October 22, 1993

Lonely Planet Publications

P.O. Box 2001A

Berkeley, California 94702

Re: Your Guidebook to Japan, or Could This Be the Reason the Lonely Planet Is So Lonely?


I took a trip to Europe when I was 19, using Travelers' Guide to Europe's Art as my guide. This was a wonderful way to travel! The book was extremely selective, so that I didn't have to waste my time on anything second-rate (you know, "Goethe slept here", "Chopin blew his nose here", etc.). I received the equivalent of a college course in art history.

My next trip was to Japan. I studied the country and language intensely for two years before I went there, and corresponded with 34 pen pals. After Europe, I had much less interest in "touristy" things. I concentrated on visiting as many of my pen pals as I could (20), and trying to see at least a piece of every national park (I saw 12 out of 25).

Since then, my interests have changed again. When I go to the trouble and expense to visit a distant land, I want to see what is unique about it, since I may see it only once. When I went to Australia (I consulted your guide first), I studied the animals, plants, and native peoples before I went. I visited two wildlife sanctuaries and a couple of national parks. Compared to the diversity found in other species, humans are boringly homogeneous!

On my first trip to Mexico (I took your guide with me), I went to Mexico City to see the murals of Diego Rivera and Siqueiros, and Guadalajara to see those of Jose Orozco. I also saw some ruins and two zoos. The only other thing that interested me was to see the native plants and animals. But that will have to wait till I have time to study the language and biology more. Unfortunately, zoos seem to cater mostly to locals, and contain largely wildlife (that I have seen hundreds of times) from faraway places. I will have to plan a later trip to Tuxtla to see more of the native wildlife. Mexico City's Botanical Garden was also disappointing.

Next, I went to Canada to see the Canadian Rockies. I looked for wildlife, but saw only a single moose cow and one dead porcupine. Although the "scenery" was stunningly beautiful, I treasure the sight of those two animals far more. But the real shocker was discovering and visiting the Burgess Shale, perhaps the world's most significant and famous fossils. The videos presented by the (Yoho) National Park, and consequent reading of Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life -- the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, drove home just how accidental (not divinely foreordained, as we once hoped) the evolution of vertebrates (to say nothing of humans) was! I can't imagine any experience more exciting and lastingly satisfying!

Now, I am planning another visit to Japan. At this point, I am interested only in seeing and learning about native plants and animals. (Also meeting and networking with local environmentalists.) Upon opening your guide to Japan, I was shocked to find that there was only half a page in the whole book on wildlife! And that they were relegated to a mere footnote-like section called "Dangers and Annoyances"! It seems that the only thing worth knowing about the wildlife of Japan is that you should avoid its two poisonous snakes (the habu and the mamushi)! Is this your message? As a matter of fact, I did see a mamushi on my last trip to Japan. It was the high point of my trip! I set out one day to hike to the top of a small "mountain", but lost the trail on the way up and had to hike "cross-country". I would never have seen the snake (which I didn't know was a mamushi, and poisonous), if I had stayed on the trail.

Afterward, I noticed that every other book or general guide is similar in its treatment of the natural world, or worse! So I don't blame you; this is just the condition of late-20th-century "humanity": when talking about a country such as Japan, we think it important to cover the geography (perhaps), customs, festivals, art, history, religion, economy, and language, but we don't think the natural world worth mentioning, unless it gets in our way or titillates our fancy or profits us in some way.

It seems to be axiomatic among humans that every square inch of the Earth belongs to us human beings and is ours to use as we wish. There is nothing wrong with this idea, except that it dooms almost every species of living thing on the Earth to extinction, especially us (who, unlike plants, can't make our own food). Besides, a life without wildlife would not be any fun. You can tell by where we choose to live (preferably with a view of a natural area full of wildlife), where we want to vacation (preferably in or next to wilderness), what we want to eat (we like variety -- otherwise known as "biodiversity"), and what we name places and things (e.g. Camelia Street, Walnut Creek, Mercury Cougar, etc.).

It is obvious that we need to preserve this biodiversity, both for our own survival, and for the pleasurable lifestyle we crave. It is also obvious that this cannot be accomplished by one person, one community, one company, one organization, one government agency, or even one country. The job is too huge. It will take all of us. Everyone has a part to play.

What can we do about this? What is the part of Lonely Planet Publications? From the point of view of wildlife , the overrunning of the "lonely" planet by millions of people is at best a nuisance, at worst a disaster. (What would you guess is the total size of the world's lands set aside for the exclusive use of wildlife, off limits to humans? I don't know, but I am sure it's miniscule.) Do you think that reawakening our awareness of "native" peoples, prehistoric humans, and the rest of the "natural" world can make the planet less "lonely"? Do you think that LPP could play a part in this renaissance? I would like to see a movement that makes the original ("humanistic") Renaissance look insignificant! Can we survive on anything less?


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.