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Daniel Robson travels the Japanese way

Clearly the team at Kyoto Animation had a nice long holiday to Britain in preparation for K-On! The Movie. In the film, our heroines take a trip to London to celebrate their graduation, and locations from Camden Town to Denmark Street to Abbey Road are reproduced in impressive detail. The girls even take in Earl’s Court, Sherlock Holmes’ gaff on Baker Street, Borough food market and dozens of other spots, all instantly recognisable to anyone born and bred in London. After seven years in Tokyo I don’t get homesick much, but K-On! The Movie had me pining for proper tea, service with a frown and fights outside pubs. Aaah, London.

But while the locations are surprisingly authentic, for most Japanese people an itinerary like that is as fantastical as a trip to Mars. When Cliff Richard sang “Everybody gets a summer holiday,” clearly he had never visited Japan. Although the legal minimum vacation allowance is 10 days a year, peer pressure prevents many people from actually taking it (or even going home at home time. What do you mean you’re not doing overtime?). Things are getting better, but long-haul flights are out for most people, and Japan’s diverse landscape and super-fast bullet trains make it easier to holiday domestically – only 24% of Japanese citizens have a passport, which is even less than America (30%).

People do go to London, of course – and Britain is Japan’s most popular holiday destination! Well, after Hawaii, Guam, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, France, Italy, Singapore and, uh, Poland. In the movie, the girls pick up only a few words of English, and go to eat sushi. This is typical in my experience of Japanese abroad. I remember taking the in-laws sightseeing on a trip to London; the first thing we did was visit the local Japanese supermarket so they could stock up on instant noodles for their hotel room.

For dinner I’d got us a table at a nice local pub for traditional British fare, but they decided the Japanese restaurant across the street seemed safer – and then they spent the rest of the night complaining about how bad the sushi was.

To be fair, it’s difficult for the Japanese visitor abroad to know what’s what. Japan is a mostly homogenous nation where over 97% of the population are Japanese. There’s not much opportunity outside of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka to mix in a natural way with foreigners. Ethnic restaurants tailor their recipes to suit Japanese taste, and the media’s representation of the outside world is warped beyond recognition.

So how do you find out where to go when you go overseas? How about a guide book? These can be hit and miss. Sometimes you can tell that the author has put in some time pounding the pavements of Britain to present the very best sightseeing spots and eating experiences. Other times they’re quite clearly just taking the piss. I met a guy who’d eaten at an Angus Steakhouse after a guide book recommended it. See what I mean?

When you’re on a break just a few days long, it is tempting to rely on the books or the tour guides. HIS, Japan’s largest chain of travel agencies, offers holidays so packaged you could fit them into a bento box. Once when I visited Thailand I was offered a discount from the cheery HIS staffer if I took a tour of Bangkok – it was cheaper to use a tour guide than not to. Another time I visited Seoul with a friend who insisted on choosing all our meals out of a guide book, as we traipsed past gorgeous-looking Korean restaurants in search of the place where all the staff speak Japanese and serve up food just the way Japanese tourists like it.

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that’s used to us pushy foreigners taking long holidays to visit our folks back home once a year or so. And even on an extended break of a few weeks, I think the itinerary in K-On! The Movie might kill me. It’s nice to view it as most Japanese fans probably do, though – a fantasy armchair vacation through the streets of London.

K-on the Movie is out now in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

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