“By the end of last year American tourists were back to pre-earthquake levels, and are possibly surpassing those now.”
Geographically isolated and historically having adopted unique governing systems, Japan developed its own traditions and culture. Despite the disaster two years ago, many tourists still go to the country to explore its wonders and just have fun. To guide those who wish to visit Japan, Yuki Tanaka, Executive Director of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), gives you extensive information about safety concerns, recent highlights and travel tips.
What is the main function of the JNTO?
Our main goal is to promote Japan for the purpose of attracting American tourists. We attend events like the recent Japan Week and travel shows, as well as carry out seminars and business talks for those in the travel industry. We are also active through our website and social networking sites such as Facebook, which we use as sources to disseminate information. We periodically issue press releases which primarily contain information from Japan regarding Japanese tourism, such as specific spots to visit. We also put out information from travel agencies and advertising agencies regarding special deals and products. In addition, we will post interesting articles about Japan to share with viewers.
Just over two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. What was handling that crisis like and have you seen a rebound in the number of American tourists?
Immediately following the earthquake we received many requests for information regarding conditions in Japan, and from people expressing their concerns about safety. However, by the middle of last year we began rarely getting any kind of communication regarding safety issues, from either those in the industry or general tourists. There are some people who still worry, and since the earthquake we have been listing travel advisories on our website containing information regarding earthquakes or radiation levels. The latter is what people are most concerned about, so we provide the measured radiation values. We do a comparison to other cities throughout the world like Seoul and Beijing, and Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture, part of the region where the earthquake hit) has lower levels than those places. It helps for people to feel better when they have concrete proof in the form of substantial numbers.
Following the earthquake, people seemed to avoid information that came directly from the Japanese government. Rather than using it as a source, we tended to use independent organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assure readers that the information was objectively researched. If this information had come from a Japanese source, its credibility might be questioned. Right after the earthquake, we had international media go to report in places like Sendai Airport and see for themselves that things were safe. They posted videos on their respective publications’ homepages showing people walking through the city and going about their daily lives. We also enlisted employees from travel agencies to come see the situation in tourist areas and then appeal to Americans that everything was functioning normally.
We had previously linked to the State Department’s travel alerts for Japan that they had been issuing since the earthquake, as this information put Americans most at ease. However, since around April of last year the Japan travel alert was lifted. Having it be said officially by the State Department that there is no problem had a noticeably large effect. The number of American tourists went down 22% right after the 2011 earthquake, but by the end of last year they were back to pre-earthquake levels and are possibly surpassing those now.
Even though there is no longer any particular danger regarding travel in Japan, we update the site at a rate of twice a week to make sure our readers know they are getting the newest information.
Are there any little known services you suggest tourists in Japan take advantage of?
Kyoto is a popular tourist spot so they have a group called the Good Samaritan Club. This is a student organization of volunteer guides whose policy is to be kind to strangers. If they see tourists having trouble they will help or just stop to say hello. This is a way for people to cut costs during their trip to Japan, as well as a way to overcome the difficulty of getting around without knowing Japanese. If there is a need for this service, we will direct tourists to the Good Samaritan homepage where they can make an online reservation.
Last fall we launched a website campaign that highlighted how to affordably visit Japan. We filmed a series of several short videos with themes like activities and food, and introduced items for each category that could be enjoyed for only $100 per day. I think people still have the image of Japan from the 1980’s, when Tokyo was thought of as the most expensive city in the world. Despite the fact that this has changed, when people think of going today they often expect it to be expensive. However, you can find nice lodging such as a business hotel for less than $100. Of course those who want a luxury hotel can find these too, but many foreigners find the capsule hotel experience interesting. When it comes to eating out, you don’t need to tip and places like izakaya (Japanese pubs) offer many types of delicious food and drink to make a meal that won’t break your budget. We included this kind of know-how in these promotion videos, so I hope people will check them out for some hints as to how to cheaply enjoy their time in Japan.
What are some special events going on this year in Japan?
The Setouchi Triennale, held once every three years, is especially popular among Westerners. This is an international art festival that takes place on Naoshima and other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, at locations like the brand new Tadao Ando Museum. Artists come from all over the world for this event and display their work outdoors. The spring session began on March 20, and there will be summer and fall segments later in the year. Another highlight is the rebuilding of the iconic Ise Shrine, which takes place once every 20 years. I believe the ceremony itself can only be attended by related parties, but there are other traditional commemorative events that will be occurring throughout the year that would be open to the public. This is a historical ceremony that is not geared toward tourists, but we do receive many inquiries regarding it.
One more interesting offering this year is the new “Seven Stars in Kyushu” Cruise Train from JR Kyushu, which is known for putting effort into creating unique interiors using locally produced materials and locally developed craft techniques. The theme is based on the Orient Express, and on this train you can stay in a suite room with a shower, have a fancy dinner and hear live music. This luxury train is currently under construction, and service will begin in October with 1-2 night packages. It will take riders to famous onsen like Ibusuki and Yufuin, allowing them to enjoy Kyushu while journeying throughout the island. This concept has not previously existed in Japan in regard to train travel. Domestic reservations have already sold out for October to April, and starting next April JR Kyushu plans to begin overseas sales.
Personally what are some spots in Japan that you personally recommend for Chopsticks NY readers?
“Depachika” (the basement food halls of department stores) are a big hit, even among wealthy travelers. A place with fabulous depachika is Tokyo Station, which just underwent a renewal and reopened at the end of last October. The station was restored to its pre-war state, and the Tokyo Station Hotel was also renovated. Inside the station are the Ramen Yokocho (Street) and an ekiben (bento boxes sold at Japanese train stations) dedicated shop with ekiben from all over the country. There is also Okashi Land, Japan’s first confectionary-themed retail zone, as well as a Studio Ghibli store for anime fans which sells Totoro and other related goods.
Close to where I grew up is Yanesen, a historic neighborhood made up of the districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Here you can find narrow, winding streets lined with trees and the sound of wind chimes reminiscent of the Edo Period. There are mom-and-pop candy stores and old-style stores with bamboo ware and other handicrafts, which are skillfully mixed alongside shops with more modern offerings. This is a great area to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
———- Interview by Stacy Smith
Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)
11 W. 42nd St., 19th Fl., New York, NY 10036
TEL:212-757-5640 | www.japantravelinfo.com
© Kagoshima Prefectural Tourist Federation, JNTO Ibusuki Onsen in Kagoshima Prefecture.
© Yasufumi Nishi, JNTO Newly renovated Tokyo Station.
A shop in Tokyo Station with “ekiben” from all over the country.
The Yanesen area in Tokyo has an old-style atmosphere.