December 07

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The Japanese Bus Tour: A Cultural Experience of Epic Proportions

How NOT to use a toilet. This sign mutely admonished all comers at one of the Costco-sized rest stops along the way.

How NOT to use a toilet. This sign mutely admonished all comers at one of the Mall Of America-sized rest stops along the way.

I’d have to say that going on a two-day bus tour to the Ise Shrine has to rank right up there with staying overnight at a comic book café and going to a host club as a peak Only In Japan cultural activity. Allow me to highlight a few features of this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Tour Guiding As A Martial Art: Our fearless leader had to be at least a second degree black belt in cat herding, because his 43 random tourists all efficiently filled out their bento lunch preferences on the first pass, showed up to board the ferry back to the shrine at eight in the morning, and were back on the bus five minutes before the time Sharpied on the windshield placard at every stop.*

Rest Stop Nirvana: Every two hours, whether we needed it or not, we pulled into the vast parking lot of  a waystation that featured everything a numb-butted bus traveler’s heart might desire: an industrial-sized convenience store, the opportunity to buy souvenirs as if we’d actually been to the local hotspots, heroically large toilet facilities, and platoons of vending machines dispensing all known permutations of tea and coffee.

Bentos, bentos and more bentos: In order to spend maximum time seeing as many sights as possible (in addition to a six-hour bus ride between Tokyo and the Ise Shrine, our tour crammed in a stop at a tourist megastore in the pearl-growing region of Toba, an overnight at a traditional inn on a small island off the coast, and a sojourn at the renowned leaf-viewing spot of Kariya), it was absolutely necessary to eat on the run. As in, here’s your box lunch and your chopsticks, gobble it en route in your seat, and swallow the last pickle before the guide comes through the aisle with the garbage bag.

The Group Photo: Why anybody would want to buy a picture of themselves posed in front of fall foliage with 42 random strangers is a mystery that I am still pondering with scholarly gravitas.

* All except for The Foreigner and her two Japanese friends, who appeared exactly on time and thus kept everybody waiting (mutter mutter FOREIGNERS ARE ALWAYS LATE).

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo

When Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death wasn’t an accident, his life begins to unravel…read more