Digital detox retreats let stressed Japanese log out



While many tourists go to great lengths to always be digitally accessible, a growing number of gadget-weary travelers in Japan are seeing what it is like to leave behind mobile phones and social media services altogether.

Joining a trend that started overseas last year, they are ditching their phones and tablets for “digital detox” holidays at summer camps or hotels, discovering the joys of time spent without instant connection to the digital world.

“We want our travelers to experience something that is not part of their usual routine. By turning off their mobile phones, we want people to appreciate the moment and realize things which are often ignored when our digital devices are there,” said Mirei Eguchi, chief executive officer of Kushunada Co., which offers a “digital detox” vacation package in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Overseas, digital detox retreats such as Camp Grounded in the woods of northern California and programs at resorts such as the Westin Dublin Hotel in Ireland have been drawing crowds for “unplugged” holidays.

The travel fad is slowing gaining interest in Japan.

“It is not that we want people to totally abandon going digital but rather, we want them to realize how important items such as mobile phones are in our lives and have a healthy relationship with these electronic devices,” Eguchi, 31, said.

Launched in August, the two-day, one-night digital detox “retreat” that takes place once a month at a Kushunada facility is open for 10 to 20 participants. They must surrender their smartphones and digital devices at check-in and can only get them back at the end of the program. They must also abandon their watches and there are no clocks in any of the rooms.

The program is a mix of gadget-free indoor and outdoor activities, such as getting-to-know-you games, a unique tea ceremony with meditation using stones known as “sekicha,” and early morning exercises in front of Atami’s famous beach.

Mayumi Morimitsu, an office worker in her 40s, was among the 15 participants who signed up for the digital detox weekend, which usually costs around ¥23,000, in early December. She said she joined out of curiosity after reading about it in a newspaper.

After the activities, especially a three-hour solo trip around the city armed with only a printed map, she said she “realized just how much I had depended on my smartphone in terms of direction and time.”

Hirofumi Shimizu, 25, was also experiencing a digital detox retreat for the first time. A Kyoto-based graduate student until recently, he is used to checking his computer and mobile phone every day.

By the time he had his mobile phone back, he felt “light” holding it and “no longer bound” to the device.

A repeater at the Atami-based program, Masahide Yokoo, 58, knows well as president of a Gifu-based real estate firm that mobile phones or PCs are essential for work. Still, he said, “The moment we give up our smartphones, we are made to realize many things in life which often go unnoticed, such as the scenery in front of us or the wonderful encounters we have.”

Kushunada plans to hold an international symposium with foreign groups engaged in digital detox next year in Atami.

According to Tomohiko Yoneda, chief editor of the Japanese version of the Lifehacker blog and author of a book about digital detoxes, there is a growing need for people in Japan to take an “offline holiday.”

Being too connected to Facebook, Twitter or other social media sometimes messes up relationships and gives some people a sense of inferiority because of this tendency to seek the approval of others for one’s posts, Yoneda said.

A 2012 study by security company Symantec Corp. showed that Japanese Internet users accessed smartphones and computers for an average of 49 hours per week. A 2014 report by the Japan Tourism Marketing Co. also found that some people were choosing to travel to places where they can unplug from social media.

“One would think that things can just be settled by simply turning off their mobile phones but it does not come easily for everyone. Some people would pay money to be in a place which has no service coverage,” said Yoneda, who successfully detached himself from digital devices for about a month.

Being away from electronic devices also comes with medical benefits, said Kiyoko Yanase, a Tochigi-based doctor and a respiratory expert who experienced the digital detox program in Atami.

Yanase said many of her patients have insomnia, partly due to daytime stress caused by factors such as computer work. Net addiction is also becoming a health concern, she said.

Although to a lesser extent, Cafe Lydian in Atami has embraced digital detox by starting a free dessert service since August to reward customers who turn off their mobile phones and devices while eating.

“Eating takes just a short time. Still, I want them to enjoy the food they are eating and appreciate the company they are with at that moment,” said Tomoyuki Nakata, the cafe’s 40-year-old chef who was inspired by similar detox programs worldwide and wanted to try it at the cafe.

Outside of Atami, Hoshinoya Karuizawa resort in Nagano Prefecture offered a digital detox package from September to November that included amenities such as spa treatment. Others go to temples to meditate or visit remote islands without wireless service.

“With the emergence of social media, there is this pleasure of seeking other people’s approval, and that is addictive. Even when you’re traveling, eating good food or at a party, you are not actually appreciating what is happening now, and this ability to be in the moment is something we must regain at some point,” Yoneda said.