I’ve been on a walking tour of Takayama this morning – a city in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture that I fell in love with on my first visit to Japan 20 plus years ago.
Today’s tour wasn’t quite the Takayama walk I wanted to do this year – because I did it virtually, sitting at my computer in Australia and joining the walk via Skype with a small Takayama tour company. And amazingly, unlike pre covid times, the streets were almost empty!
Who says Covid stops you from travelling! Where there is a will, there is a way.
Virtual travel is the new name of the game if you can’t travel internationally in these Covid times. I was apprehensive and it’s taken a while for me to warm to the idea. But a promotion for a virtual walking tour on the official Hida tourist site and winning a free place on the tour in a lottery persuaded me to give virtual touring a go.
Nothing lost really then, except my time. What did I gain? A new appreciation of virtual tours!
I was up at 6 this morning, showered, hair done, and dressed ready for touring by 7am, positioning myself in front of my computer and turning on Skype.
I may not have left the house for this tour, but I knew I’d be joining other tour participants and the guide who all would be able to see me on their monitors! I didn’t have to worry what to wear on my feet. Tucked under my desk, no one could see them! So I kept my my bed socks on!
To join the tour, I followed a link sent to me by the tour company – Happy Plus in Takayama. Happy Plus? I did cross reference the tour company beforehand. Definitely legit. I guess they mean you are going to be very happy with their tours!
A woman from London joined the Skype link about the same time as me. We were reassured that we could see and hear each other. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about how this was going to work. Over the next few minutes, more people joined our chat from around the world including the USA. About seven in total, from memory.
Then up came what appeared to be a still shot of the tour office … nothing happening. Suddenly a hand appeared, obviously someone just out of shot setting things up for the tour. A few more minutes more and our tour guide appeared. I didn’t catch his name properly – I think it was the company CEO Yoichiro Yamakoshi. I should have asked, but it was the beginning of the tour and I was still a little hesitant about speaking up.
He gave us some instructions about the tour. Yes, we could ask questions en route. Yes, we could ask for a closer look at what interested us. We could turn on our microphones to speak with him or use a chat line to the side of our screens which he would continually check and answer any questions. I soon got into the swing of things.
Our guide spoke good english, and off we went – following him through a main street that I recognised to the beautiful old Takayama ‘old town’ precinct. It has streets dating back to the Edo period (1600’s).
I’m guessing he had an iPad perched in a holder for walking. I couldn’t quite see it. But I could see and hear him well. I even had my camera with me taking a few snaps and video as we moved along!
Shops don’t open early in the old town, so there were few other people about. But every now and again someone would appear, probably mystified as to why this bloke was walking along talking to his iPad! He’d give a cheery hello in Japanese, and seemed to explain what was happening. Well, you would, wouldn’t you!
It gave me a feeling of reality – we were wandering along the streets of Takayama and interacting with other people. One of my online screen boxes had myself and other participants perched on some ancient Japanese steps – well, our heads and shoulders were on it. A little surreal. Obviously, the idea was to place us on site in Takayama.
At times the tour participants chatted amongst ourselves, just like on a real tour. “Yes, we were supposed to visit this year too. Hopefully next year! Ramen in Takayama is great. I had good Udon. Wonderful mountain blueberries from the markets”.
Someone wanted to know the hotel I’d got all my money back from when I had to cancel my Japan trip last year because of Covid. The WAT hotel near the train station in Takayama had been really honourable about this because I’d been on a no refund cheap deal. So I was happy to pass on its name. From our chats, I gleamed that most of the tour participants were return Takayama visitors like me!
Given that I’ve actually been to the old town of Takayama on three previous visits, I wondered if our guide would show me anything I didn’t know. Yes, he did. Quite a few things, actually. And I’ll be looking out for them when I eventually get the Covid green light to go back there.
He led us over Takayama’s famous red Nakabashi Bridge crossing the Enakogawa river, and past one of the morning markets which was already busy. He showed us one of the ‘houses’ where giant Takayama Festival floats are kept. Takayama is famous for these floats, and to replace one – our guide told us – would cost more than $3 MILLION US dollars!
We wandered down another main street that I recognised, and into a shrine where a piece of nice wood hanging from a wall turned out to be a cleverly designed ladder in case of fire! Our guide demonstrated how it transformed into a ladder. I’m sure I’ve passed that piece of wood before, but never knew what it was!
The tour lasted about 45 minutes, and it was really very enjoyable whether you’ve never been to Takayama or are taking another look.
The normal price for the tour I did is just under $A30. There’s a cheaper walking tour that takes about 20 minutes.
The company also offers a virtual rickshaw ride tour in Takayama for about $A23 and a sake brewery tour. I’m not sure how the sake tour would work without being able to enjoy a tasting? Skype and your own sake bottle?
You can find full details of the online tours, costs and communication tools including FaceTime from the company’s website in English. https://happy-plus.co.jp/en
The site comes in Japanese, English and Italian versions The Hida tourist website has a special Covid campaign. It can be found at https://www.hida.jp/special_site/english/
The tourist industry world wide is in the doldrums, and struggling big time. Probably the big operators will keep going, but the small companies and freelance tour guides are in big trouble and need to be innovative to survive.
I have a friend who is a guide in Kyoto and she tells me there is simply no work with international tourists staying home.
Lots of other prime tourist areas are now offering virtual tours, including some of the world’s most famous museums such as France’s Louvre and New York’s Guggenheim. I’ve read that you can even climb to the top of the Eiffel tower now without worrying about your leg muscles or vertigo!
I’m sure there are also many small tour companies like HappyPlus offering online tours in other places you might be interested in around the world. You’ll probably just need to trawl the net for them.
Embarking on virtual tours is a great way to support them and have a bit of fun at the same time.