I can’t say that I am not guilty of being part of the horde myself at times. Sometimes you simply don’t have a choice. There are restrictions in many of the world’s more sought after tourist attractions that require you to join a tour group. This can be for reasons like ensuring your safety, preservation of sensitive environments or relics, or simply just a way to gouge tourists for money. No matter the reason, if you want to see certain things of beauty up close and personal while on the road, you are pretty much guaranteed to end up in a tour group eventually. We found ourselves in this exact situation in Kyoto earlier in our trip.
We had just come from Tokyo. Its intense nightlife left Kyoto feeling a bit underwhelming but was by no means unenjoyable. The food was amazing, the architecture was stunning (even in the suburbs where we were staying) and the people were just as welcoming and kind as they were anywhere else in Japan. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital before Edo (now Tokyo) became the capital, and its roots in ancient Japanese history were prominent throughout the city. It was beautiful, even in the cold, grey month of February. That being said, the city was a sleepy one, especially during the weekdays. Most evenings we would return to our traditional style room on the outskirts of town to drink whiskey, cider and sake on our tatami mats.
It was our second-to-last day in Kyoto before heading to Nara. We had spent most of our time wandering the streets aimlessly, eating food and drinking. Though we had a full day of serenity and enjoyment at Kyoto’s main tourist attraction, Fushimi Inari-taisha, we felt like we had to check something else off the list of top tourist attractions. Apparently, the next thing you absolutely must do in Kyoto before you leave is visit the Imperial Palace. We plugged the palace’s location into our phone and were out of the hotel by noon.
Once arriving inside the walls of the overwhelmingly large complex, we were not exactly sure where to go. All we saw were more walls containing elusive structures. For being on the palace grounds, the palace itself was proving to be difficult to locate. The trees and gravel walkways were nice enough but we figured that we were obviously missing something. After about twenty minutes, we found a gate to the actual palace and approached it. There were about a half dozen guards standing there, taking their jobs very seriously, as if the Emperor actually still lived there.
“Do you have reservation?” asked one of the guards.
“No,” I replied, “Do we need one?”
“Yes, the Imperial Palace grounds can only be entered with tour group. And you need reservation. But today, it is too late. You make tomorrow.”
Had I been traveling alone, I most certainly would have given up at this point, but Lani was determined to accomplish more than just another night of gluttony and binge drinking.
“Where do we make a reservation?” Lani asked politely. The guard pointed to a building next to a parking lot in the distance. There was no getting out of this for me now, but she was right; we needed to be more active.
The next morning we returned, reserved tickets in hand, bags on our backs, ready to see one last sight before we departed for Nara. After meeting up with our tour group, we stored our bags in some lockers. We were then given pamphlets and told to stay with the group before the tour began.
Finally, we entered the walls of the actual palace. It quickly became very clear that this tour would consist entirely of being dragged around the outskirts of the palace grounds. Unlike the castles I remember visiting in Europe when I was young, there would be no actual entry permitted for this one. In truth, the tour inside the wall was not all that different from walking around the outside of the wall. It was boring as fuck. To make matters worse, the tour guide’s information was a bunch of unmemorable, useless trash with statements like:
“At this gate, the Emperor used to come through here with a carriage led by six horses.”
“This room was for people of higher status within the government. This room was for people with lower status.”
“They used the bark from a tree that was better at repelling water to make the roof. They used many layers of bark.”
Sadly, the worst part was not the boring nature of the tour. It had to be the tourists in the group itself. Several families brought their infant children. One family decided that it was a good idea to keep their fat child in the stroller content with an iPhone 6 cranked to maximum volume while he played some obnoxious video game. This didn’t sit well with anyone else in the group. After being told to turn the volume down, the mother violently yanked the phone from her son’s hand. This, of course, led the kid directly into a crying fit that didn’t end until he was given candy to suck on. Aside from that, most people were pretty well behaved for the rest of the tour. They bothered me for different reasons. Almost everyone else actually seemed to be enjoying themselves, as if experiences like these were the reasons they came to Asia in the first place.
“After seeing this, it just makes me want to see the whole world!” said one teenager to his father.
Really? I mean, if that is true, good for you, bud. I just don’t understand it.
I’m sure that there are some good guided tours out there; I just don’t know if I’ve ever been on one, personally. Then again, I don’t exactly scour the globe for them. If you must find a tour, take one where the guides are not solely driven by the money. There are some people out there who are so in love with certain parts of the world or with travel in general that they will be happy to share useful information with you and show you places that excite them. Stick with these people, if you can. If you end up in a situation similar to my Kyoto experience, just leave. I suggest that you only take tours for subjects that you feel especially passionate about. Otherwise there is a good chance that this mundane experience will leave you feeling flaccid and uninspired… unless you enjoy complaining on a blog or something.