For some, travel means using points and miles, finding the cheapest flight, packing a few hours before departure and letting fate guide the adventure.
For Naomi Mano’s clients, who are either super rich, super picky or both, it means taking their wish list to their go-to hospitality consultant and waiting for the magic to happen.
Mano, a U.S.-born Japanese national who puts a price tag on omotenashi (hospitality), goes above and beyond to fulfill her clients’ requests because she wants them to have both a unique and authentic Japanese cultural experience — often involving hidden gems not even on local radars.
“I do not want Japan to be seen as a place where only money can buy access, because it is so far from the truth,” Mano says.
The 48-year-old is president and CEO of Tokyo-based Luxurique, a high-quality hospitality consultancy catering to upper-echelon travelers.
Her clients are business executives, entrepreneurs, investors and artists “who can be Googled,” with the majority of them based in Asia. She says they have one thing in common: They want to see people, places and things that are off the menu to most.
Money gives anyone access to things that can lead to momentary joy. But Mano says for a person who has everything, unusual experiences give more bang for the buck than objects.
In fact “some of our experiences cost nearly no money at all,” says Mano, whose communication and language skills, and awareness of cultural differences, are important entrepreneurial tools she uses to make her clients’ dreams a reality.
Her persuasive skills have seen Japanese artists and craftsmen opening up their secret family teachings to outsiders, in some cases traditions that have never been shared outside of the family for hundreds of years.
It usually takes months, and sometimes years, for Mano to win the trust of these shokunin (artisans) who spend their lives perfecting their art, and she chooses their first visitor carefully.
“It must be someone who shares the same level of passion for their art. Once the artisan realizes there are global people that appreciate their art, then they feel more comfortable to open up,” she says.
She has won buy-in from various high-profile figures including artisans, athletes, business leaders, manga artists and monks, whose names she refuses to reveal to protect their privacy.
A simple meet and greet can be priced at $100 (about ¥10,000) or less, while a more involved visit can cost more than $20,000 (around ¥2.1 million).
In one instance, a client asked Luxurique to get him a “leaf that doesn’t fall” from Hiroshima, a good luck charm for academic success, as a gift for his entrance exam-facing daughter, which was arranged for the mere cost of shipping to his hotel.
“Japan has many facets, and not everything is expensive,” Mano says.
That is not to say the wealthy do not spend money on lavish items, but they think differently about money than the average person, she says.
Many of Luxurique’s big-spending clients are interested in Japanese arts and have spent up to ¥50 million (about $474,000) on artifacts such as a butsudan (household altar), katana (swords), lacquerware or silk kimono fabrics.
The boutique firm is primarily contacted via word of mouth, with introductions coming through past clients, embassies, royal families, politicians, and luxury brands and their VIP clientele, among others.
Coronavirus-enforced border closures put a hold on about 80 percent of her business, with cancellation requests received as early as January, but not even a pandemic has stopped Mano from contributing to Japan’s economy and keeping dying traditions alive.
“To me, the company and what I do is very much a passion. I love what I do, so it makes it easier. For me, it’s a life’s work as well. I believe what I’m doing will help to get Japan on the map for a lot more people,” she says.
Mano, who speaks both English and Japanese fluently, says the company has already been getting year-end and spring vacation bookings from international jet-setters. Deep-pocketed travelers can afford to pay for space and privacy and many consider Japan a safe pandemic option, so Mano predicts luxury travel will come back first along with business travel.
Driven by coronavirus concerns, Mano has fielded requests from clients asking to be allocated the same guide and driver throughout their trip. Still, according to Mano, they seem to be more optimistic than the average vacationer.
“My clients are nervous but not that nervous,” she says.
“I think people traveling into Japan feel a lot safer than the people welcoming them into Japan. That mentality has got to change. We have to remember that they’re the ones bringing in cash.”
When creating a personalized journey, Luxurique starts from scratch and no two trips are alike.
Requests like going to a reptile farm or training with wrestlers at a sumo stable are manageable, but the ones they have to turn down are mostly dining because high-end restaurants are unwilling to take last-minute reservations, Mano explains.
“We have so many outrageous requests. There’s too many to mention. We’ve had bird lovers and goldfish lovers, and people have wanted to take home Shiba dogs. Actually, that’s very, very popular,” she says.
Mano, who worked for a membership concierge service headquartered out of London for seven years prior to starting Luxurique in 2014, is no longer surprised by even the most extravagant request.
“I’ve been doing this for so long,” she says, remembering a client who wanted to rent out Fuji Speedway, a world-class auto racing circuit in Shizuoka Prefecture, and another who wanted to learn drifting from famous driver Keiichi Tsuchiya.
She says back in 2007 it was difficult to convince the local Japanese to accept foreign guests whom they viewed as outsiders.
Even today, the challenge is getting craftspeople from older generations to understand that their storytelling is more valuable than the product they make and sell.
What started as a hobby for Mano has turned into something much bigger. Luxurique now has 10 full-time staff and additional project support staff, and the luxury experience creator sees opportunities to expand, despite the virus.
“We don’t just tell VIPs we’ll upgrade their hotel to a suite or upgrade their flight to business class. Why? Because we understand the mentality of our clients,” Mano says.
“They want something and they’re willing to spend money but it has to be done properly. It’s not about giving them a bigger hotel room or a better seat on an airplane. It’s not about the price, it’s about the pricelessness.”
To high net worth individuals, travel has become more about authentic and unforgettable experiences, which discount and mass-market travel companies are unable to provide.
“That human component is so lost in Japanese tourism. But it’s the one thing that we have to offer because we’re all about these shokunin and we believe these craftspeople can be destinations in themselves.”
Social distancing has us longing for human proximity, and people like Mano know that the value in luxury travel is the shared human experiences, rather than the price tag.
“You’re not inspired just by watching a YouTube video. Especially the affluent, they’re very well educated and well informed. They have broad interests,” Mano says.
“Japan has got so much to offer, but Japan has to open up. That’s what we can help build.”
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