Andre Vltchek: Why I hate traveling in Japan

Andre Vltchek: Why I hate traveling in Japan

One frequent traveler believes good service is no longer valued in Japan. Does he have a point?

Andre Vltchek

I have to confess: I am increasingly scared of traveling in Japan, especially when I am condemned to use “premium services.” My fear is so strong that sometimes I can’t sleep for several nights before departure. But why?

Sure, I have quite a few platinum hotel cards and gold airline cards -- not because I am a snob, but simply because I spend more than half of my life in hotels and in the air, covering war zones and conflict areas as a filmmaker, writer and journalist.

For years, Japan was my favorite place on earth to rest, regain strength, to “lick my wounds” and to reflect.

This is where I was coming back to commune with nature, to write my fiction, to escape the horrors of an unsettling world. And in many ways it still is an enormously comfortable, safe and fascinating place.

It is undeniable that on average, traveling in Japan is more comfortable than anywhere in the world. Trains run on time (unless someone jumps from the platform, disrupting the entire service) and they are fast and excellent.

Security at airports is brisk and friendly and so is immigration. Luggage does not have to be dragged -- it can be sent to the airport from city drop-off points, often near your hotel.

But, I believe, that comfy and forthcoming Japan is rapidly and mysteriously vanishing whenever one attempts to use premium services, particularly those that include luxury hotels.

Despite the clichés about how “in Japan everything just works,” it appears that at the higher end things really work only for service providers -- airlines, hotels and travel agents.

As a customer, I feel pampered with smiles and bows but only if I am ready to accept what I am given. Refusal leads to confrontation and ultimate humiliation -- of the consumer. I wonder if I'm alone in feeling this?

Suits who, sir?

Recently, I stayed at the Miyako Sheraton in Tokyo and on two occasions at the Sheraton Sapporo. These hotels were supposed to be my “home away from home,” my security in a turbulent world. Hardly.

After reaching platinum level I got used to automatic upgrades to junior suites, special check-in counters, access to clubrooms, fruit baskets and other luxuries. Asia spoiled me -- nowhere else is the quality of service brought to such heights.

Japan was known to lead in this field but in many ways is now dragging behind.

After a long flight from Singapore, the Miyako Sheraton staff made me stand for several minutes at the main counter and then requested a copy of my passport and an imprint of my credit card.

SheratonThe Sheraton mascot welcomes a pair of model guests at the Grande Tokyo Bay hotel.

Nothing unusual outside Japan but here, almost no Japanese citizen is ever asked for a credit card or ID at check-in. Eventually, I was given the key to the worst room possible (a suite was “not available”) -- facing the parking lot.

I had to go back and demand a view of the park, upon which the receptionist made me feel like a pariah. No bowing and no smiles. He knew he was obliged to give me a better room, but he made sure that I paid for it -- he made me stand waiting for 10 minutes while lazily caressing his computer keyboard.

Next, the Internet connection did not work. When I called reception, I was told to “call the provider.” That was at 2 a.m. The next day, the connection was still not fixed, and only after raising hell and summoning the general manager did it miraculously begin functioning.

Totalitarian vibe

The Miyako Sheraton doesn’t have a clubroom for a few hours of undisturbed work and its swimming pool looks like a people’s gymnasium in North Korea some two decades ago, but at least it offered platinum members free drinks in the lounge.

At the Sheraton Sapporo, things went truly down the pipes. I was given a room smelling like an ashtray despite the receptionist claiming the entire hotel was definitely non-smoking.

After changing, the second room smelled equally bad but nothing else was available. The next day my respiratory system almost collapsed.

I exaggerate slightly, of course, but who would accept a sub-standard room when paying many tens of thousands of yen a night? That's my point -- I'm paying for the best, but it's not being delivered. Time and again.

It gets better. My room at the Shiretoko Grand Hotel smelled much worse and its cost was double that of the Sheraton in Sapporo. The bed was made of pink plastic and came with, yes indeed, a view of parked cars.

Before checking in I was persuaded to have a buffet dinner (included in the ridiculous price) in a space that resembled a North Siberian conference room in the 1930s.

Then I was taken to that dreadful room. I refused to stay. And if you think I'm just whining, remember that I essentially live in hotels for long stretches at a time -- that's why I pay for the best I can get.

After a stand-off -- “You booked it; a non-smoking room would cost you extra if it were available” -- I decided to leave. The receptionist became abusive, then charged the equivalent of $60 for dinner: “Just what you consumed.”

All equal

Escaping, the flight on JAL from Sapporo to Haneda was not any better. Having a gold card with Qantas (together with JAL, a member of One World) did not get me any closer to a window.

I couldn’t even enter my Qantas number into the online JAL reservation system. Although I flew business class, no priority boarding was allowed -- JAL employees, while bowing to all Japanese passengers regardless of the class of their tickets, waved me back in the rudest manner possible.

And that’s where I exploded. I stopped pretending that “I understand Japanese culture” and did what I would do everywhere else -- I got angry, accusing one particular JAL employee of racism. I demanded to speak to the manager. It worked; the manager did her bent-knees routine, promising swift action and an apology. I'm sure you know how that one goes.

The goodwill lasted only a couple of minutes. Once on board I did the unthinkable and asked for a newspaper: “Not for your class”, came the brisk answer.

Apparently, my business-class seat entitled me to just one soft drink served in a plastic cup. For the same duration of flight, Singapore Airlines serves a three-course meal accompanied with beverages, in-flight entertainment and hot towels -- even in economy class.

Broken Japan?

I don’t know what went wrong, but somewhere along the line, traveling in Japan has become difficult and unpleasant unless one is a smoker, has simple connections and does not demand anything extra.

I realize I am ranting and you may even think I'm being unreasonable, but I don’t think my complaints are unique to me. Ask any regular business-class traveler in Japan and I guarantee they'll have similar complaints.

Typically, after ruined days, no compensation is provided -- no complimentary bottles of wine as everywhere else, no upgrades and no extra points. “We ruined your trip. Please understand.”

It would be incorrect to say that it is impossible to get good service in Japan at the upper end. Despite its outdated swimming pool, the Miyako Sheraton in Tokyo is wonderful, and even some chain hotels in remote cities like the ANA in Wakkanai on the northern tip of Hokkaido provide memorable service.

But, as a rule, the quality of upper-end travel services in many Asia-Pacific countries is much higher. I am confident of this and challenge you to disagree.

My saga continued until the day I sat down to write this rant. Having to edit two of my documentary films in Chicago, I booked myself on Asiana.

The travel agent got me a good deal in business class from Kansai, but I had to depart in the evening, spend the night in Seoul and continue the next morning. I asked her in what hotel is Asiana going to accommodate me. “They don’t pay for a hotel”, said the agent. I replied that it is against IATA regulations that their airline signed.

It is part of IATA regulations that passengers are given overnight accomodation if their transit time is over eight hours for economy and over six hours for business class, given there is no other shorter connection possible.

I called Seoul. They were evasive there: “We don’t provide a hotel on that route”. “On that route” meaning on Japanese routes? No answer.

So, I booked myself into the Incheon Sheraton but when I arrived at Kansai Airport, I triple-checked and let slip that I will mention the situation in my article.

“Please wait in the lounge”, sighed a check-in agent. I waited, but nobody came looking for me. At the gate, a severe-looking manager appeared, informing me that they would “give me accommodation” after all.

“Too late”, I said. I couldn’t cancel the Sheraton after 6 p.m. “So you have your hotel, already?” barked his assistant, aggressively. It was all getting out of hand -- so rude. No bowing, no courtesy -- very vulgar.

I was just glad I was leaving, about to enter the plane and go, despite the fact that the aircraft was downgraded (no apology or explanation) from the scheduled wide-body 330 to an old single-aisle 321. Well, customers don’t complain in Japan, so why not do it?

In Korea I was whisked off to the new Sheraton in Incheon. Here they have a clubroom and are extremely polite and efficient. The receptionist took two minutes to check me in. Everything was ready.

There was the best room, a suite, complete with fruit basket on the table and a letter signed by the manager, welcoming me.

Everything was flawless, friendly and elegant. As it is always flawless in Guangzhou, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and many other places. One has to only wonder -- what went wrong with Japan and where is it going to end? I'd like to know if anyone reading this has the answer.

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and not endorsed in any way by CNNGo. Have your say in the comments below -- keep it civil please!

Novelist, poet, political analyst, journalist, photographer and filmmaker, Andre has covered dozens of war zones from Bosnia and Peru to Sri Lanka, Congo and East Timor.

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