Stratman's parents were unimpressed. Stephen recalls, "We might as well have been giving a tour of a dentist's waiting room." Then, two days before departure, Kelly's mother chanced upon the New Year sales at a Yokohama shopping mall, where discounts were as high as 80%. "She immediately lit up," says Stephen. By the next day, the family had canceled their original plans and decided to spend their last day together scouring for bargains. Mom had finally found her element, and the Stratmans had learned a vital lesson: gear your parents' itinerary to their preferences, regardless of what the guidebooks recommend.
The temptation to switch into planning overdrive is natural for expats with a passion for their host country. Steven Horowitz, an advertising executive who has lived in Japan for five years, says he begins flipping through his "mental Rolodex" of must-see restaurants and attractions whenever relatives are planning to visit. But for those hosting first-time visitors, he has two pieces of advice: "Keep it simple," and "Maps, maps, maps!" Ideally, there should not just be maps but a homemade travel pack with a phone card or rental cell phone, plus a list of emergency numbers and translations of key phrases, including the all-important "Where is the rest room?"
On return visits, of course, guests are more comfortable planning their own days. Last spring, Damian Thong's parents made their second trip to Japan. While he was at work, they explored Tokyo's smaller neighborhoods every afternoon. Before long, they were old hands, making grocery-store recommendations to their son. But the fact is, visiting parents aren't just interested in sightseeing. Hanging out with their kidsand grandkidsis more often the real priority.
As Damian's father, Benedict, explains, "I enjoy Japan very much. But I wouldn't be coming here if it weren't for Damian." Making time to be together should trump a whole stack of maps.