Who among us can deny the romance of a once-in-a-lifetime kaiseki meal, or slurping ramen with drunken salarymen at 2 a.m.? Whether it’s the sleeper hit TV series “Midnight Diner,” cult ramen film “Tampopo” or David Chang’s Netflix series “Ugly Delicious,” media depictions of Japanese culinary culture are just one reason why, according to a report from the World Tourism Organization, over 75 percent of foreign tourists stated their main purpose of travel to Japan is to enjoy Japanese food.

But the events of 2020 dealt a massive blow to the country’s hospitality industry. April saw a staggering 99.9-percent drop in overseas visitor numbers compared to the previous year, cutting off vital trade for restaurants reliant on tourism. Tour operations nationwide have largely ground to a halt, with many in the industry being retrenched or furloughed. Those bars and restaurants remaining open must contend with the “Three Cs” — being closed, crowded and with close-range conversation.

For a select few, things have not changed substantially. Ryuta Kumakura, a private guide based in Kyoto, counts himself lucky. Though all his spring reservations were canceled, recent weeks have seen an uptick in work. His clients, many of whom are repeat customers, include well-off Tokyoites and Hong Kongers (despite Japan’s border restrictions, the Japan National Tourism Organization recorded a small number of visitors arriving from Hong Kong in April), non-Japanese residents and remote workers in Japan, many from the IT sector.

“I doubt visitor numbers will return to what they were before, but wealthy tourists aren’t going to be bothered,” Kumakura says. “Those from Hong Kong, Asian travelers especially — they aren’t necessarily in Kyoto to sightsee, they’re here to eat and shop.”

Are you game?: Part of the Yasashii Jikan farmstay experience involves making venison meatballs with deer caught in nearby forests. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Are you game?: Part of the Yasashii Jikan farmstay experience involves making venison meatballs with deer caught in nearby forests. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

In contrast, rural Japan has been hit particularly hard. Hiroyuki Usami runs the eponymous Usami, a restaurant located next to the famed Usuki Stone Buddhas in Oita Prefecture, and catered primarily to large bus tour groups.

“We shut for a month because we had no sales,” Usami writes over email. “Now, business is slowly picking up again, but in the form of individual diners. We haven’t had a single tour group, nor any reservations to indicate that they’ll even come back.” Though Usami specializes in serving refined renditions of Usuki cuisine, the pandemic has forced him to consider revamping the menu and lowering prices to cater to local diners. Domestic tourists might eventually start returning, but for now, he isn’t even thinking about hosting foreign tourists under the circumstances.

Farmstay providers have found themselves devoid of customers, too. The Adachi family in Bungo-Ono, Oita Prefecture, once welcomed 100 visitors — domestic and international — a year for their overnight farm-stay experience, Yasashii Jikan. So far, there have been no takers for 2020. For now, they’re looking for channels to sell their satsumaimo potatoes and hoping people will eventually begin coming back.

Some are choosing to weather the storm by upping their marketing efforts. Seasonal agricultural experiences are popular among tourists to the town of Biei, Hokkaido, and for Harriet Richardson and her colleagues in the Regional Rejuvenation Department of the Hill Town Biei destination marketing organization, the past months have been an opportunity to ramp up their multilingual social media presence.

“We’re making sure food is a regular feature. If you can plant that idea in someone’s mind, here in this region you can try this ice cream, this delicious beef — it’s a very tangible thing for people to latch on to,” says Richardson. “We recently finished a mini five-minute documentary of Biei’s asparagus in English, Japanese and Chinese. It’s a way to keep Biei’s food and agriculture in people’s minds.”

Others in the industry are also moving online. Faced with a lack of visitors, companies such as Arigato Japan Food Tours and Ninja Food Tours have begun offering virtual experiences. They’re a stopgap measure in the age of suspended international travel, but are they viable for culinary experiences? Jerome Lee, director of Japan Travel’s travel agency, thinks so.

Logistically speaking, he notes, a virtual food tour could be conducted in a similar fashion to in-person tours. One example might involve live-streaming a foraging session in a forest, followed by the chef preparing a meal with the ingredients gathered.

“It’s very important,” Lee stresses, “that the experiences focus on interactivity rather than what is being recorded.”

Though virtual tours are unlikely to replace the travel experience, Lee and his team at Japan Travel see tremendous potential in virtual tours as both short-term and long-term solutions to the pandemic. In the short term, quality virtual experiences represent potential revenue sources for struggling businesses within the hospitality industry. In a post-pandemic future, Lee sees virtual tours being integrated into marketing efforts for tour companies and vendors, where livestreams whet the appetite prior to traveling to Japan, tantalizing viewers with images of what they’ll soon be eating and drinking.

For travel industry veteran Axel Deroubaix, virtual tours are just one component of his new undertaking, Peko Peko Box, set to open at the start of August. Conceived in response to the pandemic, the concept is simple: a monthly subscription box, filled with carefully-curated items. If you can’t travel to Japan (or just can’t wait), Peko Peko Box will bring Japan to you.

“There is a future in virtual tourism,” Deroubaix says. “But I think people need to connect (it) to the real world. We send them a box, it allows the experience to be tangible.” He points out the logistical challenges of online cooking classes, where participants may not necessarily have equal access to ingredients. But doing a virtual tea ceremony after receiving a tea whisk, fresh matcha, ceramic bowl and tea sweet in the mail? That’s a different, rather special proposition altogether.

Agricultural tourism: Where in Japan but Biei, Hokkaido, can you pick asparagus with snow-capped mountains in the distance? | HILL TOWN BIEI
Agricultural tourism: Where in Japan but Biei, Hokkaido, can you pick asparagus with snow-capped mountains in the distance? | HILL TOWN BIEI

Drawing on his experience as a tour guide, Deroubaix envisions the monthly boxes as part of a larger storytelling endeavor, with weekly livestreams and travel shows potentially following pilgrimage routes such as the Nakasendo or Kumano Kodo. “We want the customer to have the impression that they’re traveling and discovering with us,” he says.

Food remains one of Japan’s greatest assets as a travel destination, and industry insiders are cautiously optimistic — to varying degrees — about the future of culinary travel.

Lee predicts food tourism will eventually resume, but with adjusted norms, such as higher levels of hygiene in restaurants; food experiences conducted in open spaces with smaller groups; and a greater interest in destinations beyond cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

“Many tourists will want to go out to more rural areas and experience more traditional cooking methods,” he says. “With the assurance that there won’t be as many people, that will be more appealing for them.”

When it comes to the little town of Biei, Richardson is also positive. “I think as soon as the opportunity presents itself they will return,” she says. “What the town has is so special. I’m very confident that those who planned trips will come back.”

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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