At around 10 p.m. on a Thursday in early August, foot traffic at a dining and drinking district only one stop from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station was unexpectedly sparse despite warm summer weather — ideal conditions for a cold beverage, or two.
Across streetcar tracks and under a torii-shaped arch, Italian restaurants, bars and ethnic food markets line a labyrinth of narrow side streets near the south exit of Otsuka Station on the Yamanote Line.
“We see fewer people than usual outside around here tonight, and it’s been like this all week,” said Daisuke Kusabiraki, an assistant manager at Titans Craft Beer Taproom & Bottle Shop.
That particular Thursday may have been an outlier, but locals feel that Otsuka deserves more attention as a nighttime destination packed with unique establishments.
Like Otsuka, Japan has myriad nightlife areas that are well known among local people but remain relatively undiscovered by foreign tourists, whom stakeholders are targeting to be the driver of the nation’s after-dark economy. Moves are afoot at the public and private level to pitch obscure places to tourists.
“Since long ago, Otsuka has been ‘a night town’ but that fact is not well known,” said Nobuhide Kidokoro, who has lived there for 61 years. “People in this town know that and so do fans of Otsuka. It hasn’t been able to promote itself more widely.”
Kidokoro, an adviser for Minami Otsuka Network, a liaison organization for five shopping streets in the south part of the district, said his hometown has a much longer history than the bustling hub of Ikebukuro and the concentration of local eateries is a vestige of its past as a hanamachi (geisha district).
Toshima Ward, where Otsuka is located, is keen to raise the district’s profile by taking advantage of the area’s history as well as its proximity to Ikebukuro, where new theaters and parks are under development.
In 2015 the ward established its International City of Arts & Culture Vision and began discussing places where theatergoers could stay until the last train of the night. Otsuka then became the focus.
Last December, the ward launched a weeklong campaign funded by the Japan Tourism Agency called Otsuka After Dark, distributing coupons to foreign visitors for 20 drinking and dining spots around Otsuka Station. The aim was to test a business model designed to bring in more foreign tourists and their cash.
“The event was a good chance for tourists to discover hidden gems,” said Shinichi Baba, who is in charge of advancing the International City of Arts & Culture Vision at the Toshima Ward office.
One of the landmarks on the north side of Otsuka Station is OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka, a Hoshino Resorts hotel for travelers seeking mid-range urban stays. The hotel opened in May last year and offers guided tours that general manager Ryoko Isokawa hopes will enliven the nighttime economy in conjunction with the local government’s efforts.
The tour is led by an “OMO Ranger” and options include general strolls, pub crawls, and tours of gourmet food eateries and nightlife hot spots. A ranger in charge of nighttime culture tours takes guests to two or three locations of their choice, such as a Showa Era (1926-89) sunakku bar. The two-hour tour begins at 9 p.m., costs ¥1,000 per person and guests pay for their own food and drinks.
The service is available in Japanese and English. Some guides can also speak French and Chinese.
Haruka Kuge, a 24-year-old hotel staff member who played the role of an “OMO Ranger” on the Thursday night, explained that for foreign guests, she would remind herself to pick authentic Japanese locations and pay attention to any dietary restrictions they may have due to allergies or their religious beliefs.
Although Toshima Ward is courting both domestic customers and foreign tourists, at the national level, the government is focused on getting travelers to stay out later and spend more.
The tourism agency has set a goal of attracting 40 million foreign visitors and outlays of ¥8 trillion by 2020. If the 40 million arrivals target is met, average spending of ¥200,000 per tourist is needed to meet the ¥8 trillion target, an ambitious goal given that foreign tourists spent an average of ¥153,029 in 2018.
The government believes Japan is rich in daytime attractions but does not have enough to offer tourists after dark, which is why it is aiming to boost nighttime attractions in a bid to raise spending closer to the target.
“There are tourism resources in Japan that have gone unnoticed” by foreign tourists, said Masashi Fujisawa, the general manager of Inbound Business at Navitime Japan, a Tokyo-based navigation app developer.
Navitime Japan partnered with the Japan National Tourism Organization for the March launch of Noctive, an online platform that advertises lesser-known nightlife experiences across the country in English.
Junya Tanaka, who is in charge of planning and managing Noctive, said the company wants to cover “locally focused content,” such as places recommended by local residents that are rarely visited by foreign tourists.
Examples he listed include yokochō (alleys crammed with small bars and eateries) in Hamamatsucho, Akabane and Shinbashi, all in Tokyo, areas where foreign nationals are likely to shy away from because of a lack of information in English.
The company officials said they hatched the service on the assumption that tourists want to go to places where Japanese go. The yokochō in Shinbashi is a hot spot for salarymen and could become a place for tourists to integrate and interact with them.
Expanding on that concept, Yuichi Yamada, chief researcher on destination branding at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation, said that efforts toward boosting the nighttime economy “should not be geared specifically to tourists.”
“Although tourist numbers are growing, those who are doing activities in cities are predominantly workers and residents,” Yamada said. “So the real demand can be created when local people come to enjoy the nighttime economy,” he said, adding that tourists can then jump on the bandwagon alongside them.
But when examining a district that has turned into a favorite of foreign tourists, it’s clear that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
The Golden Gai district of Shinjuku, comprising about 280 shabby drinking dens that stay open late into the night, has become a magnet for travelers from overseas.
Yet Nao Wadayama, who started working in the district about 17 years ago, portrayed the situation as one that “makes us happy but also makes us scream” because of the hassles caused by some tourists. Wadayama, the 43-year-old secretariat for the Shinjuku Sanko business promotion association, said bad etiquette from some amid a sudden spike in the number of tourists — even though the association has never actively tried to woo them — has left many bar managers scratching their heads. She said some have seen their regulars drifting away.
In June, a survey of the association’s 189 members found a slew of problems: eating and drinking on streets, blocking streets, litter, urinating and smoking outside. It received answers from 88 members.
Wadayama said she is looking for ways to get tourists to respect the rules of the district without spoiling their fun.
Ryota Kamino, manager of Bar Skavla in Golden Gai, questions whether the growth in foreign customers has actually driven spending.
He said that many foreign tourists are disinclined to pay the bar’s cover charge of ¥500. He assumes that they tend to think of Golden Gai as a “sightseeing place,” rather than as a “drinking district.” For such tourists, he said, “they probably want to visit one bar for a cultural experience and many of them want to have one drink and leave.
“The cover charge of ¥500 to ¥1,000 may feel expensive to them,” he added.