While Natt Navachai, a Thai restaurant owner in the United States, has visited many regions in Japan, he is hoping to become one of a select few to win a one-month tourism experience in the disaster-hit Tohoku region.
Dubbed the “Tohoku 365 Project,” up to six people each year will be chosen to embark on ¥1 million in travel, with the aim to write blogs on their experiences.
“I understand that different regions in Japan have different traditional foods. I’d be happy to widen my food horizon by exploring the varieties of Tohoku’s local cuisine,” Navachai, 34, said.
Run by Visit Tohoku Inc., a subsidiary of Japanese staffing services firm Pasona Group Inc., the project is the brainchild of inbound tourism consultant Ryota Saito, who is aiming to rejuvenate tourism in the region through the perspective of overseas visitors.
“Every trip has one topic, such as cherry blossoms, hot springs and traditional temples in Tohoku,” Saito, 33, said.
“We want to start our project with the theme of food first,” he added.
Saito, who is president of the Sendai-based venture, said the firm planned to launch a website, which would detail application requirements, on April 27.
The screening process will be in three stages starting with a one-minute self-promotion movie, and followed by an application detailing what the person hopes to achieve on their trip and then an interview on Skype.
All applicants must be non-Japanese and over 20 years of age. Those selected will have to upload articles or videos to the tohoku365.com website to share their experiences in languages such as English, Chinese and Thai.
Navachai, 34, said he learned about the project from a Facebook post shared by his brother.
He had never been to the Tohoku region due to a lack of personal connections and because of the damage caused by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis, he said.
However, he said he believed he made a good candidate.
And as a food lover and restaurant owner, Navachai said he believed his previous experiences had also helped him grow professionally.
“Restaurants in Japan are very competitive, which is great for creativity and ideas,” Navachai said.
His cross-cultural background as a Thai who lived in Alaska also gave him a leg up, he said.
A regular user of Facebook, Line and Wechat, Navachai said, if selected, he would post pictures and videos about his experiences in Tohoku.
“I look forward to experiencing different foods, lifestyle . . . in the Tohoku region,” he said.
Visit Tohoku Inc. will consider applicants’ possible contributions to Tohoku, their passion for food and social media skills before choosing the first person to embark on a trip between August and September.
Visit Tohoku Inc. expects the website to have 3 million hits each year, with revenue to come mainly from advertising and sponsorship.
The Tohoku region, comprising six prefectures including Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate, had previously attracted many overseas visitors to its sightseeing spots, such as hot springs and ski resorts. But more than five years after the disaster, the devastated region is still struggling to win back tourists.
In the five years since the March 11 disaster, the number of overseas tourists to Japan has continued to rise, with Chinese tourists’ shopping sprees in Japan spreading at such a pace that “explosive buying” became Japan’s buzzword of last year.
But any spinoff has not yet reached the Tohoku region.
Foreign tourists in Japan totaled about 20 million last year — more than double that of 2012 — but the six prefectures of Tohoku only recovered to the pre-disaster level of 500,000 foreign tourists a year in 2015, according to the Reconstruction Agency.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the disaster on March 11 that Japan aimed to triple the number of foreign visitors to the Tohoku region to 1.5 million in 2020 from the 2015 level.
However, Saito, a Tohoku native, said he believed the target was “insufficient.” He said tourism in the Tohoku region had large potential for growth, but it first required foreign travelers to be able to make their own discoveries there.
“Tourism (in Tohoku) can’t develop unless overseas visitors know Tohoku has tourist spots,” he said.
Saito’s company is also trying to promote the project to the Chinese market, with Liu Rui, a Chinese IT employee who previously lived in Tokyo, translating the project into Chinese.
“Although I have not been to Tohoku, I know there are many attractions and delicious foods,” Liu said.
She also told her friends about the project. “Some of my friends showed great interest,” she said. “As most Chinese tourists to Japan just go to major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, if the application details are available in China, I think more travelers would like to go to Tohoku.”
Saito is urging municipalities, the business sector and universities to work together to promote the project and has set up training programs in the region to help them provide services to foreign customers.
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