In Conversation with Van Milton, a Kyoto Tour Guide

Last week I had an enlightening conversation with Van Milton. A tour guide in Kyoto, without customers to guide at the present time. In addition to tour guiding, Van is a botanist, a teacher, a keen hiker and cyclist and a fellow sake lover. We met through the Taste with the Toji online sake group. He very graciously accepted my request for an interview, in order to practice for my Travel Journalism course. His insight into travel and tourism, both post COVID and in general, along with his experience living in Japan has inspired me to share another voice and another person’s perspective on my blog.

Van arrived in Japan to teach English via the JET program. He spent 5 years working in Okayama, starting in a small rural town called Tsuyama. He is now based in Kyoto and has been there for nearly 3 years.

I started by asking Van how he became interested in sake and ceramics.

Van: “There is an allure built around sake where it’s the mysterious ‘other drink’. It’s not wine, it’s not a spirit, you know, what is it? And I think even if you have very bad sake at first, you can tell there’s something different. There’s something a little bit special about this drink. It was when I got to Japan to do the JET Program and teach here that I was first exposed to high quality sake. It was up in very northern, very rural Okayama, in a small town, Tsuyama, which was kind of the middle of nowhere…but, that was my first time to try good sake and I think that was the moment I was like, “wow, this is really something special here”.  

As for ceramics, I’ve always been a bit interested in ceramics. I think even going back to high school and messing around in art class I knew I liked it. My mom did quite a bit of ceramics when I was around that age. She was a home potter, had her own wheel and her own small kiln like two, three pieces max kind of thing”.

Van went on to say at the time he knew he wanted to pursue ceramics in the future. He is currently working on some pieces and will eventually make a series of eight rock gardens as an art piece.

Van: “So much like the sake it was really when I landed in Okayama…there’s (the pottery town of) Bizen in Okayama and I didn’t know much about it at the time. I didn’t know about the Japanese kilns, Japanese pottery, and I went down to Bizen… If you go into the stores or people show you a piece at a restaurant, it’s always this high-end very brown stuff with almost like a greenish tint to it. That never really spoke to me. I just kind of thought it was heavy earthenware and it didn’t blow me away.

When I went to the town and I saw all the artists, the range of colours and the incredible playfulness of what they were making- the fact that some pieces could be grey and orange and other ones could be this dark brown and all of this was done without glaze- that really grabbed my attention. And that’s when I started to fall in love with it. So, I bought a couple of cups here and there for sake and then slowly, it grew and grew, and yeah: full-on clay addict”.

I then asked Van about his work, how he landed in tourism and how he incorporates his interests into daily life. He explained that after 5 years of teaching he was keen to find a post graduate program and return to science. He couldn’t find anything that really suited and ended up working retail, in an outdoor store, in the US. A friend reached out looking for someone to help in tourism, so he decided it was better than what he was doing. He is still working for the company but based in Japan.

Van: “I try to connect as much of it as I can. There are possibilities…that’s part of the thing that really inspires me now…how you can pull these threads together and make something interesting. People come in with a range of careers, a range of expertise and life experience. I feel like I am always learning from people. If I can share some facts about Japan…it feels like a very cool exchange.

I basically get to do my hobby for life. I get to travel, meet people, see new areas, introduce people to new areas, make connections. The irony is I’m doing this even now. There are no customers…but this is what I love doing. It’s about making connections between people”.

My next question was in regard to Japan’s geography and how it affects his relationship with the country. As a cyclist and hiker, Van has a wonderful perspective of Japan that not many travellers experience.

Van: “Japan is 77% mountainous. That leaves relatively little of the country for development. You’ve got the big plains where Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima have sprung up and taken over. These are the big population centres because they’re flat and they’re arable. Then you’ve got these huge swaths of mountainous regions.

And so obviously it’s harder to get to (these areas), but for me, this is the real Japan. I think the things that are interesting about the country, the depth, a lot of the cultural nuances, the things that people really want to explore about Japan are best found in small town Japan.

You can go to Tokyo, you can go to Kyoto, you can go to Osaka, but to me in a lot of ways, they’re internationalised to a point where they’re not so radically different. You’re still going to find amazing shops and amazing restaurants and bits of different culture. But if you really want the sort of mind-blowing (cultural) experience that I think people want from Japan, you have to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and you have to go to these small towns. You’ve got to take the one-train-a-day to the place that might not have any English signage and just dive in. It’s precisely because these towns are relatively isolated, because they’re a little tricky to get to, that the culture has stuck together.

It’s still very much about community in Japan and a lot of the younger generation have gone to the big cities. You do have a bit of a drain effect going on. But in the last couple of years, there’s a little bit of a reversal. Some people are trying to come back to small towns, and I think that there’s an equilibrium to be had there, where people can do interesting new jobs. There will be enough work that some people will always live there. That’s the heart of Japanese culture. And I think people really should make time and take a dive, even if it’s your first trip to Japan. Of course, go see the big stuff, but make time to see some small corner of Japan, too, because I think that’s usually most people’s best experience”.

Following on from this, I asked Van what are his “unmissable” recommendations for people visiting Japan.

Van: “Unmissable. To jump back on the theme about small towns in Japan…you can get relatively off the beaten path quickly in Japan. So even if you’re just doing the main bullet train route between Kyoto to Hiroshima, there’s tons of small towns in between.

One that really captured my imagination and something that I think roped me into loving Japan, is a small town called Onomichi in Eastern Hiroshima. I like it for two reasons. One, it’s just such a cute little town, it’s got so much going for it- it’s one of those eighties bubble towns that really fell on hard times. But they’ve found some stability and it’s starting to come back, starting to see new cafes, a few new hotels. There are these green shoots of resurgence…and at the same time you’ve got these 800-year-old temples up on the hillside. So, it’s got a bit of everything; it’s lovely and it’s walkable. And then for me, the real advertising point is that it’s one end of this fantastic cycling route called the Shimanami Kaido”.

Van painted a very picturesque impression of this cycling route, of blue water, small islands with beaches, bridges between the islands, no two the same. Of citrus wafting on the breeze and of the 77km route winding through this idyllic destination.

Van: “The less populated areas of Japan are really special…Tohoku gets 2% of all of the tourism in Japan, just 2% for basically half of the main island! It’s shocking. I mean, it’s a land of beautiful, beautiful onsens, mountains, forests, incredible history, and it seems like such a travesty. If you really want to have an incomparable experience, while everyone’s like, “oh, I went to Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto”, (the Golden Route). Great, right…but everyone’s done it. Go, do Tohoku. Do something totally different and see small town, Japan. I think that’s where it’s at, in my opinion”.

As most people know, Japan has been getting busier and busier with tourists, especially in the last 10 years. I asked Van how the country had changed during the pandemic. We talked about how, without international tourists, Kyoto felt like a small town again. Minus the busloads of people and the bustling crowds.

Van: “These days everyone’s got a selfie stick or they’re holding a phone out, taking pictures. It almost feels like tourism these days is more performative than it is about enjoyment. It’s like the point of it has become to show off that you were there or to get the perfect selfie somewhere…It’s no longer fun doing the thing. You have fun later when you’ve chosen from 60 pictures of you holding your ice cream, which is the best one? The best background? You post it and then when you get a hundred likes, that’s the dopamine hit there, not the actual time you’re doing it.

I find I’m philosophically at a very different point, the opposite end of that scale. I don’t think it’s good for the community either. The best kind of tourism is to be engaged and talking to people around you and enjoying the experience. I feel like our devices that take us further away from that.

But, yeah, numbers are down. I got pictures at Fushimi Inari with no one in them. I mean, I can’t even imagine that in the last 10 years. It does feel special. But my hope from this is that people realise with a little bit better management and with some good policies in place, it could be like this all the time. It doesn’t have to be Kyoto Disneyland. I think that’s very much on the city to set up the circumstances which lead to better tourism”.

The next questions I asked Van were in relation to COVID. The impact it has had on his work, the industry and how he thought it would impact Japan going forward. I asked how he and the company, InsideJapan Tours, are preparing for the changes they are anticipating in the post COVID tourism world.

Van explained that they had had almost no customers on the ground since April 2020. They have done some virtual tours, which I can confirm are great. Very informative and interesting and a great way to whet the appetite, pre-travel. (I will post the links at the end). He described the preparations the company are making for reopening. Preparing for new staff and training, hotel inspections, including COVID preparations and marketing.

Van: ” So we have basically been going through this whole period with an eye towards how can we restart and how we can restart as well as possible. We’re making a hard push for sustainability throughout the company, as much as we can right now. (Obviously there’s nothing sustainable about putting people on a tube of jet fuel and flying through the air). That is something that the travel industry is going to have to wrestle with…but in the meantime can we reduce the amount of plastic that’s used in rooms? Can we get feedback to our partners that this is a trend that people care about? That we might be able to send more people their way if they’re eco-conscious…so we’re trying to create a conversation with a lot of our suppliers”.

Van explained in addition to sustainability conversations, they were building relationships, doing research, and trying to pull everything together so the behind-the-scenes becomes seamless and works perfectly.

When I asked about post COVID tourism, Van responded: “This is the million-dollar question, right”?

Van: “Or probably substantially more than a million dollars. I think our best guess is that at some point soon it’s going to wind down.

The two options are either the doors are flung open, and everyone comes back in, or it’s a slow open, which, personally, I wish is how it happens. I hope it’s a slow, controlled opening where they can see what the effects are on the population…they can see what it does to hospitalisations and numbers and keep it in check if needs be. I think that’s a much better way that makes the locals feel safe and it makes the tourists feel good, you know. It makes everyone feel like this is being done carefully. Japan’s getting quickly up there with the percentage of the population that’s fully vaxxed. And I think hopefully in a couple of months it’ll be there.

Then, hopefully with the slow reopening, giving time to test the system, we could be looking at first half of next year for the resumption of tourism. That’d be great, wouldn’t it”?

Van talked about Kyoto and how it depends and covets tourism. The people appreciated the breather, in the early days of the pandemic. Now they want a safe reopening and are getting ready to welcome travellers back to the city.

Quick Questions:

  • Favourite Japanese Food: Okonomiyaki
  • Favourite Sake: Tsuji Honten, Gozenshu (see note)
  • Favourite konbini: Maybe Lawson? (Family Mart’s options are bland).
  • Favourite manga/anime: Akita/ Cowboy Beebop/ Ghost in the Shell
  • Favourite Author: Christopher Priest (see note)
  • Favourite Japanese Movie: Harakiri (see note)

Van’s all-time favourite sake is also one of my favourite sakes. As discussed earlier, Van lived in Tsuyama, Okayama. He could cycle to Tsuji Honten in 45 minutes to grab a bottle. He said Gozenshu was the first sake that had slapped him in the face. The grumpy old men around the town were complaining about the female Toji and he couldn’t understand why they were complaining.

Van: “It is amazing. Like…objectively, you taste it…it’s better than everything else out there…”

Van chose Christopher Priest as, when he was reading his books, he related the themes of identity and being only partially visible to his own situation. Living in Japan, having a foot in each culture and struggling to be seen.

Van: “Harakiri from 1962. It was the golden age of Japanese cinema. Around the sixties, there was this beautiful combination of old Japanese storytelling, which was more like a vignette. It was like, “we’re just going to take this snapshot of daily life across a couple of days”. Something kind of happens, but it doesn’t have that typical Greek (structure of) tension and resolution… Then you’ve got Western influence from movies coming into Japan. I felt like there were a couple (of movies) right in there- the early sixties- that took the best of both and successfully adapted them”.

You can read more about InsideJapan Tours here.

Van’s blog The Wild Heart of Japan link is here.

Here is the link to the InsideJapan YouTube channel. Their virtual tours are enjoyable and the guides are knowledgable. I had been to several of the destinations, but learned a lot from watching.

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