Japan Times: Japan’s rural temples target mass foreign and luxury tourism

Japan Times (by Junko Fujita):

Deep in a forest in Japan‘s Fukui Prefecture, a 13th century Buddhist temple where Steve Jobs once dreamed of becoming a Zen monk has teamed up with a Tokyo skyscraper builder to seek the commercial enlightenment of foreign tourist dollars.

As a weak yen fuels record tourism, Eiheiji Temple, local authorities and Mori Building Co. — the construction company behind some of Tokyo’s glitziest retail palaces — plan to redevelop the site, including placing a ¥1.3 billion hotel nearby. From there, a new path will be built leading visitors to the spartan site that intrigued the Apple Inc. guru.

Japan’s temples have long been business and tech-savvy, offering lucrative services like funerals while courting domestic tourists — a recent Eiheiji exhibition featured video from a drone operated by a monk. But compared to other parts of the world, religious sites outside centers like Kyoto have been slow to target mass foreign tourism.

What has changed is a shrinking population using temples less, crimping revenue just as annual overseas tourist numbers surge toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of 20 million well ahead of a target date of 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. Japan’s farther-flung regions, long suffering a rural exodus, now want a piece of an influx led by visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan that is bolstering big-city economies.

Eiheiji is a monastery that has been isolated from the rest of the world,” said the Rev. Shodo Kobayashi, a deputy administrator at the temple. “But we cannot be divorced from our community forever. We need to respond to the needs of local governments to increase tourists.”

Eiheiji needs money to support monks in the kind of intensive Zen retreat training that once appealed to Steve Jobs. But visitor numbers have skidded to less than half a million a year, nearly two-thirds below a late-1980s peak when group tours organized by Japanese companies and neighborhood associations were at the height of their popularity.

For the temple and local authorities, a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with neighboring Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, offers a lifeline. The picturesque castle town just over 50 miles away is seeing a surge in foreign tourists whisked from Tokyo in just over 2½ hours.

The temple aims to spend ¥1.3 billion to build a two-story hotel offering modern comforts — including alcohol — to 80 guests in the adjacent town of Eiheiji, while the surrounding Fukui Prefecture’s authorities will redevelop the path leading to the temple in a project to be completed by 2020.

With a place to stay the night, tourists will spend more time and money,” said Shouji Kawakami, an Eiheiji town official. Local officials hope to double the number of visitors to the temple by 2025.

For Yasuo Sasaki, head of the promotions department at Fukui Prefecture, the stakes go beyond tourism itself. “We need to strengthen our brand power to attract more tourists,” Sasaki said, “then we could revive our economy and people in Fukui will regain pride and confidence.”

It is an ambition shared by many of Japan’s less-traveled cities and towns, largely left behind while the Tokyo metropolis continues to grow in economic power.

But while these places invest in new facilities, for Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist at Japan Research Institute, it will remain difficult for locations that have fallen out of favor with domestic tourists to see a return.

In order for them to attract foreign tourists, they need to have something very unique,” said Motani. “It is very challenging for places that were deserted by Japanese people to attract foreign tourists.”

Still, some say foreign tourists can, and will come.

At Chusonji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Iwate Prefecture that traces its roots back nearly 1,200 years, promotions aimed at attracting visitors from Taiwan and Thailand are paying off, and will be stepped up, said senior temple priest Kaisyun Chiba. A broad central government push to encourage visitors to Japan is also helping, he said.

We have been making efforts to attract tourists but we haven’t done enough,” said Chiba. “How hard we try to attract them would be a key for the future.”

Back at Eiheiji, shaven-headed monks in black robes will continue to go about centuries-old rituals. But those interested in joining their austere training regime may be discouraged by Steve Jobs’ conclusion after consulting his spiritual advisor, an Eiheiji-trained monk who also performed his marriage service.

He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was correct,” the former Apple leader told writer Walter Isaacson in his authorized biography. “I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.”

Newly established Japan Ninja Council promises to be your one-stop website for all things ninja

RocketNews 24:

When you think of “cool Japan,” it’s hard to overlook ninjas, those stealthy spies and assassins with more tricks up their sleeve than a magician in a parka. And yet it seems these timeless icons of Japanese culture have largely been overlooked by the national government’s Cool Japan in favor of AKB48 spin-offs and abacuses.

So instead, a band of 11 Japanese governors and mayors have assembled to create the Japan Ninja Council (JNC) with the sole aim of reminding everyone how cool ninjas are. Having officially launched on 9 October they aim to collect every bit of information on ninjas, including their history and culture, and provide it to anyone who wants to learn more about these elusive figures.

All 11 founding fathers of the JNC took part in an opening ceremony last Friday to celebrate its birth. They include the governors of Kanagawa, Shiga, and Saga Prefectures along with the mayors of Odawara, Ueda, Iga, Koga, and Ureshino.

The council will be led by its president, Mie Prefecture Govenor Eikei Suzuki, and vice-president, former Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Hiroshi Mizohata. Rounding out the group is prominent kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo the Eleventh in a supporting role.

▼ Most members decided to look the part for the council’s launch

Unfortunately since they decided to launch on a Friday before a long weekend, nothing much has happened yet. The JNC website “ninja-official.com” is up but only has a brief history of ninjas and a video about a ninja weapons show in Iga. It is a fairly cool video though.

Japan Ninja Council
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Why is Japan such an unpopular tourist destination?

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RocketNews 24:

You would think that a country like Japan, rich as it is in both traditional culture and technical innovation, as well as plenty of weird and wacky things you’ll never see elsewhere, would be a huge hit with tourists. But as it turns out, Japan is actually not such a popular destination for people traveling abroad. Join us after the jump to find out why.

Tourism from abroad brings in around 900 billion yen per year for Japan. To put it in perspective, France makes around 5 trillion, the UK 3 trillion, Germany 3.7 trillion, and America 11 trillion yen from tourism. It might look like just a matter of zeroes on paper, but that’s a significant difference.

▼Two Asian countries feature in this top 10 ranking of the most popular tourist destinations, and neither of them is Japan.

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▼Even compared to other Asian countries it doesn’t measure up well. Japan attracts fewer foreign tourists than Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore.

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So just why is this beautiful country which has so much to offer such an unpopular holiday destination?

Publicity problems

Firstly, Japan needs more and better quality advertising. With the world now connected by the internet you can easily communicate with people half-way around the globe as though they’re right there with you in your room, and people are becoming more interested in other cultures. Japan needs to be able to self-promote, and articulate to the wider world exactly why people should come and visit.

China has size on its side, Thailand has its resorts and backpacker culture, Cambodia has its historical ruins; people visiting Asia for the first time have so much choice on where to go, so proper promotion is extremely important for a country hoping to stand out on a platter already crowded with delicacies. And right now, Japan just isn’t getting itself out there enough.

But what about cool Japan, the government drive to get more foreigners interested in Japan?

There have been attempts to come up with advertising campaigns, certainly, but they’ve fallen woefully short. Celebrities have huge star attraction here, but the PR gurus don’t seem to have caught on that using Japanese stars to advertise Japan just doesn’t work, since people outside of the country often have no clue who they are unless they already interested in Japan, hence these ads are essentially preaching to the choir. Japanese boy band Arashi’s tourism advert, a part of the government’s official Visit Japan campaign, seems more like a music video aimed at teenage girls; not exactly the demographic with the money to spend on flights, hotels and sightseeing.

Skytree-high costs:

The top reasons people from Europe and the USA don’t come to Japan is that it’s both too far and too expensive. Since the island is pretty much tethered where it is there’s not much that can be done about the former, but surely there could be some workarounds regarding the latter. Accommodation and transport are very expensive and on top of that are the costs of food, souvenirs and so on, so with a high-valued yen people are bound to look to cheaper options such as Asia, where even the poorest of student travelers can survive.

Lost in translation:

Then there’s the fact that it’s not very easy to go on holiday here without knowing the language, because of the comparatively low level of English of most native Japanese folks. Even in the midst of Tokyo you can find yourself stuck due to language issues, and once you get out of the city there are still many supposed sightseeing spots that don’t have any English signs. Japanese also isn’t like languages which use the Roman alphabet, so travellers can’t simply type a written word into their dictionary or translation app (though hopefully one day soon they’ll be able to scan them), so the average not-overly-adventurous traveler is severely limited when they find they can’t even read restaurant menus or the names written on signs at train stations. Japanese people also tend to be quite shy and reserved, even if they do have a smattering of English, unlike other countries where people will go out of their way to try to communicate with you even if they don’t speak a word of your language.

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Japanese-only convenience:

Japan is often said to be an incredibly convenient place, epitomized by the ubiquitous conbini, and this is true if you are actually living there. Unfortunately, it can still be very inconvenient for travelers and people staying short-term.

Firstly, actually getting into the city can be a bit of a pain since its busiest international airport, Narita, is located quite far out of central Tokyo. Then, when you want to pay for your train or bus ticket you might find yourself in a bit of a bind since Japan is still a mostly cash society and there are many places that do not accept credit cards. On top of that, ATMs that accept foreign cards are few and far between and are often closed outside of regular business hours; something we’ve noted before as a particular irk of living in Japan. And forget hopping online to check your route or research places to visit as, despite Japan’s reputation as a technologically advanced country, there are still very few places with wi-fi, free or otherwise. You also can’t buy cheap mobile phones with disposable SIM cards, making keeping in touch with other members of your group difficult.

All in all these factors all contribute to the reality that people aren’t going to be inclined to come and visit unless they already have an interest in Japan.

▼”I’ve been waiting for visitors for so long my legs have fallen asleep.”

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But all is not lost! 

The number of foreign visitors to Japan has been increasing recently, and during the New Year period department stores reportedly saw three times more foreigners coming to their start-of-year sales than the previous year. More places including shrines are stepping up their game and starting to provide wi-fi access, and Tokyo Metro has launched a free wi-fi service aimed at tourists across 143 of their stations. Furthermore, a bank on the road leading to the Grand Shrine at Ise has begun offering a foreign currency exchange service since many people were saying that it was inconvenient not to have any exchange services nearby. These are all signs that Japanese companies are starting to think more about catering to people visiting from overseas. The growth in tourists can also be attributed to the recent weakening of the yen brought about by Abenomics, making things cheaper for Americans and Europeans, and department stores are publicizing the fact that duty-free shopping is available for foreign visitors.

And of course with Tokyo hosting the Olympics in 2020, the country is going to experience a definite surge in foreign visitors. The questions now are whether or not Japan will be ready for them, and if the Games will have a lasting effect on the tourism industry in the future.

Around Japan in 22 days…on a bus!

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RocketNews 24:

One of the hardest parts about visiting Japan is deciding where to go, especially if you have only a limited time. Obviously, everyone wants to hit up Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, but that often means missing out on places like Nara and Aomori. If only there were a way you could get on a bus and just let someone take to every prefecture in the country…

Well, if you have about US$5,000 and 22 days, pack your bags, because that’s exactly what Club Tourism is offering this year!

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Exactly 22 days on a bus might sound like hell–and as someone who’s taken Greyhound from LA to Atlanta and from Miami to Colorado, I can say that it most definitely has the potential to be just that–but it looks like Club Tourism might have a way to make this work.

To begin with, the bus looks quite a bit nicer than your average Greyhound bus–or even the regular night buses in Japan. For one thing, the bathroom even has flowers in it!

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For another thing, the package comes with the greatest amenity ever: Hotel rooms! While most folks traveling by bus usually also find themselves sleeping all night on the bus as well, it looks like Club Tourism will be setting everyone up with a clean bed–and laundry service! That makes the price tag, which is between 500,000 and 700,000 yen (between about US$4,300 and $6,020) depending on the plan, seem a lot more reasonable.

But what exactly does the trip entail? Well, for the first tour, the bus leaves from Kyoto on May 9, right after everyone pops over to Jonan Shrine to pray for a safe trip. From there, the bus travels towards the Sea of Japan and heads up to Hokkaido, and then back down towards Osaka. Touring through every prefecture in Japan, the bus will stop at famous sightseeing places with guides offering explanations along the way. Of course, that also means listening to historical explanations about every major sightseeing spot in Japan for 22 days straight, so you may have to seriously consider how much patience you have!

Jonangu

Of course, there is one prefecture that you can only get to by plane–Okinawa–but after that, it’s back to the Kansai area, where the bus makes its final stop. On the last night, it looks like the tour finishes with a giant party and in the morning all the passengers get a certificate stating that they’ve been to every one of Japan’s prefectures. No word on whether or not they offer massages for sore butts though…

Club Tourism has posted a full itinerary covering every day of the trip, though it looks like the itinerary and tour are both Japanese only. But if you’re studying Japanese, this would certainly be a great way to get a history lesson and some really intense Japanese practice!

If you’re interested in learning more about the tour, be sure to check out Club Tourism’s website. And once you’ve finished seeing all of Japan, maybe you’ll also want to book a seat on their space tour as well!

5 tips for staying healthy while traveling in Japan this winter!

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RocketNews 24:

 

I spent two winter seasons working in the hospital emergency room (as a translator) in Niseko, a popular Hokkaido snow holiday destination for foreigners. While we had our share of broken bones from ski and boarding accidents, what impressed upon me most was the number of people who get ill while on vacation. There were just as many sudden illnesses as snow-related accidents–everything from gastrointestinal disorders to ear infections and first-time asthma attacks which too many times put people in the emergency room.

The good news is that most of these illnesses can be avoided, but different cultures pose different health risks and knowing what to watch out for beforehand can be tricky, if not impossible. In this article, I’ll share some tips on how to stay healthy while traveling in Japan in wintertime, based on my experience working with hundreds of foreigners who ended up in hospital on their vacations.

By following some simple (but not necessarily so obvious) rules, we aim to keep our snow-loving Rocketeers out of Japan’s hospitals and flying down the slopes in all their glory instead!

Many foreigners who come to Hokkaido to ski or snowboard are coming to Japan for the first time. Since the foremost attraction for them is some of the most awesome skiing in the world (waist-deep powder, off-piste skiing–say no more!), it’s understandable that such guests may not have thought much about the actual culture they’ll be skiing into.

Let’s start at the beginning then, booking your accommodation.

 

 1. Japanese minshuku and ryokan

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Staying in family-run minshuku and ryokan is a quintessential Japanese experience that everyone should partake in. Such places have several advantages over a hotel room, including a traditional Japanese ambiance (tatami mat rooms, futons, etc), home-cooked meals, and witnessing Japanese hospitality at its finest.

But other than some top-of-the-line ryokan, most traditional style Japanese accommodation involves shared bathing and washing facilities. This is fine as long as you’re prepared for it. But if you’re not careful, these communal facilities (showers, sinks, etc) can be like a super highway for the spread of bacteria and viruses, least not when they’re being used by people coming from all over the world. Dr. Wuthrich, an American doctor who works out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming says that staying safe from viruses can be as simple as carrying antibacterial wipes with you. “Wipe down faucets, flush toilet knobs, and towel hooks before using them,” she says. “The antibacterial wipes won’t kill all the germs, but most of them.”

 

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But since many minshuku and ryokan are family-run (although not all), you’re subjecting yourself to the hygiene standards of the owners, not a professional cleaning staff.

 

▼I’ve never quite understood this, but communal body scrubbers can be found in accommodations throughout Asia, including Japan. No thanks.

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During my tenure in the Niseko emergency room, I had quite a few patients who had contracted the dreaded Norovirus. One of these patients told me, “I know exactly when I got it. I put down my toothbrush, turned on the water faucet, cupped the water and drank from my hands to rinse my mouth.” Unfortunately, the person who had used the sink before him had the virus. Within days, it had spread to over half the guests and the accommodation was shut down by the health department to be sanitized. Wow, right?!

I’ve never gotten sick at such a place myself, but if you catch colds easily or if you’re paranoid about getting sick, choose a studio apartment, rental condo or hotel room where the only people you share facilities with are those who you know don’t have a virus.

 

2. Asthma and respiratory illnesses

While in Niseko, I saw an inordinate number of cases of adults suddenly afflicted with asthma attacks, either on the slopes or while in their accommodation. When the doctor asked these patients if they had a history of asthma, most of them said they had had it as a child, but hadn’t suffered an attack since. A few patients said they’d never experienced an asthma attack before. What would prompt a sudden onset of asthmatic symptoms, or a recurrence, years later? The only thing I could see that connected these patients was that they were all staying in budget accommodation that wasn’t very clean. Maybe you know the places I mean–they haven’t changed the tatami mats in years, the bedding is ancient, the fusuma doors are stained and no one has bothered to wash the curtains or upholstery since smoking became prohibited in public places.

▼Avoid poorly maintained minshuku or ryokan.

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Old accommodation is fine as long as it’s clean,” says  Dr. Wuthrich, a previous resident of Japan. “Mites live in dirty bedding and carpet. Curtains are generally okay, but smoke and dust can still be a problem for those susceptible to asthma.”

Aging minshuku and ryokan are especially prevalent in Japan’s countryside but it’s surprising how many can still be found even in tourist areas. If you’re traveling around Japan on a two-week to one-month vacation and hit one of these places by mistake, it’s not as big a deal if you only have to suffer through one night. But on a ski trip, where people tend to stay in the same place for a week or longer, the monetary savings may not be worth the cost to your health.

 

Yep, if it’s dodgy on the outside, it’s probably dodgy on the inside too. Stained and torn fusuma doors.

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It’s easier to make this mistake than you’d think. I once called to make a reservation at aminshuku I had stayed at before, but since they were fully booked, they gave me the number of the only other place in town. Another time I unexpectedly ended up somewhere for the night and had to take the only place available. You get my drift, right? These places fill up last. Get your reservations in early so you’ll still have a choice of where to stay.

Rather than going for cheap, go for clean. Think of those ’60s-style motels with the neon signs along roadsides in the U.S. They’re cheap, they’re retro, but ..oh…um, well, maybe you shouldn’t stay there.

In situations like this, it’s probably best to follow the advice of the Japanese: You’re on holidays–treat yourself!

 

▼A rental condo and asthmatic’s paradise.

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3. Slippers are okay if…

Upon entering any minshuku or ryokan, you’re likely to be met by a line of slippers set out for guests to easily slide their feet into after having taken off their shoes. Yes, they’re plastic and yes, they’re yucky! Most foreigners envision nasty fungal spores living inside these slippers, eagerly waiting to attach themselves to our vulnerable foreign toes. But wait, it turns out their actually okay, according to Dr. Wuthrich, “…as long as you wear socks.” Socks will protect you from most of the nasties.

 

▼The dreaded communal slippers!

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Of course, the Japanese know this which is why its considered polite to wear socks when you go to someone’s house. So keep those feet covered, whether it be summer or winter.

 ▼Besides, with all the cute socks available in Japan, we can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be wearing socks even in summer.

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4. In the Onsen

Now that you’ve settled in to your nice, clean minshuku, ryokan, condo or apartment, and are lounging around in cute socks, it’s probably about time to hit the hot springs!

 

▼A typical Japanese onsen is heated to temperatures of at least 38 C (100.4 F).

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While everyone should try Japan’s legendary onsen hot springs, make sure you don’t dunk your head under the water. Not only is this considered rude, it can lead to ear infections and gastrointestinal problems (should you accidentally drink the water) and a week of lost skiing topped with a general feeling of misery. Japanese people would never put their heads under the water, but children getting into an onsen for the first time are likely to treat such a large body of water like a swimming pool. Also, do not enter the water if you have open cuts, sores, or lesions. And of course, bathe thoroughly using the showers before you get in.

 

5. Wash your hands

Yeah, we know. No, seriously, wash your hands!

Bacterial hand wash is everywhere in Japan. All public buildings have them and most places where money is exchanged will have a bottle sitting just ready to be squirted onto your filthy digits. Don’t just look at the bottles and marvel at how clean the Japanese are–use the hand wash! Use it before and after you handle money.

▼This hand sanitizer is sitting right next to the money tray (another admirable hygiene policy) , so you can’t miss it.

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Many Japanese wash their hands immediately after coming indoors just to make sure that any germs aren’t brought inside and spread around the house. Now that’s thinking!

 

  • Bonus tips for skiers and snowboarders:

In addition to the above, Dr. Wuthrich recommends that when at ski areas, use your gloved hands to open and close doors. If you have a choice, use sinks with sensor faucets. And if you really must touch a nasty curtain in that dirty minshuku booked by your spouse who hasn’t read this article, make a fist with your hand and slide the curtain to the side (or even use an elbow) rather than using your hands.

And lastly, she’s all for bowing rather than shaking hands.

Some of this advice may seem a bit extreme, but the worst that can happen by following it is–not getting sick. After all, this is your vacation, so treat yourself!

All photos © Amy Chavez/RocketNews24