Many foreign tourists to Japan often question why public transportation, especially in areas of Tokyo renowned for their nightlife, is so limited after the last scheduled trains.
Amid the country’s ongoing tourism boom, officials are brainstorming for ideas to address this dissatisfaction, and others, and boost tourists’ spending by encouraging more nighttime outings to shows, restaurants and scenic spots in the country.
Some municipalities are proposing night markets in parks and DJ events featuring street vendors.
Toshima Ward, home of the busy Tokyo hub of Ikebukuro, recently came up with ideas to enhance the appeal of its nightlife. It even launched a committee last December whose members, including TV star Tomoe Shinohara, are considering various ideas for nighttime entertainment.
The ward is building an outdoor theater at a park near Ikebukuro Station to attract more visitors with artistic and cultural interests and is hoping to liven up the area so people spend time and money there after the shows have ended.
“We want to pursue the proposals, starting with those deemed most viable,” said Toshima Ward Mayor Yukio Takano.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, a record 28.69 million foreigners visited Japan in 2017, with their total spending reaching an all-time high of ¥4.41 trillion ($41.8 billion).
But given a cooling off of Chinese tourists’ shopping binges, dubbed bakugai (explosive shopping), spending per foreign traveler, at about ¥150,000, is on the decline.
Tourists, especially those from Europe and the United States who emphasize nighttime entertainment when traveling, complain that Japan’s nightlife can be dull — meaning there is huge potential for promoting more spending by foreign travelers.
To offer more choices in nighttime entertainment, the Osaka Prefectural Government started providing subsidies to seven projects to enhance its nightlife in fiscal 2017. Club Piccadilly, which puts on Friday night shows featuring ninja dancers and performances of taiko (Japanese drum) and electric shamisen instruments in Osaka’s busy Umeda district, was one of those chosen, and proved popular with foreign tourists.
Outside of major cities, JTA plans to support municipal efforts to promote nightlife across Japan, citing the Nagano Lantern Festival at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano Prefecture as a successful example.
The annual festival commemorating the 1998 Nagano Olympics attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors in February and features crafted paper lanterns lining the streets and Zenkoji Temple’s dazzling lights.
“If we can create opportunities to go out at night not only in big cities but also in places like ski and hot springs resorts, that could boost spending on food, beverages and other things,” said an official at the agency.
Although the districts of Shibuya and Ginza are bustling with shops and entertainment, Tokyo train and bus services end relatively early — usually around midnight or a little later — when the night is still young.
This leaves foreign revelers with few transportation options, either having to stay out and wait for the first train in the morning or pay for an expensive taxi ride back to their hotel. This is in stark contrast to regional cities such as Fukuoka, where the downtown areas are rather compact with shops and hotels all within walking distance of each other, making them even better potential hubs for nightlife activity.
In December, a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers proposed carrying out test-runs to allow trains and buses to operate past midnight and into the early hours of the morning as a way of enhancing convenience for nightlife enjoyment.
But it would be difficult to operate subways around the clock like those in New York City, suggested an official from Toei, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government-run subway operator.
“It wouldn’t be easy because we check train tracks and the overhead wires between the last train and the first train in the morning,” the official said.
Fukuoka D.C., an association of industry, government and academia in Fukuoka, is taking the lead in examining ways to stimulate the nighttime economy, and plans to take steps in earnest to that end from fiscal 2018.
“Our town is compact. Food stalls and hotels are all concentrated in the center of the town and this is our advantage, that travelers don’t have to worry about transportation after staying out late,” said Shuhei Ishimaru, director general of the association.
“We want to create an environment where foreign travelers can enjoy their nightlife for many days without worry,” he added.