This afternoon I found myself in Fukuoka, a city of 1.6 million inhabitants on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island.
Arriving at 5pm, I had only 45 minutes to take in the sights, but the brief visit whetted my appetite for a longer stay.
I was shown around Shinto shrines and soy sauce factories by my friendly Japanese host, Keiko Arita, who combines working as a tour guide with her passion for karate and flower arranging – although not at the same time.
The tourism industry is having to adapt to survive a new, uncertain normal, so my tour was of the virtual variety, undertaken through tourHQ, an online travel platform based in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Keiko hasn’t had a face-to-face assignment since February 7 and, if I needed reminding why, I only had to look at the passers-by, all of whom were wearing masks.
So that I could hear her clearly, my guide didn’t cover her face, which meant she received a few funny looks from fellow pedestrians.
They must also have thought it odd that she was chattering away in English and pointing her iPhone in all directions as she pounded the streets. I followed in real time via Zoom, the web-based video conferencing tool.
There were no communication problems – Keiko has worked as an interpreter at Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summits.
Nor were there any telecommunication hitches – the image on my laptop was sharp, sound quality excellent and in 45 minutes, our connection froze just once, for a second or two.
We start outside Keiko’s house and, as she makes her way about town, I ask about her city, family and work as a tour guide.
The interactive online experience allows me to direct my host by asking her to linger longer or hurry to the next must-see, but there’s little point in me telling a local (and a professional guide) the best route to take.
She knows what she’s doing, which is reflected in a thoughtfully designed itinerary.
This isn’t a tour of Fukuoka in its entirety but rather a stroll around Keiko’s home suburb of Kashii, 20 minutes from the centre by bus.
This suits me fine, as I’m transported to an authentic and attraction-packed neighbourhood in Japan’s fifth largest city that few tourists get to see.
First stop is Yakushi-dou (Healing Buddha Hall), with its 31 Jizo figures. According to Buddhist teaching the statues are protectors of children and unborn babies.
The Jizo are dressed in auspicious red bibs donated by superstitious locals to protect young people from illness and danger – and to make sure the stone guardians don’t get cold!
There are an estimated 80,000 shrines in Japan, and Keiko explains that they outnumber the country’s 50,000 or so convenience stores, which takes some doing.
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon and my guide heads along a shady avenue lined with mature camphor trees until we reach the Kashii-Gu Shinto shrine, one of the oldest in Japan.
According to legend, it was built 1,800 years ago as a mausoleum for Emperor Chuai by Empress Jingu, who in due course was enshrined with her husband so that they could be together for eternity.
Thanks to modern-day marketing, the sacred spot has become popular with couples, who come to pray for a long and happy marriage.
Keiko offers a respectful bow at the imposing torii entrance gate, tilting her phone so that I feel I’ve bowed too. Stone lions keep evil spirits away, and in the grounds stands a centuries-old cedar tree.
Five minutes from the shrine is a natural spring that is opened to the public each morning by a Shinto priest.
It’s believed that drinking the immortal water adds years to one’s life – warrior Takenouchi no Sukune gulped down gallons of the stuff and he lived until he was 300, or so the story goes.
The water is certified as an important cultural property and a steady stream of locals come to fill up plastic bottles of the anti-ageing liquid. How long will it be before the marketing people start touting it as a coronavirus cure?
I’m too late for Fukuoka’s cherry blossom season, but we pause to admire Japanese iris ponds and azaleas in full bloom. (It’s a pity I can’t take photos.)
We finish our circuit at a soy sauce factory. Keiko assures me that this particular brand of the fermented condiment has a uniquely authentic taste and is far superior to that produced by well-known multinational corporations.
In the factory shop, I notice that, alongside bottles of dark brown liquid, the company has established a flourishing secondary business selling face masks.
We’ve covered a fair amount of ground in the allotted time – certainly enough to get a flavour of suburban Fukuoka. Virtual visits like this one can temporarily soothe a nagging travel itch, but will always come second to being there.
At the end of my tour, I would have enjoyed sitting down for a coffee or a beer with Keiko – if only to ask her how someone develops a dual interest in karate and flower arranging. But a three-dimensional get-together will have to wait.
Nevertheless, I suspect there will continue to be a role for immersive online experiences hosted by knowledgeable locals long after we’re able to travel normally again.
Spending the price of a cinema ticket on a personalised virtual tour could end up saving us a lot more money if it reveals that the destination we dreamed of visiting isn’t quite what we were looking for.
Conversely, a positive sneak peek of a holiday spot from the comfort of our own home might convince us that we should book a flight as soon as possible.
There’s also an environmental dividend to consider. Armchair sightseers can opt for a preview of Petra or a taste of Tahiti without adding to their carbon footprint.
Another win-win in these tough economic times is that guides and hosts benefit from an alternative income stream when they might otherwise be unemployed.
Before Covid-19 struck, tourHQ connected tour companies and guides with travellers who visited in person.
It currently offers 74 virtual real-time experiences – including photography courses, samba classes, a Zambian wildlife safari and history lessons (a D-Day landing talk with a war veteran) – with new ones being added every day.
Next I fancy signing up for a traditional Burmese cookery class with Shwe, who lives in the world heritage city of Bagan.
I’d better sign off now. I need to go and buy the ingredients so that I can learn how to prepare her fish curry.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.