Land of the Sun Rising?

Asking people to define Japan typically provokes a spew of stereotypical tropes: Sushi, Samurais and cherry blossoms; geishas and Manga; high-tech gadgetry and Sake-sodden karaoke.

Something Japan has never been, though, is a tourist hotspot. Its high tariffs have always excluded the travelling masses. The costly Land of the Rising Sun is the anti-Costa del Asia.

On paper, however, the “Visit Japan” campaign initiated in 2003 and colloquially dubbed “Yokoso” (“Welcome”) seems a resounding success. During 2000-2007, the number of overseas arrivals virtually doubled to 8.35 million – charting rapacious 75 percent growth.  The statistics are misleading: even during the post-Millennium growth spurt, tourism profit margins were paltry. In 2002, they comprised about two percent of GDP.

Mason Florence, American author of Lonely Planet Kyoto and Hiking in Japan, says, “Japan has not historically been top of the list for international tourist arrivals; it’s been more of a boutique destination.” 

His sentiments echoed those of Yoshiaki Honpo, commissioner of the intergovernmental Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) charged with luring 10 million tourists this year. "As the nation's population declines, tourism will become a necessary means to promote the country's regional areas,” said the commissioner at the agency’s 2008 inauguration.

“We are in a period when we should look at foreign demand rather than relying on domestic demand."

Graphically illustrating that need, more than a third of Japanese hotels hosted zero foreign guests in 2009. Attempting to recalibrate the glaring over-reliance on domestic custom, Visit Japan 2010 is prioritising 12 international markets: Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, U.S.A., Canada, U.K., Germany, France and Australia (India, Russia and Malaysia are “promising emerging markets”).

A bilateral annual target of three-million tourist visits was set for the ongoing Taiwan-Japan Tourism Exchange Year.  Augmenting the weekly flight schedule with an additional Taipei-Tokyo route in October will help -- and not before time. Japan’s tourist industry has long suffered from expensive landing charges and stretched capacities at Tokyo Narita airport.

A runway extension recently improved matters and, in March, Etihad Airways became the first Middle Eastern airline to taxi on the new tarmac. Expecting an influx of business travellers, Etihad CEO James Hogan said the new route is “an important focus in 2010”.

Emirates agreed; United Arab Emirates’ airline even started serving Kyoto pickles, Shizuoka green tea and Asakusa Nori dried seaweed on flights to Japan. By April, bankrupt Japan Airlines was replicating the flight of culinary fancy, charming business-class clients with "Samurai Zen" meals featuring nine side dishes.

 “Japan is a market that continues to grow in popularity," said Finnair’s head of communications, Jarkko Konttinen, after the airline’s UK bookings to Tokyo doubled in April.  Australian budget carrier Jetstar also ramped up its Japan service with a Cairns-Osaka connection.

Visitor stock plummeted worldwide during 2009’s global recession. By February, arrivals to Japan were up 62.9 percent on-year, driven by an increase in British, Chinese, South Korean and Australian visitors. Encouraging -- but 10 million foreign visitors will be an extremely long haul (pun intended). 

“They [the JTA] need to impress upon people that Japan is not as expensive as they think,” says Florence, who also led tours during his 12-year residency. “It’s cheaper than London or New York in many ways.”

He finds Japan “surprisingly, refreshingly diverse”. While stereotyped images persist, the Visit Japan 2010 winter campaign strategically redirected traffic to lesser-spotted regions. This, Florence reckons, can only be a good thing.

“People always come back from Japan surprised about what the place has to offer,” he says.

“Nobody says Japan was ‘Just okay’.”

HOKKAIDO: Urban Japan can get claustrophobic, even without a stay at a “capsule” hotel. But few venture as far as the open roads of Japan's spacious northern extremity. The island of Hokkaido is the country’s sweeping final frontier. Its vistas contain six national parks and comprise a fifth of the total landmass -- but just five percent of Japan’s population live here. Among them are Ainu aboriginals who shaped the region’s history from its margins. Museums in Sapporo, Hakodate and Shiraoi edify visitors on how the Ainu dialect gave birth to familiar regional names, like Sapporo and Noshappu. Elsewhere, visitors can variously ski, hike, camp, motorcycle, bike, raft, canoe, fish and watch birds.  Guided eco-tours broach the volcanoes and lakes of Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

“Local, regional, and national festivals – with colourful parades and fanfare – are going on all the time,” says Mason Florence. This is no exaggeration. Hokkaido alone hosts over 1,200 annual events, averaging more than three per day. The Sapporo Snow-matsuri Festival is a highlight, despite the Siberian cold that descends in November-March, giving Monbetsu Ice Floes-matsuri Festival its name.

SETO: The Japanese word for ceramics – 'Setomono' – derives from this northern city. This is the craft’s spiritual home – literally: Kamagami-jinja Shrine is dedicated to dearly departed souls who passed on valuable ceramic production secrets when alive. The region’s traditional craftwork forms a signature facet of the landscape. Plates and cups adorn walls verging Kamagaki-no-komichi walking path; pottery peeks from facades and decorates bridges.

Setouchi International Art Festival, the largest of Japan’s multifarious annual art fairs, runs on July 19th - October 31st. Set on the picturesque islands of Seto Inland Sea, the event brings together contemporary artists and architects, like internationally renowned Ando Tadao, against an ocean backdrop. Seto also hosts the citywide Aichi Triennale festival of performing arts.

OKINAWA: A two-and-a-half-hour flight from Tokyo brings visitors to Okinawa, Japan’s sub-tropical southernmost tip. The remote archipelago of 160 islands serves up white sands – as well as “hoshi-suna” (star sand), formed from millions of tiny animal skeletons – swaying palm fronds and vibrant, bustling coral reefs. Catering to beach bums, hikers, history buffs and marine sports–lovers alike, Okinawa boasts a balmy year-round climate that lures mainlanders for a dose of sunshine.

Few foreign tourists join their ranks. It’s difficult to see why. Visitors can connect with local history at the World Heritage-listed Shuri Castle or Ryukyu Mura model village; marvel at whale sharks and manta rays at Churaumi Aquarium; hike to the rain-forested Hiji Falls or explore Japan’s largest calcareous cave at Okinawa World theme park.

Set almost as close to China and Hong Kong as mainland Japan, Okinawa is famously the birthplace of karate.  Why not make like Daniel-san and find your own Mr Miyagi at one of over 300 local dojos? Wannabe crane-kickers should ask a specialist operator to source a martial arts school offering lessons in English, like Murasaki Mura, where guests can also try traditional crafts.

TOHOKU: This panoramic northeast region is notable for the colossal Shirakami Mountains. Made a World Heritage site in 1993, the 130,000-hectare range is carpeted by one of the world’s largest virgin beech forests.  Winter brings spectacular frozen scenery to the fore, providing the perfect setting to indulge a typically Japanese way of refreshing both mind and body: skiing (or boarding) the frozen foothills of Zao Mountains, set between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, before pitching, ever so respectfully, into Zao Hot Springs, which offers stay-and-play facilities.

Known as "onsen", some of the world’s best geo-thermally heated baths are scattered nationwide. Bathers believe the mineral-packed waters offer restorative qualities, helping one maintain a tranquil, Zen-like equilibrium. Hot springs also serve a refreshing social function, forming a rare social occasion when usually rigid social boundaries are stripped away with bathers’ clothes.

--  Published by PATA Compass magazine, 2010


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