• Kyodo

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A travel agency based in Osaka city is offering tours catering specifically to Muslim visitors — a growing segment of inbound travelers from abroad — featuring a visit to a mosque, halal food and an attendant who adheres to Islam.

Miyako International Tourist Co. says its most popular route starts from Tokyo and takes participants to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara — all major tourist destinations. In recent years, Hokkaido, which has no rainy season and is known for winter sports, is also gaining traction, it says.

Syrian Mohammed Naji Matar, a 39-year-old veteran tour attendant who has lived for eight years in Japan, contacts the hotels and restaurants on the itinerary by phone to request halal food prepared in line with Muslim custom. “Our customers are particularly anxious about what they eat,” he said. “We want to offer a sense of safety and peace of mind.”

One of the mosques covered by the company’s itinerary is Osaka Masjid in a cluster of homes and shops in Osaka’s Nishiyodogawa Ward. Nearby is a halal restaurant where tour participants can eat.

Japan had a record 19.73 million foreign visitors in 2015, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, up 13 million from a decade ago. More than 2 million were from Southeast Asia, including around 310,000 from Malaysia, where 60 percent of the population is Muslim. A further 210,000 were from Indonesia, where nine out of 10 people follow Islam.

The number of tourists from these Southeast Asian countries grew by more than 20 percent from a year earlier, the data from the agency showed.

The Osaka travel agency is run by Hideshi Matsui, 57, who converted to Islam four years ago after getting to know a Japanese Muslim woman in Dubai during a business trip.

Miyako International started Muslim-friendly tours in 2010 and they now account for 30 percent of the company’s revenue. More than 70 percent of participants are Malaysian tourists, according to the travel agency.

The company has 12 staffers, of which five, including two Japanese, are Muslim. They speak five languages including Malay and Arabic.

The firm is also planning to focus more on school and corporate excursions. It also has plans for a guesthouse for solo travelers near Osaka Masjid in the autumn.

“My mission is to serve Muslim brothers and sisters with a deep sense of hospitality and to show them the good Japan can offer,” Matsui said after a service at Osaka Masjid in mid-July.

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