Japan Travel

* * * * * * * * TERRIE’S (TOURISM) TAKE – BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, January 18, 2015, Issue No. 788

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One way Japan can keep travelers returning to its shores is by
offering special and unique experiences. For cyclists, for example,
the Shimanamikaido Cycling Taikai event offers ordinary riders (not
just pro and semi-pro ones) the opportunity to ride on a national
expressway with 6,500 others. The event travels over a string of
architecturally stunning arches spanning the blue Seto Inland Sea far
below, all the way from Honshu to Shikoku.

Not only is it an amazing experience to ride over the smooth and broad
expanse of a 5-lane expressway, so quiet that you can hear the ticking
of your bike gears, this is an experience that only a lucky few (well,
a few thousand, anyway) can experience just one day a year. Normally
cars occupy the expressway lanes, and there is a clip-on path for
bikes which is far less smooth and straight. This unique must-do
October cycling event is publicized in mid-June on the Japanese
internet and quickly sells out.

Another special experience is the evening enchantment to be had in
Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture, in the form of the Winter Light Up
event. Here, for 5 weekends starting in January, you can walk through
the snow around the village, enjoying etheric scenes of ghostly
300-year old Gassho-style thatched-roof houses. The houses, which were
used to breed silk worms, are beautifully enhanced by the lighting,
and look like apparitions from another world and time.

Because the Light Up is such a great experience and demand so high,
access to the village during Light Up days is severely limited and in
fact tour operators are decided months earlier by lottery. Getting
accommodation outside of the tour operators is almost impossible, and
any rooms that are available are booked out a year ahead (at least).

Sumo is another Japan-only spectacle that most travelers love to see
at least once. Although it’s not difficult to buy seats to the earlier
(junior ranks) bouts, or to buy seats for the main bouts so long as
you are far from the arena, those seats that offer the best experience
are of course the ones close in. The only trouble is that access to
these arena-side and nearby seats is almost impossible to procure for
non-locals — simply because demand from long-time local aficionados
is so high. Many is the tourist who was prepared to pay for the best
seats, only to find that they’ve been sold out months ahead.

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We could go on listing Japan’s many unique and interesting
experiences. What all these events have in common, apart from the fact
that they are powerful enough to draw foreign travelers from thousands
of miles away, is that they are highly popular here at home as well.
So as soon as applications are opened online, the sites are mobbed by
locals — sharing information on Japanese noticeboards and making
plans to form groups to make the pilgrimage. Reservation openings get
snapped up in mere hours or days and as a result, non-Japanese who,
having been entranced by PR and tales from fellow travelers, are then
disappointed to learn that they can’t witness the same spectacle.
Simply put, it’s hard to compete with locals to get tickets.

One can argue that a first-come, first-served policy for highly
attractive public events is fair, and if foreigners are unable to sign
up in time, well, they can try again next year. Sure, that is one
approach. But if the objective of the nation’s travel marketers is to
bring in FIT and repeat travelers (certainly good for the economy),
then they need to offer foreign visitors better access to the very
things that bring them here.

For example, Japan should look at other countries which have events
that pull the tourists in. Generally speaking these spectacular events
either allow unlimited intake so you can just rock up when you like,
or have some kind of guaranteed method of outsider participation.
Think Pampalona in Spain for the unlimited category, and the New York
City Marathon for its interesting charity-based guaranteed
participation program.

Some ideas that we can offer the Japan Tourist Agency to keep
travelers coming back, include:
1. Carve out a percentage of tickets to existing events for
foreigners. This commitment could be backed with guarantee funds from
the government, which would appoint 3-5 companies to look after those
foreign sales. Tickets unsold could be easily released to a grateful
local audience a few days before it is due to start.

2. Introduce rules that require annual events of a certain size or
tourism significance to offer percentage of their events online in
English (through events organizing companies that are able to support
foreign sales). In return the organizers can receive some funding or
marketing assistance for the event costs.

3. Introduce a highest bidder system for a certain percentage of
foreign attendees, which both offers last-minute access and improves
the income to the organizations. Or alternatively a charity-donation
type approach.

4. Create a fund (a spin-off of Cool Japan Fund perhaps?), which
allows other towns and villages around the country to create their own
unique events, to increase the inventory of spectacular events. The
fund would require that each local community make maximum effort to
beautify or prepare their area for a high level of visual enjoyment —
photos and videos being today’s most powerful selling tool.

We don’t have any statistics as to just what the drawing power of a
Shimanamikaido or Shirakawago event is for repeat travelers to Japan.
Maybe the government needs to start doing surveys on these
limited-attendance, highly attractive tourism happenings. However, one
anecdotal indicator is that there is currently high demand for the
JPY45,000-a-night taxis that travel from Takayama to Shirakawago each
of the Light Up nights. The cabs make a 100km round trip under
treacherous road and weather conditions, allowing adventurous
travelers to experience 1-2 hours of magic at Shirakawago before
returning back to their hotels in Takayama.

To us that’s a pretty good indicator of what Japan’s tourism
authorities should be investing their money in, instead of me-too
marketing and unconvincing advertisements. Rather, they should create
rich experiences and let the words of those who experience them become
the nation’s marketing effort.

…The information janitors/


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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd@japaninc.com)

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