Time to visit the lesser-known parts of Japan

  • Asia & Oceania
  • Wednesday, 17 Oct 2018

Tourists taking pictures of an Akita Inu, a dog breed that is native to Japan, in Akita prefecture. Photo: Reuters

At a fireworks festival in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, in late July, some of the paid seats were occupied by tourists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Guiding the party in fluent Mandarin was Koichi Yoshida, 36, who is known in Taiwan as a promoter for travel to Japan. The Chinese-language travel website he runs is so influential that many tourists use it to decide where to go in Japan.

Yoshida has a unique career. He first enrolled in the National Defense Academy of Japan, then transferred to Keio University. After graduation, he worked at a TV station.

Yoshida initially hoped to join in the Self-Defense Forces because he experienced the Great Hanshin Earthquake as a young boy. However, he changed his mind after realising that “what we need in the future is soft power, such as culture and information”.

Yoshida started his business in Taiwan in 2013, taking advantage of the Mandarin skills he acquired as a student. He launched a website specialising in travel to Japan, hoping to promote the best of Japan.

Yoshida’s website is popular because it features sightseeing spots that are not familiar, even to many Japanese, thereby offering foreign visitors the feeling of being front-runners in travel trends. His site provides details such as updates on cherry blossoms and how to make bus connections.

The website carries articles written by fashion-conscious travel writers in Taiwan because “they understand the heart of Taiwan people,” Yoshida said. He also appears on TV and other media outlets to spur interest in travelling to Japan.

In 2016, Yoshida’s company opened a store in Taipei to promote Japan travel information, at which the Akita prefectural government held an event the following year to let visitors meet an Akita dog. The event was a success, and visitors from Taiwan accounted for 45% of all non-Japanese overnight tourists to Akita Prefecture that year, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

“If (visitors from overseas) spend money, that can help vitalise regional areas,” Yoshida said.

Tourists taking pictures of an Akita Inu, a dog breed that is native to Japan, in Akita prefecture. Photo: Reuters

The number of repeat foreign travellers to Japan has grown, and many places that are not famous among Japanese have turned into sightseeing spots for foreign visitors. These locations have raised their profiles thanks to travellers’ blogs and postings on social media.

One example is the Maishima incinerator plant in Konohana Ward, Osaka. The facility has an impressive tower and is often featured on social media for its photogenic exterior.

Foreign visitors have accounted for about 30% of participants in facility tours in recent years. “There’s no odour at all, and the design is wonderful,” said Ren Ruoyue, a 22-year-old Chinese currently studying in Japan.

Bloggers paid for travelling

As blogs and social media become increasingly influential, strategies to lure foreign visitors are also changing.

In July, two popular French bloggers were enjoying drinks at Akakabe Saketen liquor shop in Kitakyushu, Kyushu. They got a firsthand experience of “kakuuchi”, the pratice of drinking alcohol while standing at a liquor shop. Kitakyushu invited the bloggers to promote the drinking culture that is said to have originated in the city.

The Ibaraki prefectural government also invited a popular Taiwan blogger in July to tour some popular sightseeing spots, paying tens of thousands of yen in compensation, as well as the writer’s transportation and accommodation fees.

According to industry sources, rewards for popular bloggers from China and other places often range from 300,000 yen (RM11,200) to 1 million yen (RM37,200), and some bloggers even earn an annual income of nearly 20 million yen (RM74,500).

These fees are cheaper than holding promotional events overseas, which usually cost several million yen. “Now that many local governments are doing similar promotional activities, it’s hard for us to differentiate ourselves,” said a source involved in the tourism industry in Yamagata Prefecture on the Honshu island, which invited well-known American bloggers in the summer last year.

“Many local governments take an impromptu approach in asking bloggers to write stories, without even looking into what each blogger specialises in,” said Makoto Watanabe, president of the operating company for a website specialising in news on tourism in Japan. “That kind of approach makes it difficult for them to see any results.”

“It’s essential for local governments not to rely solely on social media, but to make efforts to combine it with traditional approaches such as holding promotional events.” – The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

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