When I graduated from high school, I decided to buy a Greyhound bus pass and spend the summer before I started at the University of California, Berkeley traveling around the United States. Back then a one-month pass cost only $75, and you could get on and off the bus freely on any route in the United States or Canada. I bought a pass for two months and started out from Pasadena in Southern California, heading first for Texas. Over the course of the next two months, I camped in the Rocky Mountains, joined tens of thousands of country music fans at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic at the enormous Texas World Speedway, listened to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, visited my old neighborhood on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, went to a real Irish Bar in South Boston, looked out on the amazing Mississippi River in Memphis, and was generally astounded by the physical beauty, cultural diversity, and sheer size of my country. I had too many once-in-a-lifetime experiences to retell, many of which are still bright in my memory.
It wasn’t until two years later that I discovered Japan and the rest of the world, but that trip changed me, opened my eyes, and gave me a deep appreciation for my country that has stayed with me. It made me a totally enthusiastic proponent of travel to the United States. That's why I was so excited when I heard that the Japan Association of Travel Agents (JATA) Tourism Expo Japan 2016 was coming to Tokyo Big Sight last month. The Expo included promotions of travel to just about every country on earth, as well as lots and lots of booths promoting tourism in Japan. Among all the foreign countries, the United States had the biggest presence, which was great since we have such a wonderful story to tell. Boarding my imaginary Greyhound bus, I spent a few hours exploring the States with the almost 200,000 other visitors.
In a mix of experiences real and imagined, I tried delicious seafood gumbo prepared by superb Louisiana chefs Samantha and Cody Carroll in New Orleans; went down historic Route 66 from Chicago and ate at a roadside diner; had barbecue in Southland Park in Memphis; went to a concert in Las Vegas; met the indescribable blue hairy mascot who promotes travel to Portland, Oregon; stood on stage with Miss Earth Guam, Mr. Guam, and traditional dancers from the closest U.S. tourism destination from Japan; met the popular Saipan mascot "Saipan-da," a panda with a horn like a rhino; and saw the sights and enjoyed the cuisine of Mississippi, California, Hawaii, Colorado, Seattle, and many other places. I could not have found better guides to these fabulous places; all the representatives were filled with pride about their home communities and ready to share.
I also met JATA Chairman Hiromi Tagawa, who lived in California for several years and always leads the Japanese delegation to the annual U.S. tourism and trade show, which was in New Orleans this year. Mr. Tagawa believes in Japan as a "nation based on tourism exchange" and talks about Japan as a tourist destination as well as the rest of the world, but seems to have a soft spot in his heart for the States. We shared a stage at the Expo, where I talked about my Greyhound bus adventures as well as the beauty I have found all around Japan – from Yakushima to Kinugawa, Ikaho, and the pretty fishing ports of Tohoku that are recovering bravely from 3.11, and beyond. Mr. Tagawa gave an eloquent speech highlighting how vibrant and fun he found New Orleans, a resilient city that has so much to offer visitors despite setbacks from natural disasters.
His words reminded me that while travel between our two countries can be about fun times and seeing new sights, it is also about renewing and refreshing the precious friendship we enjoy. It is about seeing the sights, but even more about getting to know the people. And if you can cruise down Route 66 in a convertible Cadillac or listen to “rakugo” at a small theater in Ikaho while you’re at it, why not?