says all you really do on a big tour is, “Sit on the bus to sleep. Get off the bus to pee. And forget the names of everything you see.” (That’s my poor translation of the original anyways). I jotted down directions for a few places I wanted to visit outside of the itinerary, hoping I’d be able to optimize any free time I get.

As I was busily preparing for the trip, mom was chilling out, not packing until the night before, and helpfully forgetting to bring the big bag of Japanese coins that’s been sitting in an old drawer for the last twenty years. We have different travel personalities, all right! I don’t know which one of us will unnerve the other first during our five days of 24/7 bonding.

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