For the first time in more than a year, it might be possible to dream of visiting Japan as the number of people overseas who are vaccinated against COVID-19 increases.
In anticipation of such trips, content producers are ramping up online offerings that have clearly been made to tap into such excitement.
Take the recent success of Kuga’s Travel. Launched in 2020, the YouTube channel initially couldn’t settle on what to focus on, with detours into ordinary subjects such as food and novelty vending machines in the beginning. The channel then started to focus on domestic travel — specifically, elevated transport by water or rail.
The channel’s biggest success has come from luxury travel that’s probably beyond most viewers. In a post titled “Riding the Sleeper Train in Japan on a Heavy Snow Day,” Kuga’s Travel rides the Sunrise Izumo overnight service from Tokyo to Shimane Prefecture, detailing the entire experience for viewers scattered about the world. The upload has become one of the bigger success stories out of Japan on YouTube recently, attracting more than 3.6 million views and inspiring a lot of wanderlust in the comments section. The same could be said for similar fare from the channel that looks at other luxury rail services or the first-class carriage of the Joetsu Shinkansen.
When the world shut down last spring, videos of Japan were generally celebrated for their therapeutic and escapist qualities. Like the relaxed atmosphere provided by Animal Crossing: New Horizons, ho-hum footage of people walking around Akihabara offered viewers a sense of calm during a highly stressful period of time. Physically visiting the archipelago at that time obviously wasn’t possible, yet absorbing images of a seemingly calm place — something many outside of Japan had already been doing prior to COVID-19 — offered peace in tough times.
With borders now slowly opening up to tourism again, people are starting to fantasize about visiting Japan again. Kuga’s Travels certainly provides this. These modes of transportation are unfortunately beyond many travelers — even if they imagine they might pay extra for them now — so watching Kuga enjoy a shower on a train offers second-hand thrills, but it also shifts from Japan as a calming background presence to something more attainable. Maybe it’s not possible to ride a train that has a foot bath, but you can still ride a train in Japan.
People want to travel to Japan when it’s possible, and they want to watch videos such as Kuga’s Travel or follow uploads on TikTok tagged #travelJapan or #exploreJapan full of advice and recommendations on where to go.
“Virtual only” travel experiences appear to be less in demand, with some campaigns generating controversy rather than praise in recent months. Travel agency JTB delivered the biggest blunder with the introduction of its “Virtual Japan Platform,” an effort at an online immersive Japan experience aimed at those abroad with sub-Nintendo 64 graphics. Ridiculed for its shabby look by Japanese netizens, it also failed to capture what people want once they are able to travel — the chance to see the country for themselves.
Credit to local governments, then, for tapping into this online desire to see Japan. Kochi Prefecture struck YouTube gold with its “Visit Kochi Japan” campaign earlier this year, featuring sumptuous drone footage of the prefecture. Aided by the decision to make these clips pre-roll ads for other videos (but attracting plenty of fawning in their own comments), the campaign has enjoyed more attention than similar promotions simply by highlighting the charms of the region.
Or take the case of the squid statue in the town of Noto. The story of a town in Ishikawa Prefecture using COVID-19 relief money to build a monument to the squirmy sea creature went viral earlier this spring, thanks to a mix of “get a load of Japan now” and Twitter-generated anger. Seethe all you want, but Noto turned ¥30 million into a hit tourism promotion, putting a town few knew about before onto the world stage and drawing locals to the squid itself.
The days of people staying inside and experiencing Japan as a digital balm are ending, and they’re being replaced by uploads based on experiential subjects anyone can take part in. Soon a new generation of tourists will arrive in the country hungry to experience the trains, nature and civic projects gone awry.
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