There are places in central Tokyo where you can taste various foods from regions around Japan and buy rare souvenirs without ever having to leave the capital, but they remain largely unknown to foreign tourists.
Prefectures across Japan have been struggling to attract more and more foreigners to their specialty “satellite shops,” which are aimed at promoting their respective regions to people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and encouraging them to visit.
The shops, which are typically owned by prefectural governments but managed by private companies or other entities, sell such items as confectionery, vegetables and handicrafts. Many also have restaurants serving regional cuisine.
Besides selling products, satellite shops also encourage customers to visit their prefectures, and provide information on living in the regions.
As of July, there were 61 such shops in Tokyo, according to the Japan Center for Regional Development, which is engaged in supporting regional governments to open and manage satellite shops.
Having first emerged in the 1990s, satellite shops are currently found in three areas in Tokyo — Ginza, Yurakucho and Nihonbashi.
Chizuru Hatada, a spokesman for the JCRD, said satellite shops started shifting their attention to foreign visitors around 2013 — when Tokyo was chosen as the venue for the 2020 Olympics — by gradually setting up websites in foreign languages and introducing tax-free shopping, among other steps.
Before then, officials said they were targeting relatively rich middle-aged and elderly people, according to Hatada.
But with the increase in foreign visitors to Japan and elderly customers expected to be a diminishing source of revenue, the shops have had no alternative but to revise their strategy.
“The problem is that satellite shops themselves are not well known yet among foreign people, including those who live in Tokyo,” Hatada said.
The Toyama Prefectural Government has increased efforts to promote the prefecture of about 1 million people on the Sea of Japan coast by opening a second satellite shop in Nihonbashi in June.
The area is known for long-established department stores that tend to attract foreign visitors, especially now that they can benefit from the yen’s depreciation.
While Toyama’s first shop only deals with regional food, the new shop, Nihonbashi Toyama, deals also with crafts, including cast metal models and Japanese paper products, which accounted for one-third of the roughly 700 items it has sold so far, according to deputy manager Mari Nakashima.
The Nihonbashi shop always has two “concierges” fluent in English at the counter near the entrance.
“Most foreign customers here come in without knowing about Toyama after seeing the beautiful displays through the show windows,” said Nakashima. In addition to a Japanese restaurant, Nihonbashi Toyama boasts a sake bar, where customers can taste labels from the prefecture.
“With the 2020 Olympics looming, the number of foreigners will surely increase. We want to prepare for that,” Nakashima said.
One option under consideration is producing brochures of goods in foreign languages, which would also carry information about Toyama Prefecture.
Hiroshima’s satellite shop tau gained significant benefits from the attention the western prefecture received in 2016 in the wake of the Hiroshima Carps winning their first Central League pennant in 25 years, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to its capital city.
Sales at the shop this fiscal year are expected to top the ¥890 million recorded in fiscal 2015, which ended last March, with a total of 850,000 customers.
Kumanofude, traditionally crafted cosmetic brushes highly valued at home and abroad, are the best-selling item among foreign customers at the shop, according to Shohei Murakami, manager of tau.
Teresa Chow, 33, a dental hygienist from Boston, was one customer who bought the makeup brushes in kumanofude Select Shop Ginza in tau’s building.
“I was here last year. And the quality is very good, so I came back,” said Chow after buying three makeup brushes in early December during her vacation. “It’s very convenient here. You can even buy online, actually back home. But I like to see it in person.”
But she was not aware that the entire building features Hiroshima products, saying “I know it (the brush) was from Japan, but I didn’t know which local area.”
In dealing with foreign customers, “Although we made some efforts, including installing English menus in our okonomiyaki (Japanese vegetable-meat pancake) restaurant, we haven’t prepared very well,” admitted Murakami. Okonomiyaki is usually made of cabbage, pork, egg and other ingredients and fried on a hotplate, known as the soul food of Hiroshima.
“It is important for entire satellite shops, instead of a single store alone, to cooperate in promoting the places where foreign visitors can experience and taste things from regional areas even while staying in Tokyo,” Murakami said.
In a related move, a group of satellite shop managers held a workshop in September on how to welcome foreign customers in English and communicate with them better, according to JCRD’s Hatada.