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When it comes to tourism, image is everything

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

During his re-election campaign these past two weeks, one of the lesser-known successes touted by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto was the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau, which he set up to promote the area to tourists and convention organizers.

The new bureau marks the latest effort by a town, city or prefecture in Kansai to distinguish itself and grab a piece of the domestic and international tourism pie. But when promoting themselves overseas and, to a lesser extent, within Japan, the first and most fundamental problem is the region’s weak or nonexistent presence in the minds of would-be visitors.

Despite recent efforts to coordinate tourism efforts, politicians are still very much in competition with each other, and even well-known Kansai cities are seeking new ways to re-brand themselves.

One way is through food. Not too long ago, relatively little thought was given to Kansai cuisine’s potential as a tourist draw. But now fussy foodies in search of the perfect can’t-find-it-in-Tokyo-or-anywhere-else meal, made with fresh ingredients grown locally, are being targeted by promotion campaigns.

These efforts are only expected to grow after “washoku,” or traditional Japanese cuisine, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in December.

In Kansai, Kyoto’s restaurant industry played an influential role in pushing for the listing.

Japan’s well-known cultural capital appears to have the least to be concerned about when it comes to image. But thanks to the renewed attention Japanese food has received from the UNESCO heritage listing, Kyoto is re-branding itself as a source of health food cuisine by touting local ingredients like “kujo negi,” a kind of leek.

Restaurants specializing in the use of local produce have been springing up in and around the touristy Kiyomachi area.

Other prefectures are also promoting their food and drinks. In Nara, long thought of as the one place in Kansai with an undistinguished cuisine, city officials now proudly boast of local strawberries. In Wakayama Prefecture, plum-based products, especially homemade “ume-shu” liquor, are proliferating at shops in Kansai that cater to tourists.

And Tottori hopes beef-eaters in Kansai, after they’ve paid a visit to Kobe, will come up to their prefecture and sample the local Olein 55 beef that, despite its rather unappetizing name, enjoys the promotional support of the central government.

Yet efforts in and around Kansai to create an image via food are likely to see limited success overseas. For starters, there is a severe lack of information in English about restaurants in the localities where the touted food originates, or even about restaurants in major Kansai cities dedicated to a particular delicacy or cuisine.

In addition, unless you are as obsessed as those promoting their cuisine and its distinctive characteristics, it’s unlikely you’ll remember, for example, that the soup you ate contained Kyoto, not Shiga, leeks after you’ve returned home, or care much about the difference between Kobe beef and Tottori beef.

And what about Osaka? After years of trying to promote the city as the “kitchen of Japan” — an effort that met with only mixed success — officials have switched gears somewhat and are trying to promote the city as an entertainment center.

Music is a big part of this campaign. When it comes to Western, or American, music, Kobe has long been known as the heart of Kansai’s jazz scene, while back in the 1970s Kyoto was famous for its blues bars. Today, however, Osaka is attempting to reinvent itself as a major international jazz center.

To that end, it will host its Third International Jazz Day, another UNESCO-endorsed project, on April 30. Presented in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the event features workshops with famous musicians from around the world, and concludes with a concert in Osaka Castle Park that evening.

Even as Osaka aspires to become an international jazz mecca like Paris or Stockholm, the region will continue to promote itself as an Asian gateway.

Indeed, since Kansai International Airport opened in 1994, touting its Asian connections has been the one consistent theme in the otherwise numerous, and at times schizophrenic, efforts to create a lasting domestic and international image. Yet what those connections are, beyond trade relations, or why Asian tourists should automatically prefer modern Kansai over the more traditional parts of Japan is never made clear.

With the central government announcing earlier this year that it hopes to attract 20 million foreign visitors to Japan by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — about double last year’s number — promotional efforts throughout Japan are expected to increase. Over the next six years, we can look forward to all manner of attempts by prefectures, towns and even villages to create a recognizable image that will lead to increased tourism revenue or at least sales of local products.

PR efforts resulting from such attempts may appear a bit desperate at times. But Kansai-area officials in particular worry that unless foreigners form a strong image of the region as a whole by then, those who do venture outside of Tokyo in search of adventure will go to a part of the country that has managed to create not only a good image, but also a unique one promising something other than the same kind of food, music and entertainment that can be found pretty much anywhere in Japan. Or the world.

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