It's a tour that most vacationers never experience.
While passengers in the first three tram cars at Universal Studios Hollywood are bombarded with the usual corny jokes, the Japanese visitors in the last car are getting a simultaneous interpretation--both in language and culture.
The back-lot home of the "Murder, She Wrote" television series becomes "Auntie Jessica's Journal," as the dubbed version is called back home in Kyoto.
The Japanese-speaking guide plays down the name of King Kong, since younger Japanese may be unfamiliar with the giant mechanical version of the movie ape, but the tram driver always leaves plenty of time for snapshots at the clock tower set for the "Back to the Future" trilogy because the series was a huge hit in Japan.
After the Kobe earthquake, Universal tour guide Chie Nakamura said she changed her spiel to alert, rather than surprise, Japanese visitors with the park's earthquake simulation attraction. "I explained to them, 'This is movie magic, so don't worry.' "
Just as Universal has set aside three tours a day for its Japanese guests, the Southern California tourism industry has subtly shifted to make itself more Japanese-friendly--from the \o7 miso\f7 soup in the breakfast buffet at the Century Plaza Hotel to the Japanese-speaking clerks at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
The driving force behind the change isn't just common courtesy. The Japanese, armed with a yen that has risen 40% against the dollar since 1990, spend more while on vacation and stay longer than other foreign tourists. To Japanese shoppers, America is a vast bargain basement.
"They are an extremely appealing market," said Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Visitors & Convention Bureau. "The relationship of the dollar and the yen makes it almost fiscally irresponsible for them not to come to us."
The Japanese, who are second only to Mexicans in visiting the Southland, are playing a crucial role in this year's resuscitation of the overall tourism economy. Japanese tourist visits to Los Angeles increased 10% in the first six months of 1995 over the same period last year.
"We are definitely getting more people because of better exchange rates, and time has passed [regarding] the bad images," said Vic Curameng of tour agency Pacifico Creative Services in Los Angeles, one of about a dozen agencies that handle most of the Japanese travel bookings.
Enticing them to come hasn't been easy. California's earthquakes, the Los Angeles riots and high-profile criminal cases, such as the highly publicized murders of Japanese students Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura in San Pedro last year, devastated tourism.
From a high of 1.1 million in 1989, the number of Japanese traveling to California fell dramatically to a low of 785,000 in 1992, when the Los Angeles riots occurred, according to state figures.
Since then, state tourism officials have gone on the offensive. After the riots, they sponsored a $23-million advertising campaign in Japan to remind vacationers of why California still holds its appeal.
In June, they attacked crime fears directly by having five Japanese news reporters spend a day cruising in Anaheim Police Department black-and-whites and chatting with bicycle cops in Santa Monica as part of a multi-state tour to convince them that the Wild West isn't so wild anymore.
Promotions may help, but the Imost effective tool in attracting the Japanese has been simply making them feel at home.
"There are more Japanese-style breakfast foods at hotels in California, not so much in the Midwest or East," said Masa Kawashima, a visiting Kobe businessman.
U.S. salespeople are particularly kind, said Hiroshi Oka, a Japanese student, who was toting a shopping bag with bottles of California champagne for the trip home to Okayama, near Hiroshima. "They are nice to you."
Retailers on Rodeo Drive or South Coast Plaza go to special lengths to attract Japanese visitors because, a U.S. government study reports, they spend an average of $164 a day and up to $1,600 on average per trip--more than other foreign tourists.
"One Japanese tourist has the equivalent economic impact of exporting a California-made computer to Japan," said John Poimiroo, director of the state Office of Tourism. They come for bargains. Honeymooner Sendada Ayi, who had just bought two Christian Dior necklaces for $160 at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, said they would have cost twice as much in Tokyo.
"It's very cheap," she said between bites of a burger at the Planet Hollywood restaurant.
Japanese tradition calls for buying gifts for a wide circle of friends and family, so merchants keep a large stock of trinkets on hand. Universal Studios gift store clerk Valentina Felice remembers a sale she rang up for one Japanese tourist who wanted T-shirts from the "Backdraft" movie attraction: $414.44.