For the last 10 years Vitalijus Milkovas has been working as a tour guide for Japanese groups - he says that visitors from Japan are most impressed by the Lithuanian nature, especially its wide horizons.
© DELFI (A.Didžgalvio nuotr.)

In their home country, which is extremely densely populated, the Japanese live and work very close to one another and see little nature, Vitalijus says.

"However, it is not easy to understand how much the Japanese really like Lithuania, and how much they hate it. They are extraordinarily polite, it is rude to say ‘no’ in their culture, so it is not easy to figure out when they say what they mean, and when it is just a ‘white lie’,” says the guide. “The positive conclusions that tourists from the country of the rising sun like Lithuania can only be drawn from the continuously increasing flow of travellers.”

Data of the Lithuanian Tourism Department show that, according to the number of tourists arriving in Lithuania from Asia, Japan has the lead. 37.5 percent more tourists from Japan visited Lithuania during the first half of 2014 than a year before.

In late September, the tour agency Baltic Tours participated and presented Lithuania in one of the world’s largest tourism exhibition, JATA Tourism EXPO Japan. Most Japanese tourists, who like to see the world by travelling, tend to first visit Italy, Greece, Germany and other bigger, more popular European destinations and only later do they come to Lithuania, looking for something less ordinary. After returning home, they are eager to tell their peers about what they have seen, even boasting a little about visiting a country which is not known in Japan.

Tourists from the country of the rising sun who come to the Baltics usually tour sites listed as UNESCO heritage: the Old Town of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, Trakai, Rundale Palace in Latvia.

According to Milkovas, Lithuania makes the biggest impression on Japanese visitors of all the three Baltic states. “Because our architectural heritage has more baroque buildings, which the Japanese particularly like. A walk around the Old Town gives the Japanese the impression of a medieval city. True, apparently because of different cultural references, what looks old for the Japanese can sometimes prove to be actually quite new, and vice versa,” says Milkovas.

Japanese tourists in Lithuania: Shocked by culture of sunbathing and abundance of space
© K. Cemnolonskio nuotr.

According to the guide, Japanese tourists have the child-like quality of being able to notice details and enjoy them. “Sometimes I tell about Napoleon, who wanted to take away the church of St. Ann, when they see a kitten and start taking photos of it. Maybe it is because it is more often the elderly that travel to Lithuania, and they are more sentimental. So it is not surprising that sometimes live things are more interesting to them than architectural objects,” says Milkovas.

Moreover, he notes that the Japanese are also quite pragmatic, they are interested in a walk around Vilnius Akropolis, the city’s biggest shopping mall: “Shopping is one of the most popular leisure activities in the world and Japan is not an exception.”

While visiting Lithuania, Japanese tourists try to taste some traditional Lithuanian foods: zeppelins, dumplings and other dishes. They only avoid cold beetroot soup, which does not seem appetizing, though they really like to order it and take photos of themselves with “the pink soup”.

“Tourists from Japan like dumplings. And when they are tasting zeppelins, they politely say that it is really very tasty, but often leave a large part of it in the plate,” says Milkovas. “Nevertheless, we should not be offended, because in this way the approach to food is demonstrated - it is designed to enjoy, not fill up. For this reason, a lot of different meals and snacks are often ordered.”

According to Rasa Levickaitė, project manager at travel agency Baltic Tours specializing in tourism from Asia, Japanese visotors are not eager to check how Lithuanians prepare Japanese sushi; they do not go to Japanese-food restaurants, especially if the chef of the kitchen is not their countryman. They prefer to taste typical potato dishes from the Lithuanian cuisine.

Tour guide Milkovas has noticed that many Japanese miss soy flavours in their food here, so very often they take their own bottles of soy sauce to restaurants. For example, when they try to taste white cheese, sour cream or curd, they take out soy sauce and taste the food with it.

Not only do Lithuanian dairy products taste unusual for the Japanese, smoked meat products are not common in their culture either.

“The fashion of different diets is very strong, for example, currently they try to eat less meat,” says the guide. “The Japanese are obedient people, so they listen to their doctors. If they need to quit smoking, they quit. If they need to eat less, they eat less. Previously it was said on television that drinking beer in the evening helps improve sleep, so the Japanese had been drinking a lot. Now scientists say that alcohol is bad for sleep, so they do not drink beer in the evenings anymore.”

The health cult came to Japan from the United States, with which Japan is closely related economically. The Japanese yen is linked to the dollar, so economic, cultural and other trends travel fast across the Pacific, for example, the ban on smoking in restaurants.

“Ten years ago, 30-40 percent of Japanese tourists who were men smoked, and now you rarely see even one smoker in the group. Even smokers who had been smoking for many years quit. It is influenced by the fact that Japanese men obey their wives, who send them to the doctor,” says the guide.

Trakai
Trakai
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Since there is neither sunbathing nor swimming culture in Japan, when they go to Trakai, they are surprised to see children jumping from a bridge into water. Sunbathing remains unfashionable in Japan, since pale skin is still associated with aristocratic origin and considered beautiful. “Moreover, the Japanese are afraid of jellyfish and other aquatic creatures,” said Milkovas.

Interestingly, people in Japan believe that cats are higher-maintenance than dogs. People work a lot there, so, according to the guide, it is difficult for them to take care of a cat and they tend to keep dogs. Obviously, since living space is rather scarce in Japan, their dogs are small. A big dog in Japan is a symbol of wealth and luxury.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for Japanese tourists is beggars on the streets. To ask for money in non-Catholic countries is not acceptable. “Here homeless are snoopy, and in Japan they are different, more kind and polite. The homeless usually live in communities and do not feel alienated there,” compares the guide.

In his opinion, Lithuanians are a little similar to the Japanese in character: “The Japanese and Lithuanians share some features of northern peoples: they are restrained, cautious, tend to keep the distance. You will not become friends with a Japanese person fast, or with a Lithuanian. A lot of time passes before the Japanese show emotions. And if their journey across the Baltic states begins in Lithuania, they become more open and emotional only in Latvia or even Estonia.”

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