National Geographic Traveler Japan, Fourth Edition!

I’ve been hard at work on my latest project, a massive overhaul of NGT’s Japan travel guide, and I wanted to share more about the process of updating a guidebook on my website. Seeing as it is a guidebook about Japan, why not “open the kimono”?

As this is my first guidebook, a lot of my travel experiences have become tempered through the experience of “work as travel.” For instance, my preferred mode of getting around has always been on foot, especially in a new place, and I find now that I can’t really get a good sense of a new city unless I lay down some serious kilometers and scrutinize maps by myself. In the cases where friends have “helped out” and driven me here and there, I ended up having a poorer understanding of the layout of the place. The subway systems of large cities such as Tokyo are even worse: you descend into tunnels and pop up like a groundhog in a totally new place. I often have to turn to my compass watch just to figure out which direction to go.

Part of that walking is understanding the situation of the average traveler. If I get lost, a visitor is screwed, so I have to reconsider the area I’m recommending. My iPhone’s mapping app has saved my bacon on numerous occasions, but I can’t assume that all travelers will have smartphones or will want to use international data roaming.

By walking, you understand things you’d never figure out from a map or even by other means of transport. I took the subway to the new Sky Tree Tower in Tokyo this week and was surprised by several things that I encountered there. For one, the two stations that serve the tower are directly beneath it, so you have to walk out and away from the large building upon which it sits in order to actually see it. Visually, it is a letdown, as there’s no “round the corner or up the stairs and there it is!” feeling. Better to go to Asakusa station across the river and walk 15 minutes to the tower, appreciating the view from a distance.

Sky Tree, otherwise known as sukai tsuri tawaa.

Also, backwards Japan chose English words for the its new tower, but if you search for Sky Tree Tower station you’ll have a hard time finding it. Why? Because the subway system has turned the words into Japanese, and you have to search for “sukai tsuri tawaa”. Another lovely surprise was that you need reservations for the tower. Okay. Go online to do so. Need a credit card. Ok no problem. Getting a ticket is by lottery, so I might not get one. Ok, understandable, it just opened. Credit cards issued by Japanese banks only. Huh?

I’m sure it isn’t discrimination or even the desire to limit the first two months to locals only, but rather some sort of bureaucratic complication, the ramifications of which some city official didn’t really think through. Hundreds of tourists showing up and getting turned away. Many more trying to make a reservation and reading “Japanese cards only.” I doubt that there’s any bad feelings intended, but there’s no explanation of what sort of niggly problem they have that prevents the use of foreign-issued VISA or Mastercard. The girl at the tower taking tickets was very apologetic so I’m sure she’s had to put up with disappointed tourists for 6 weeks running now. I hope as a researcher I can catch as many of these goofy things as possible so that visitors don’t have to struggle to get around: taking an irritation bullet for the team, so to speak.

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