On Being a Tourist, Not a Traveler

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Before going to Japan, I believed in two types of trips: travel and vacation.

A vacation constitutes visiting a destination to find enjoyment in as little effort as possible. My birthday cruise on the Disney Dream might be a good example of this. It was incredible because it was so easy.

Travel, however, satisfies totally different needs. While there can certainly be moments of ease and relaxation, I define travel as visiting a destination for the challenge.

Both trips provide clarity and refreshment in different ways. As a tourist on vacation you place yourself in a situation where your wants and needs are easily satisfied. As a traveler you revel in the challenge of satisfying those very same wants and needs. The successful traveler makes efforts to meld into their new environment. When Austin and I were in Mexico we took great pains to speak the language, avoid tourist traps, and mingle with locals. We came back to the States refreshed in a different way than if we had just come from an all-inclusive resort, but it was just as valuable.

Tourists pose for tacky pictures, stand out in a crowd, and allow hotel concierges to make reservations in their names. Travelers are discreet about their ‘newness,’ understand the language and culture well enough to blend in, and do their own research on important sites and how to get to them.

Or so I thought.

You see, our trip to Japan didn’t fit my self-defined versions of either ‘vacation’ or ‘travel.’

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I totally intended this trip to fall into the travel category, and it certainly didn’t turn out to be a vacation. While every day in Japan was a challenge, our lack of language skills created a gaping barrier between us and the cities we visited – while traveling in Japan, we were indisputable tourists.

I tried desperately not to be this way. But I discovered quickly that reading about Japan was not a tangible enough connection to allow for the authentic experiences I craved. We needed help – and a lot of it – all the time. We were not discreet, we were mostly confused, and at times, though we tried very hard not to be, our lack of situational awareness most likely made us a little obnoxious.

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In my previous travels I have often celebrated the feeling of being a part of something so different than anything I had ever been used to. But in Japan I constantly felt that I was standing on the edge of some very exciting event, only my view was blocked by an overwhelmingly tall crowd. On very few occasions did I feel that I was actually ‘getting it.’ And so the only way I found to experience anything at all was to do it in what I had previously dubbed the vacation-y way: we took tacky photos, stood out horribly in crowds, and allowed others to make arrangements for us.

And you know what? That was okay.

It was presumptuous of me to expect that I could understand a place after only a few weeks, with no working knowledge of the local language, and no one to guide me. But gosh darnnit, I tried. And that’s worth something too.

When I was walking the Camino de Santiago there was a lot of talk about ‘your camino’ versus ‘the camino.’ You walk the road in whatever way you can, by whatever means you are able to. It’s an analogy for life, and it works for travel as well. While it would have been ideal to learn Japanese before visiting Japan, and to stay longer in the country, and to establish connections with local people in order to better understand the culture – the resources available to me simply didn’t allow for all of that. As a result I wasn’t able to understand all of the intricacies of Japanese culture. But I was able to catch a glimpse of it – and that’s better than never having seen any of it at all.

I’ll see the world however I can see the world. Sometimes I’ll be a traveler, and sometimes I’ll be a tourist. All that matters is that I see in the clearest way available to me.

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4 thoughts on “On Being a Tourist, Not a Traveler

  1. Great post. I agree that there is a difference between traveler and tourist. But you are right, some locations, depending on how long you spend there and how you spend your time, make it difficult to escape the “tourist trap” so to speak. I think this is especially true in Asia. As white Americans who cannot speak the language, it is very difficult to fit in and go local. Especially in Japan and China where the culture promotes a fear and wariness of strangers. Even as a more permanent resident in Shanghai, I always feel like an outsider. But sometimes it ok to embrace our inner tourist and to not take our travel experiences too seriously. As tourists/travelers/whatever you want to call us, we are going to get lost, misunderstand, and do something wrong at some point. But isn’t that the purpose of travel? To learn, grow, and see the differences in the world and eventually realize that we are all human.

    Love your Japan posts! ❤ Kirsten

  2. I almost forgot… I went to that same temple in Tokyo!! Crazy place right? Definitely a tourist hub. Unfortunately at that time I had food poisoning from a Chinese restaurant and didn’t get to see too much… haha.

  3. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto
    a co-worker who was conducting a little homework on this.
    And he actually ordered me lunch due to the fact that I discovered it
    for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this issue here on your website.

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