I thought going to the holiest shrine in all Japan would be the most ur-cultural experience I could possibly have.
I was wrong.
It was the bus tour that really redefined “cultural experience,” but not quite in the way I was expecting.
Right now, the only way travelers can come to Japan is if they’re part of a tour, so let’s see what it’s like to be part of this only-in-Japan experience!
The one I went on with two Japanese friends was aimed at the Ise Shrine (which is a butt-numbing six-hour drive from Tokyo) and it stopped at all kinds of unexpected attractions in addition to the main event.
First (of many) side quests: The Japanese mega-rest stop
Every two hours, whether you need it or not, you pull into the vast parking lot of a highway waystation that features everything a thirsty (and desperate to pee) bus traveler’s little heart desires.
Each industrial-sized rest stop features heroically large toilet facilities (52, count ’em, FIFTY-TWO stalls in the ladies’ room!)
There are platoons of vending machines dispensing all known permutations of bevvies, including the kind that grind and brew specialty coffee
And industrial-sized convenience stores, so you can sample local specialties and buy souvenirs as if you’d actually visited local hotspots, not just a parking lot near them.
But no matter how much you may be tempted eat something that counts as an actual meal, do not succumb to the siren song of the fast food counter. Rest stops are exactly twenty minutes long, and your hind parts need to be back in your seat five minutes before departure time (necessities accomplished and drink in hand) or you’ll experience the reproachful looks of your fellow passengers as you perform the walk of shame back to your seat.
But even Japanese travelers have to eat, and the bus tour solution is bentōs, bentōs, and more bentōs. In order to spend maximum time seeing as many sights as possible, bus tourists survive on the Japanese equivalent of bag lunches (which are, to be fair, better than bag lunches where I come from). These cold snack boxes are passed out at the appropriate time en route, to be gobbled in your seat. Be sure you swallow the last pickle before the tour guide comes through the aisle with the garbage bag.
Next stop: The pearl megastore
The pearl-growing capital of Japan is on the way to the Ise Shrine, so that’s where my trip stopped first.
Naturally, there is plenty of time left over to limber up your credit card and load up on anything and everything made of—you guessed it—pearls.
Next: A traditional inn on a small island surrounded by fewer fish than before we came
And in a feat of guidesmanship that demonstrates leading bus tours is not for the weak, every beer drinker at that table was herded to the island’s dock by eight in the morning to catch a ferry that waits for no man.
Day Two: The main attraction
Naturally, even the 1600-year-old shrine that’s rebuilt every twenty years must include maximum opportunities for cash to be hoovered from pilgrims’ pockets:
But just because you’re on your way home doesn’t mean your sightseeing is done! There’s one more iconic experience that no bus tour can end without:
The Group Photo
In short, the best way to describe a bus tour is that it’s like eating a traditional Japanese lunch. Lots of little dishes, all fresh and seasonal…
…but no substitutions. Don’t like cod testicles? Shame on you, try these. Allergies? Keep your meds handy. Gluten free? AHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Going on a bus tour is, in fact, just like living in Japan.
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