For many foreigners visiting Tokyo, places like Akihabara and Harajuku are the must-see spots.
Compared with those places, Ota Ward may seem a bit dull — not only for foreign tourists but also for Japanese.
But the ward and local residents have high hopes that Haneda airport’s expanded international services and new facilities will energize the local economy by boosting tourism and attracting more visitors.
“Haneda’s internationalization is a great chance,” said Takeshi Aoki, director of tourism development in Ota Ward’s industry and economy department.
While famous for having many small factories, Ota Ward has no superpopular tourism attractions and is generally considered an unremarkable district.
But that ordinariness is what the ward is pushing to sell.
With classic shopping avenues, public bathhouses and local shrines, the ward aims to have residents and visitors alike discover ordinary daily life in Japan.
Ward officials acknowledge, however, that it will be a challenge. After all, such concepts aren’t exactly eye-catching.
Promoting “a manufacturing town” as a tourist attraction could also be difficult, Aoki said. Most small factories are run by just a few people, making it hard to arrange tours, and these factories generally make a limited set of parts, which is not very appealing for visitors.
Therefore, the key concept is to promote the ordinary so visitors can experience daily life in Tokyo, he said.
“Ota Ward is not a well-known tourism spot, but has a lot of undiscovered ordinary things. We believe that visitors will enjoy those if we promote them one by one,” said Aoki.
For instance, Ota Ward has a hot spring called “kuroyu” (black hot spring) and has 57 public bathhouses, the most in any of Tokyo’s 23 wards.
There are also places like the Ota Wholesale Market, the biggest fruit and vegetable market in Japan. The area boasts an abundance of local shrines and temples as well.
Midori Koseki, who works for the Ota Tourist Association, said that while those elements may be hard to promote, they have the potential to be excellent tourism resources.
“Even if the local government invests in a big shopping mall, visitors can easily go to Odaiba (a famous shopping spot near Haneda airport) by bus or train,” Koseki said.
“Walking around shopping avenues, going to bathhouses, seeing a five-story pagoda and shrine . . . gives a good sense of ordinary lives when we think of Japanese culture,” she said. “Ota Ward is not really commercialized for tourism.”
Aoki of the Ota Ward office also stressed the advantage in being so close to the airport.
“People who come to Haneda for transit can take a short tour around the airport — many public bathhouses are open until late at night,” he said.
Local business associations are excited that Haneda’s expansion and addition of international flights could help energize the local economy.
“I’ve been telling people running businesses in local shopping avenues that a lot of foreign visitors are expected to come, so please serve them with a mind of hospitality,” said Koichi Endo, who chairs the association of Ota Ward’s shopping avenues. “I’ve told them, before visitors go to other areas, make sure to attract them to (local) shopping avenues and that they can enjoy themselves there.”
Endo said he has been encouraging local business owners to learn the languages and customs of other countries to better serve foreign visitors.
Also, to attract visitors to local stores, the ward and shopping avenues have been collaborating on promotions.
One idea has been to award a number of local shops “signature product” marks for their food, as well as designating a number of restaurants as “Ota’s recommended gourmet.”
Those products and restaurants are to then be promoted through various media and at Haneda’s information center to lure visitors to the local shopping avenues.
This year’s awards for the products and restaurants were announced during Ota Ward’s local business expo last weekend.
Kazutaka Suzuki, who runs Honan Chaso, which sells Japanese tea, received the “signature product” award for its Japanese tea.
“Since Japanese tea is a popular souvenir among foreign visitors, we realize that we have to do business with that awareness,” said Suzuki, adding that the local community needs to come up with a variety of angles to promote tourism.
In the meantime, some business owners said it is unclear if the area surrounding the airport can really attract foreigners.