Tour Leaders | Japan | Living in Mexico

Tour Leaders

Our Japan tour was through Smithsonian Journeys, which arranged for an excellent Tour Leader, Andy Bender, and an equally excellent Study Leader, Steve Beimel. Both of these men have extensive experience leading tours, are fluent in Japanese and are knowledgeable about Japan and Japanese culture.

Steve-and-Andy

Steve Beimel (L) and Andy Bender (R).

Andy reminds me of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé's character, Tintin.

He's mild-mannered, polite and unobtrusive, but like Tintin, underneath his unruffled calm lies knowledge, competence and pluck. He managed to keep 25 disparate tourists organized, fed and transported, without any of us feeling the control he was exercising. He handled all of our logistics and dealt with innumerable individual problems:

• Well, Andy, you see... I'm allergic to fish, so do you think for dinner we could...
• We've changed our minds. We want to return to Tokyo by air, not by train, so could you...
• Can you fix my radio? I can't hear anything.
• Eewww! Raw fish!

He never once said, "For God's sake!, you're in JaPAN! What the hell do you think they eat here? Pizza? French fries? Don't you people read up on these places before you sign up?"

He dealt placidly with the problem tourists: Those who had trouble getting around, those who wanted to SHOP, the woman who needed a doctor, the self-appointed expert who constantly tried to upstage everyone with his unasked-for explanations of some obscure point. And while juggling all this, he gave us our first lessons in the Japanese language and told us a great deal about Japanese culture. Example: You see almost no trash bins on the streets of Tokyo. Why? Because no Japanese would "inconvenience" others by leaving trash for them to haul away. You won't read stuff like this in any guidebook.

Steve has been in Japan for many years and recently moved to Kyoto permanently. He is what we from Silicon Valley would call "wired" into the Japanese art and culture world. He knows a vast number of artists, craftsmen, priests and others, and introduced us to many of them. We were allowed to enter homes and studios of talented and accomplished people—an intimate look that would have been impossible any other way.

Steve taught us about architecture, theater, music, Shinto and Buddhism and an array of arts, historical and contemporary. His knowledge is encyclopedic: He taught us more than we ever thought we could absorb in so short a time. His affection and respect for the people to whom he introduced us is genuine and made us feel that they were our friends, too.

His enthusiasm is infectious. He speaks almost entirely in superlatives, and had us all doing it, too. And he, along with Andy, seems to genuinely care about the tour group members. When Jean and I decided to fly rather than take the bullet train back to Tokyo, Steve made a special trip with us to the train station to get a refund for our tickets—beyond the call of duty.

If I knew about the next group these two men would lead, I would make every effort to be in it. Sadly, this doesn't seem likely to happen. Andy talks about helping American companies deal with the cultural differences with their Japanese counterparts. Steve says he's retiring. We'll see. Maybe they'll do one more "farewell" tour. I hope so.

Update: Jean received an email from Andy indicating that he and Steve are supposed to do the same trip for Smithsonian again next year [2007] and that he [Andy] will be leading some tours for museum groups like the Boston MFA.

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