Tourists flocking to Japan but few venture off the beaten track


With the number of visitors to Japan expected to surpass 13 million this year, officials need to entice tourists to get out of the cities and spread the benefit to rural economies.

The Japan Tourism Agency’s projected total for visitors in 2014 represents an increase of more than 25 percent from the record high of 10.36 million in 2013 and a surge of more than 50 percent from 2012.

Shigeto Kubo, the agency’s commissioner, said growth this rapid was unexpected, but the government is still focused on its ambitious target of 20 million visitors in 2015.

The surge means tourism infrastructure is under pressure. A Nippon Travel Agency Co. employee who handles requests from overseas travel agencies for accommodations, buses and catering said the jump in numbers has caught the sector off guard.

“We used to be able to reserve a hotel easily with one phone call in the off-season. But now, we have many problems,” the employee said, adding that hotel and bus fees have been rising.

The most popular travel package for foreign tourists is the so-called golden route of Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka. With more than 60 percent of foreign visitors following this itinerary, lodgings are often booked full.

“In terms of transportation capacity, it would be physically difficult” to accommodate 20 million visitors if they follow the current pattern of concentrating on large cities, an official with a major travel agency said.

To achieve the 20 million target, it is imperative that demand is nurtured for a wide variety of destinations, not just the better known ones, said Hiroyuki Takahashi, president of JTB Corp.

The government has been promoting what it calls the “Dragon Route,” an itinerary linking destinations in nine prefectures, mainly in central Japan. The initiative is a bid to attract tourists from China, known for their affection for the mythical creature.

The route, which has the shape of a rising dragon, includes such attractions as Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Gokayama hamlet in Toyama Prefecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its “gassho” houses with steeply pitched thatched roofs.

Leading travel agencies also are trying to help foreign tourists discover attractions beyond Japan’s major cities. An increase in the number of foreign visitors to rural areas would invigorate local economies through spending and aid the regional revitalization sought by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But in the short term, there is little prospect of relieving the concentration of foreign visitors in large cities.

Hiromi Tagawa, chairman of the Japan Association of Travel Agents, expressed concern that increasing numbers of foreign tourists in Kyoto, for example, could cause problems for tour operators during the high season for school excursions, as there may be a shortage of buses.

  • GBR48

    The trick here may be to persuade tourists to stay for longer, from 7-10 days to 14+ days. Many tourists, at least on a first visit, are going to want to explore Tokyo, which has a lot of the best known tourist sites. Extending their trips allows them to spend more time in other places. The regions need to fight for those second and thid weeks and for repeat visitors. Much of what they need to do is fairly easy to determine and then roll out, wherever you are in Japan.

    That’s tourists in the classical sense, rather than touring shoppers. The two groups are very different and the latter could more easily be persuaded to visit somewhere in Japan that was nearer to their own nation than Tokyo and less crowded, if it has the shops they want.

    I still find the idea of visiting Japan to shop quite extraordinary. Import duties must be low at returning customs, the currency rates must be attractive, and those arriving must be doing so with empty suitcases and muscles like Popeye to lug stuff back home.

    Did that lady in the photo really travel from China to Japan to buy a rice cooker?

    The constant emphasis on travel agents is interesting. I’m guessing that the majority of visitors from Asia use them, as for Westerners, DIY planning is often the order of the day, putting together a flight, accommodation and an itinerary from online resources. The internet has opened up Japan for many more travellers from other continents.

    Should the government do more? Well yes and no. A lot of this is really the job of regional administrators and councillors who should be doing the most they can to attract people to their area. Anyone offering accommodation or managing a tourist venue should also be doing their bit, advertising it online in multiple languages and registering with the online booking sites. Many local venues have multilingual websites, but some are still Japanese only. Given the number of people fluent in foreign languages in Japan, it shouldn’t be difficult to get your site online in several languages. Maybe the Government could support translation services to small businesses in the run up to the Olympics.

    Generally the government needs to be reserved for the big stuff, like relaxing the rules on room rental-an essential requirement for 2020.

    I recently discovered one area where things have gone badly awry. The Noto Line in Ishikawa Prefecture was a 61km railway line that closed in 2005. When a rail line shuts, it damages the future potential of an area. A railway is a precious resource. Instead of closing an underused one, or hiving it off to inexperienced third parties, low usage suggests the need for rejuvenation, perhaps through tourism.

    It’s dispiriting that so much money is cheerfully ploughed into the new Maglev line, whilst regional railways are allowed to fade away. Once the railways go, tourism often declines below the tipping point of viability. Maybe the government and the railways need to look to finding a low-cost railway technology and sustainable method of operation that could be used on these routes, whilst tourism is developed to support their use, and to help revive the local economy.

    If you want to see some of the lost stations of Japan, search YouTube for ‘Ghost Stations – Disused Railway Stations in Japan’. It’s rather sad, and may best exemplify the difficulties faced by Japan’s regions. It also features the spectacularly ugly Kunikane Station (1m 19s in). So ugly it’s adorable, and merits a place on tourist itineraries, should it still be standing.

    Trains are fast, easy to use, cheap, environmentally friendly and great for tourists. If you have an endangered railway line, fight for it.

    And as Fuji was mentioned in the article. Those responsible might like to build a pedestrian walkway from a station on the Tokaido shinkansen line that goes past it. Run it far enough out of town so that you can build a viewing platform on one side of the line, with an unobstructed view of the mountain: nothing but farmers fields, marshland or trees between photographers and Fuji. On the other side of the line, the obligatory cafes, souvenir shops and facilities.

    • KenjiAd

      Did that lady in the photo really travel from China to Japan to buy a rice cooker?

      Probably not, but Japanese rice cookers are extremely popular here in China (I live in China). What happens is that when you visit Japan, your relatives and friends ask you to buy, say, a rice cooker for them. You can’t refuse it.

      Chinese rice cookers are not as good as Japanese ones. And there are too many fakes here, so people don’t trust a rice cooker even if it has a Japanese brand sticker on it.

      Some other Japanese stuff that Chinese people buy when they go to Japan: medicine, cosmetics, and baby formula. Most Japanese stuff are trusted here.

      • GBR48

        Interesting, KenjiAd. Thank you. Chinese relatives do well out of such visits. Mine get a postcard and kit-kats.

        Budding entrepreneurs take note of what you sell to visitors and export to/import from Japan.

        As should Japanese manufacturers: your international reputation for attention to detail is precious. No more duff bras, air-bags or anything else. Japanese cellphone manufacturers need to loosen up their restrictions too-they could sell unlocked ones by the cart-load.

      • KenjiAd

        Indeed. People in Japan seem to have a misconception about Chinese people. Most Chinese people secretly admire Japan actually.

        So many Chinese people are now visiting Japan and most of them come back with a very good impression of it. At least, they get the impression – “gee, Japan and Japanese people are nicer than I was told.” :-)

        I’m also convinced that, if Japanese people actually meet real Chinese people, not the ones you see on the news or Internet, they would discover that Chinese people aren’t as bad as advertised in the Japanese media.

      • GBR48

        Agreed. The media rely too much on stereotypes. Real people are more friendly.

  • rossdorn

    There is no trick to make people stay longer… what may help is the weak Yen, that is all.

    Stay and visit the cpountry side? In a country where the major attraction are a mountain, which the japanese continuously pretend to have made with their own hands, and a city, where outside the huge center of town every road and suburb do look exactly identical? The same kind of houses, the same kind of shops, the same kind of retaurants, the same kind of streets?

    So, come off it!

    All there is to see in the countryside can be seen from a Shinkasen, going North or going West to Osaka.

    If prices were not so insane that only Japanese are willing to pay them then visitors might go to Okinawa. All my friends that came to Japan, told me exactly the same.
    People who are Japan suckers tend not to be too successful in the rest of their life either, so they are not rich….

    • Gordon Graham

      Chichibu, and Kawagoe are vastly different places that look and feel nothing like each other (and both are in arguably the least interesting prefecture in Japan, Saitama). Chichibu has it’s own authentic culture and feel, you can hear taiko and flutes throughout the year in the quaint narrow streets and you can take a meal in a variety of family restaurants and by family restaurants I mean restaurants run by the same family for generations…inoshishi nabe, soba, and other local fare served in a particular Chichibu way. I recommend a day trip for anyone visiting Tokyo who wants to experience a traditional laid back atmosphere away from the buzz and throng of the hive. Take the Red Arrow Express from Ikebukuro Station. You’ll be glad you did. Cheers!

    • DantheMan

      “If prices were not so insane that only Japanese are willing to pay them then visitors might go to Okinawa.”

      I agree. It is often far cheaper to hop over to Seoul, Taipei, or Manila that travel domestically. Why stay?

    • Steve Novosel

      “If prices were not so insane that only Japanese are willing to pay them then visitors might go to Okinawa.”

      Okinawa is dirt cheap. You can get there by several low cost carriers now, and the cost of accommodation is very inexpensive.

      I go to Ishigaki every winter in peak season, even nice hotels are about 5000 yen including breakfast, transportation around the island is cheap and easily accessible.

      • rossdorn

        name an airline….

      • Steve Novosel

        Vanilla gets you from Narita to Naha for around 12,000 round trip including taxes if you plan ahead.

        Cheap enough for you?

      • rossdorn

        That is a difference. Few weeks ago I checked on the internet and the cheapest one was Skymark, for 250Euro incl only little baggage.
        Which is the price I pay for Bangkok… and I can go from Haneda.

        I will check it out… always wanted to go to Okinawa, thanks.

      • KenjiAd

        If you are an adventurous type and immune to sea sickness, the cheapest way to go to Okinawa/Ishigaki would be to use a ferry from Kagashima. There used to be an ocean ferry (Arimura) even from Osaka to Taiwan via Okinawa/Miyako/Ishigaki, but I’m not sure if it still exists.

      • KenjiAd

        Ishigaki is a wonderful place to visit, much better than Okinawa main island in my opinion. I used to go there twice a year in 80’s.

        From Ishigaki Jima, you can visit several tropical islands nearby. Actually I’ve visited all of them.

  • krr

    Dear GBR48, you misunderstand the emphasis on travel agents. It is not on the local agents that sell trips in Europe, Asia, America. It is on the ground handlers that provide services in Japan. Even if you book them through the internet, there will be an operator here arranging that hotel, that tour, that car that you so easily bought with one click online. So yes, it is necessary that the emphasis is on those travel agents.

    Also, as someone who works in the industry, I do think we need more hotels especially in Kyoto, in all the ranges of price. It’s become a nightmare to book things, even in low season. Let’s be real, everyone will want to go to Kyoto if they go all the way to Japan. It’s up to the city to be able to accommodate these guests, and opening b&bs or family houses will not help, we need large scale accommodation properties.

    • GBR48

      Thanks krr. I was referring to the unmanaged holiday: Apartment, tickets direct from the airlines, public transport and no tours. Unmanaged holidays are increasing in popularity globally courtesy of the net. Unmanaged, you can go anywhere, as long as there is public transport and somewhere to stay. You can check it out and book it direct, as long as the website is multilingual-however small the B&B. On the internet, a website can find you a customer direct, thousands of miles away.

      The responses to this news piece are offering some good ideas for places to explore. Japan is neither homogeneous nor uniform, despite its belief in the former and passion for examples of the latter. Regional accents, cuisines, festivals, domestic architecture, industries and weather mean that tourists can experience more diversity than they might expect if they give it a go.

      A ‘stay longer’ campaign, with a generous WiFi offer and maybe a Rail Pass that can be used several times across a longer period of time might prompt visitors to explore further, for longer.

      Another option would be a secure storage unit for traveller’s bags in central Tokyo. Yes there are plenty of lockers at stations, but a unit with multilingual staff offering somewhere secure for people to stash a proportion of their belongings (and shopping) whilst they explore distant parts of Japan, would be beneficial.

  • KenjiAd

    Some of the places that I think foreign travelers would love (but rarely visit)…

    1) Kurobe-Tateyama Alpine (黒部-立山)
    This is one of the most spectacular scenery you ever see in Japan.

    2) Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa (八重山諸島)
    You would love this place if you like diving.

    3)Tsuwano (津和野)
    A small “Little Kyoto” in Shimane prefecture.

    — Perhaps other readers can add to this list.

    • Juci Shockwave

      Love your suggestions. Those places I would feel at home, since many of those places reminds me of my parents’ home country, Cuba, which also has a lot of rural mountain villages, farm lands and tiny cities. I think places like Tokyo and Kyoto are nice and all, but very highly overrated by tourists and some citizens alike, and some tourists in particular tend to act like a bunch of weeaboos/ japanophiles, which ruins the experience for me. I would definitely like to visit Okinawa the most , because the lifestyle of the people there play a huge influence on my own lifestyle, especially that of diet. Also because I like the calmness of rural places (I go on vacations to escape away from stressful living from cities and to have total peace and quite). That is why I love your list too, so many great calming places. Thank you.

  • sasit93

    If the flocking tourists follow the beaten track the pleasure of travelling in Japan can be achieved .