I recently came across a site called The Inaka Project, which looked like a, potentially, truly wonderful travel guide site for Japan. The site aimed to flesh out guides to Japan’s inaka, or rural countryside, by providing guides and articles written by JETs, former JETs, and others intimately familiar with Japan’s all-too-overlooked nooks and crannies. Unfortunately, it would seem that the project fell through; the website’s beautiful, very professional-looking, appealing, and easy to navigate front page is still up, but sadly most of the links are broken.
Some of the people behind the Inaka Project, however, have created another travel site, called Travel Panda, covering all of East Asia. This one does not seem to be quite as open to submissions for entries/articles, but it does have comment spaces (like a blog) on each of the articles, some of which seem to be fairly active, with commenters suggesting additional sites to check out in a given city, for example.
The site boasts having added over 120 new articles in just the last few months, and is hopefully still going strong, still continuing to regularly add new articles. Some of those already up include Things to Do Before Traveling Internationally, How to Pack, Japan’s Top 3…, Best of Shikoku, Japan’s Must See Castles, and What to do in Osaka.
Each post tends to be much more like one of those “Top 10″ or “25 Funny Things” lists on Cracked.com or BuzzFeed, rather than being a more in-depth, lengthy, text. But, these provide an engaging, appealing, and light, easy-to-read starting point for one’s travel planning research. After reading their Best of Chugoku, for example, and seeing their beautiful pictures and intriguing brief description of Iwakuni – a city I don’t think I’d actually heard of before – I then went and investigated Iwakuni further, on other websites. Travel Panda prides itself on its photos, and I think it’s within its rights to do so – the photos are gorgeous, well-chosen, and very appealing and intriguing, making me enjoy their posts very much, and inspiring me to want to visit these places.
One of the really key things that I enjoy and appreciate about Travel Panda is that it operates outside of the disgustingly vapid, travel industry mode that is all too common in travel writing both online and off. Travel Panda is not trying to sell you anything; they’re not (so far as I know) funded or sponsored or run by any particular hotel chain or tourism company. I have seen far too many articles lately clearly aimed at a particular imaginary stereotypical tourist, articles that border on the Orientalist in their vapid attempts to sell resort hotel rooms and cultural “experiences” to the type of tourist who, hypothetically, stereotypically, knows basically zero about Japan, who will likely never come back to Japan again, and who is there for a tourist experience, to be catered to, to take in the culture & history in very superficial, “isn’t that cute” “isn’t that interesting” sort of bite-size ways. The kind of tourist who follows a guidebook, and goes to the restaurants all the tourists go to – most likely, the same restaurants that are paying the guidebook to recommend them. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about cool restaurants and cafés in Japan, but when someone like Deep Kyoto writes about these things, it’s written by someone who genuinely lives there and is genuinely engaged in Kyoto life, Kyoto social circles, Kyoto goings-on – the “real” Kyoto, if you will, rather than the tourist’s Kyoto – and it’s written for those operating outside of this stereotypical, painfully vapid, tourist mode.
Installation painting at Honolulu Museum of Art Spaulding House, by artist Angry Woebots
While Travel Panda isn’t by any means a guide to living in Japan, as The Inaka Project might have been, and as many sites, such as Okinawa Hai! (one of my recent obsessions) provide, Travel Panda’s posts, for the most part, do seem to focus on recommending & describing not just the big name sites, but other sites as well. They provide guides to more remote parts of the country – not just Tokyo and Kyoto – and many of their descriptions are quite detailed in their attention to the history, assuming the reader not only knows certain basic facts, like what the shogunate was, but also assuming the reader has a certain interest in and respect for history; in other words, Travel Panda doesn’t talk down to you as far too many travel sites do. I love that they have pages like Best of Shikoku and Best of Chugoku, and I love that they have pages on Japanese Castles and “Japan’s Top 3…” Because while I know that I – as a graduate student specializing in Japanese history, who has spent roughly 18 months total in Japan in four trips over the last ten years – am by no means a typical traveler, I think that there are plenty of other people out there interested in Japanese history and culture, interested in seeking out historical sites, interested in experiencing Japan on a slightly higher level. People who are not looking for a pre-packaged luxury experience, who are not looking to see only the most stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture. If anything, I think the brief descriptions on Travel Panda could even be seen as a plus in this respect – they don’t talk down to you, as if you need everything spelled out and planned out for you.
Right: Panda advertising for a Chinese restaurant in Ikebukuro
Instead, they simply provide the basics, saying for example, “Iwakuni is a smaller city in Yamaguchi, but there is a great deal to see here. Iwakuni’s Kikko Park contains some spectacular museums and some former samurai residences that are worth checking out,” and leaving it to you to look up which museums you might be interested in seeing, and to learn more about the samurai residences on your own. Getting back to the point, a list of castles seems to me precisely the kind of thing someone already deeply interested in Japan, and either planning out a lengthy cross-country adventure, or living in Japan and planning out multiple day trips or weekend holidays, would really enjoy. And, similarly, a list of Japan’s Top 3s seems like something that would be of great appeal to the traveler explicitly disinterested in what’s stereotypical for Americans to want to see & do in Japan, and who is, instead, a bit more attuned to the tradition or history of which sites the Japanese appreciate, and why.
Travel Panda is only a very young site, but I have high hopes for it. Check it out. What travel websites do you like best? Are there any you like with particularly good posts for those moving to, or living in, Japan for longer-term periods? Let us know in the comments!
TravelPanda logo (c) Travel Panda. All other images my own.