Japan’s rural temples see the light in luxury tourism



Deep in a forest in Fukui Prefecture, a 13th century Buddhist temple where Steve Jobs once dreamed of becoming a Zen monk has teamed up with a Tokyo skyscraper builder to seek the commercial enlightenment of foreign tourist dollars.

As a weak yen fuels record tourism, Eiheiji Temple, local authorities and Mori Building Co. — the construction company behind some of Tokyo’s glitziest retail palaces — plan to redevelop the site, including placing a ¥1.3 billion hotel nearby. From there, a new path will be built leading visitors to the spartan site that intrigued the Apple Inc. guru.

Japan’s temples have long been business and tech-savvy, offering lucrative services like funerals while courting domestic tourists — a recent Eiheiji exhibition featured video from a drone operated by a monk. But compared to other parts of the world, religious sites outside centers like Kyoto have been slow to target mass foreign tourism.

What has changed is a shrinking population using temples less, crimping revenue just as annual overseas tourist numbers surge toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of 20 million well ahead of a target date of 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. Japan’s farther-flung regions, long suffering a rural exodus, now want a piece of an influx led by visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan that is bolstering big-city economies.

“Eiheiji is a monastery that has been isolated from the rest of the world,” said the Rev. Shodo Kobayashi, a deputy administrator at the temple. “But we cannot be divorced from our community forever. We need to respond to the needs of local governments to increase tourists.”

Eiheiji needs money to support monks in the kind of intensive Zen retreat training that once appealed to Steve Jobs. But visitor numbers have skidded to less than half a million a year, nearly two-thirds below a late-1980s peak when group tours organized by Japanese companies and neighborhood associations were at the height of their popularity.

For the temple and local authorities, a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with neighboring Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, offers a lifeline. The picturesque castle town just over 50 miles away is seeing a surge in foreign tourists whisked from Tokyo in just over 2½ hours.

The temple aims to spend ¥1.3 billion to build a two-story hotel offering modern comforts — including alcohol — to 80 guests in the adjacent town of Eiheiji, while the surrounding Fukui Prefecture’s authorities will redevelop the path leading to the temple in a project to be completed by 2020.

“With a place to stay the night, tourists will spend more time and money,” said Shouji Kawakami, an Eiheiji town official. Local officials hope to double the number of visitors to the temple by 2025.

For Yasuo Sasaki, head of the promotions department at Fukui Prefecture, the stakes go beyond tourism itself. “We need to strengthen our brand power to attract more tourists,” Sasaki said, “then we could revive our economy and people in Fukui will regain pride and confidence.”

It is an ambition shared by many of Japan’s less-traveled cities and towns, largely left behind while the Tokyo metropolis continues to grow in economic power.

But while these places invest in new facilities, for Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist at Japan Research Institute, it will remain difficult for locations that have fallen out of favor with domestic tourists to see a return.

“In order for them to attract foreign tourists, they need to have something very unique,” said Motani. “It is very challenging for places that were deserted by Japanese people to attract foreign tourists.”

Still, some say foreign tourists can, and will come.

At Chusonji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Iwate Prefecture that traces its roots back nearly 1,200 years, promotions aimed at attracting visitors from Taiwan and Thailand are paying off, and will be stepped up, said senior temple priest Kaisyun Chiba. A broad central government push to encourage visitors to Japan is also helping, he said.

“We have been making efforts to attract tourists but we haven’t done enough,” said Chiba. “How hard we try to attract them would be a key for the future.”

Back at Eiheiji, shaven-headed monks in black robes will continue to go about centuries-old rituals. But those interested in joining their austere training regime may be discouraged by Steve Jobs’ conclusion after consulting his spiritual advisor, an Eiheiji-trained monk who also performed his marriage service.

“He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was correct,” the former Apple leader told writer Walter Isaacson in his authorized biography. “I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.”