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Osaka joins rush to attract foreign tourists

New, unlikely events trotted out to give city more personality

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

If you asked many Kansai-area foreigners, and not a few Tokyoites, to come up with a slogan to promote Osaka internationally, you might get a response along the lines of: “Osaka: When You Can’t Get a Hotel in Kyoto.”

Proximity to the ancient capital (station to station it is only 30 minutes on an express train) is one of many issues Osaka faces in its renewed quest to lure foreign tourists. But that’s not to say they are avoiding the city. Indeed, the opposite is true, especially for those traveling here from other countries in the region.

Recent statistics released by the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau show that in 2012, about 8.36 million people visited Japan, with 5.42 million, or 65 percent, coming from four Asian countries and cities: South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.

Of these, around 52 percent from Taiwan, 50 percent from Hong Kong, 30 percent from South Korea and 20 percent from China passed through Kansai airport, as opposed to only 11 percent of those from North America.

This year, foreign visitors to Osaka are expected to hit about 2.6 million, up from 2.1 million in 2012.

Past attempts to sell Osaka abroad have focused on bringing people to aquariums or landmarks that city planners mistakenly thought would be of interest. Now, however, the focus is on marketing Osaka as an entertainment destination and providing a more personal, interactive experience.

Among the promotional activities planned for 2014 are the Osaka Pop International Cool Japan Awards, scheduled to take place in March, and the UNESCO-sponsored International Jazz Day, which is actually five days of concerts and workshops that kick off on April 25.

The pop festival in late March includes events on manga, anime, food, music and other cultural curiosities. The awards will honor the most creative entries from around the world in a variety of pop culture fields and will become an annual event.

On the other hand, promoting jazz in Osaka sounds strange to Kansai-area residents, who have long associated that particular genre of music with its western neighbor Kobe, the venue for one of the nation’s largest jazz festivals for over 30 years.

But Osaka tourism bureau Executive Director Kunio Kano says efforts are bearing fruit.

“In November, we hosted the first Osaka Asian Dream Jazz Competition. Thelonious Monk Jr. attended, and we had support from the Monk Institute of Jazz. With the International Jazz Day planned for April, we think Osaka will become a major Asian hub for jazz,” he said.

Osaka officials have also, finally, begun to offer themed walking tours. Six tours are offered on the bureau’s website, covering the city’s northern and southern areas and focusing on Osaka Castle, Sumiyoshi Shrine, the city’s various waterways, the throbbing Dotonbori district and the more down-to-earth (traditionally, at least) Tennoji district.

Residents have long been proud of their food and boast about the “takoyaki” (octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (as-you-like pancakes) as reasons to visit. However, Kyoto, Sapporo, Yokohama, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Okinawa and, of course, Tokyo, have restaurants of all kinds offering food that is similar in quality or better than what one can find in Osaka.

The response to such regional competition has been to boost emphasis on the creation and enjoyment of simple foods via tours to local markets, highlight the part of town that sells kitchen and restaurant supplies, and offer home cooking experiences where tourists can learn to make dishes like sushi, okonomiyaki, and tempura.

This overall strategy might be working, given the rise in visitors. But Osaka’s goal is to attract 4.5 million of them by 2016, and 6.5 million by 2020 — ambitious figures, to be sure.

Additional flights from Asian cities into Kansai airport these past few years, plus the fact that more tour companies are bringing visitors in through Tokyo and out through Kansai, will help meet these targets. Additionally, if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government legalizes casino resorts next year, those who with a yen for gambling will also have a reason to come.

At the same time, private entrepreneurs are targeting the kind of visitor officials and big travel agencies tend to ignore: intelligent and curious individuals who hate guided bus tours and prefer to take things at their own pace.

Osaka resident Sam Crofts conducts bicycle tours of Osaka through his company Cycle Osaka. Limited to six people, he takes visitors on a leisurely journey through the city, where they see the sites and stop occasionally for snacks, drinks, pictures and chit-chat. Many of those who sign up, Crofts says, are from Asia.

“I get the impression that (my customers) want to see something real, not the old world perfection of Kyoto or the endless glass of Tokyo. They love the Osaka Castle grounds, and most are surprised by the amount of greenery, though my route is careful to exploit every square inch of it. They also like Nakanoshima’s European-style buildings and when random people stop and say hi, which happens all the time on our tours but much less outside of Osaka, apparently,” Crofts said.

“On the less positive side, I get a lot of questions about homeless people. Many say it’s the only time in Japan they have seen people sleeping on the floor in the middle of town,” he added.

His advice for luring more tourists was specific and critical to travelers in the digital age.

“I’d like to see the implementation, as opposed to general discussion, of initiatives — such as Wi-Fi in tourism spots — it would be great for Osaka to take the lead nationally in that,” Crofts said

A tourism bureau survey conducted between April and July of 4,600 foreigners who used Kansai airport also revealed the need for practical initiatives like better Wi-Fi access, rather than grand projects. But such requests are often ignored by bureaucrats who prefer to focus on the “big picture.” Thus, whether the latest effort to promote Osaka will address such practical needs is something that remains to be seen.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.