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Saga Prefecture has long ranked low among domestic tourist destinations in Japan, but local officials and residents believe this is all down to a bad rap that is quite unearned.

The prefecture in northwestern Kyushu, they argue, suffers because it lacks a signature image to stick in people’s minds, but nevertheless has a plethora of attractions.

While Japanese tend to associate each prefecture with a famous place or specialty food, “for Saga, nothing much comes to mind,” concedes Koji Nakashima, section head of the Saga prefectural government.

Saga ranked fifth from bottom of the 47 prefectures for hotel occupancies and 17th from bottom among foreign visitor hotel stays in 2015, with 3.15 million and 200,000, respectively, according to data compiled by the Japan Tourism Agency.

And according to a March 2015 online survey of 500 adult men and women conducted by the Freshers Web magazine, Saga was ranked No. 1 among Japanese as the place they are least likely to travel to in their lifetimes. However, promotional efforts are starting to pay off.

Saga had the second highest rise of 119.9 percent in hotel stays by foreign nationals in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the agency, although as Nakashima acknowledged, that was from a low base.

“It is not that Saga has nothing, it is just that it is not being seen,” says Yoshie Urakawa, a 69-year-old local potter.

Yoko Ueda, who runs a souvenir shop near Yutoku Inari Shrine in the city of Kashima, says Saga has long been a place to leave rather than visit, with many residents moving to Tokyo or Fukuoka for a better life. Saga, she concedes, is also an inconvenient place to travel around because of the infrequency of trains and buses.

However, she says she is proud that Saga, for example, has the Kashima Gatalympics, a game show-style sports event for all played out on the mudflats of the Ariake Sea, including a mud sumo event. It has become one of Saga’s top attractions, drawing local and foreign tourists alike.

“You won’t know the good things unless you come. People after visiting say that it is really amazing,” she says.

Nakashima, though, admits that most locals are hard-pressed at first to come up with something Saga is known for nationally. “When asked, what many people in Saga will say is that there is nothing here,” he says.

However, dig a little deeper and most people find something to praise. “Saga has many historic places to offer” compared to other prefectures in Kyushu, says Yuki Tsuruchi, a 16-year-old high school student. She recommends people visit Yoshinogari Historical Park, a site containing ruins from the prehistoric Yayoi Period, which lasted 600 years from 300 B.C.

Urakawa, meanwhile, advised visitors to come to see the Saga International Balloon Fiesta, a team event for hot-air balloons held from late October through early November. “I feel at peace here, having a sea that has so many living creatures in it, and seeing the balloons flying,” she says.

Ureshino’s hot springs, little known compared to the more famous Beppu spas in Kyushu, have a skin toner additive. Tomoko Asano, 36, a visitor from Tokyo, enthused about the softness of the spas’ water. “It’s very good for your health,” she says.

Nakashima said the prefecture boasts one of the most picturesque horizons in Japan and recommended its squid and beef, while recognizing that the Saga brand for those foods is not well known in the country.

The new measures adopted by the prefecture’s tourism agency to attract more visitors includes a program called Saga Monogatari (The Saga Story), in which tourists can meet with local people such as craftsmen to discuss the type of work they do or just chat.

About 150 local people are registered for the program, and the app allows visitors to select among them based on their interests and location. They are welcomed either by a hug, a rare form of greeting in Japan, or a handshake, says Hidetoshi Tanaka, deputy director of the Saga Prefectural Government International Affairs and Tourism Department.

For foreign tourists, a smart phone application called “Dogan shita to?” meaning “What’s the matter?” in the Saga dialect, has been released in several languages. Users can access it 24 hours a day to get in touch with an interpreter via Skype.

“It’s good to know there is something like this, as tourists might ask me things like how long it will take to reach their hotels,” says Urakawa the potter.

She is also one of the participants in Saga Monogatari. “It would be nice if people can come to me through Saga Monogatari and tell their friends about it,” Urakawa says, “since it helps stimulate business, too.”

The agency is planning to organize tours for foreign tourists in fiscal 2016. Tanaka says they are planning to translate menus into English, while posting signs with explanations of places and how to board buses in English.

Arita porcelain, which is produced in the town of Arita, celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.

There were 3,887 foreign tourists who visited the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in the same town, which collects and exhibits ceramic ware from the entire Kyushu region, in 2014. Many Europeans visit the museum, as Arita porcelain used to be a symbol of status in Europe, says Ayako Yamamoto, the museum’s curator.

“The Netherlands asked Saga for Arita porcelain to be sent all over the world from 1650 through 1750, when China was embroiled in a civil war,” she says.

The recently launched nine-seat “Barista Taxi,” which offers freshly brewed free coffee to customers, has been gaining popularity with passengers since beginning operations in January.

“Visitors can cover the nearly 80-minute journey from Saga Airport while enjoying coffee, while the driver recommends and talks about places in the city,” says the Arita Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Shinichi Maeda.

The prefecture’s rise in tourists is also partly down to an increase in low-cost carriers to its airport. Earlier, tourists who traveled through Saga Airport would stay in the adjacent more popular Fukuoka Prefecture, but having shopping malls and hotels built around Saga Station has prompted visitors to stay in the prefecture, as it is cheaper, says Chika Ogasawara, 27, who works at a local advertising agency.

Many people from Thailand visit the Yutoku Inari Shrine after it was filmed in one of the country’s dramas. Souvenir shops explain about traditional yokan red bean paste sweets, in explanations written in Thai. It is also cheaper to travel to Kyushu from the Southeast Asian country than going to places such as Hokkaido and Tokyo.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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