Day trip tour guides are hit or miss. Only two guides stand out for me from all my tours. One was very fun; he made us dowse for ley lines at the Avebury stone circle in England. The worst one was on our tour to Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland at the border of Scotland and England. He had on a kilt and hiking boots. It should have forewarned me about what to expect. In any case…
Our tour guide to Mt. Fuji stands out as the best and most entertaining. He went by the name of Harry, obviously a concession to English-speaking tourists. Like most guides, he regaled us with trivia, interesting stories and local legends, and explanations of our spots of interest. This man was quite a character, though. The breadth of topics that he covered was mind-boggling. Even more unexpected, nearly everything he talked about was accompanied by a hand-drawn visual aid that he would hold up for us and point to repeatedly. Charts, maps, graphs, each one curled at the corners and showed slight stains over the highlights, demonstrating how frequently he had used them to illustrate his points. One of the larger aids, a map of the Mt. Fuji area and our bus route, he had drawn on the back of a large, wall-sized calendar. Quite bizarre.
He would hold the aids up, juggling between the chart and his microphone, while balancing precariously on the bouncy bus seat. He wove his explanations with narratives, facts, and the occasional joke about his bad marriage and the mother-in-law he hated. Now some of the things he shared were the sort of information that a native resident would have, such as the dominant religions, how medical insurance coverage worked, the differences between the “salary man,” the non-salary man and part time jobs. As an American, I could tell you that sort of thing about the US. But he clearly did some homework and research as well. His topics were so varied that I couldn’t decipher what provoked or motivated his research.
I started scribbling a list of topics about two hours into the trip. Except for the information about specific locations and our journey, the order of presentation was completely random. He clearly had an order in mind though because of the way he kept his stack of aids organized.
Here’s the list (not necessarily in the order):
The lumber industry
Geology of the layers of lava forming Fuji
Japan’s political relations with Russia, China, Korea over the Yellow Sea, the Trans-Siberian railway, and the Sea of Japan.
British and Japanese diplomatic/political relations in the 1920s (which is why everyone drives on the right side of the road in Japan)
Fishing rights in the Sea of Japan
History of the Shogunate (shogun vs. emperor, different meaning of shogun over history, the Japanese civil war)
Isolationism (an extensive explanation for this), the Monroe Doctrine, open-door policy, westernization
Religion – dislike of Christianity and missionaries, contribution to isolationism, differences between Shintoism and Buddhism.
Young couples get married in Christian churches even though they are not Christian because they are enamored with the wedding dress and the ceremony. Wedding gifts, lucky numbers, cost of Christian weddings.
The making of the weather station and the dome on top of Mt. Fuji. How the dome was placed on the mountain and why it was dangerous. The history of the man responsible for flying the dome to the top. He was a trainer of kamikaze pilots and he felt it was a way to honor his pilots.
Relationship between the weather station and architecture in Tokyo
Economic and industrial development patterns of the east and west coast. Bullet trains and train lines along the coasts.
What Japanese people mean when they say “I love you.” Usually people think you’re strange or else it implies guilt about something you’ve done really wrong. They usually say “I like you” instead.
Weather patterns in Japan and at Mt. Fuji. # of days Mt. Fuji’s peak is visible from Tokyo.
The Aum Shinrikyo cult and why Tokyo has no trash cans
Prefectures, what that means, how they are organized. Specific trade goods associated with the prefectures we drove through. Political histories (which landowners, Shoguns they came from)
Wine production, influenced by the French
Hakone honeymoon province.
A lesson in Kanji. How Kanji combines signs, some of the Kanji for Tokyo, bridges, drugs (it was a funny lesson)
Relationships/friendships among several famous Japanese CEOs
Real estate prices (story of his house as an example: cost of houses in general, how he built his house, the size of houses – usually the size of a tour bus – what he did wrong when he built his house).
Demographics of suicide rates
Health care options, coverage. Homelessness and health care. Disabilities and health care.
Gender inequity in pay. Here he explained what a “salaryman” was vs. someone working for wages. Women do not get salaried jobs and are traditionally working for wages or part time. Traditional gender roles play into women’s salary, hiring, career choices. An equal opportunity law was recently passed. Salarymen are expected to do what the company wants regardless of their personal desires. It’s not unusual for salarymen to be relocated for years at a time away from their families.
In all, it was a lovely experience with a charming and talented guide. Despite the random order, the information made the bouncy ride a memorable and educational adventure.