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Big-spending foreign visitors seek authenticity, experiences over shopping expeditions

Tourists can try the "ninja experience." Image: Musashi Ichizoku Godo Kaisha website

February tends to be a slow month for leisure travel in most of the northern hemisphere, with one major exception: China. From around Feb 10, the first day of the 2024 Lunar New Year, huge numbers of Chinese embarked on mass migration, both within their own borders and for travel to foreign destinations, naturally including Japan.

Shukan Shincho (Feb 22) reports a pronounced shift in visitors' consumption patterns since the reopening of travel abroad since the pandemic, with fewer Chinese travelers bent on acquiring mono (material goods, typically home appliances and drugstore items) and more, instead, craving koto, described as experiences and other diversions.

According to an online survey on the KKday travel site, Tokyo ranked tops in popularity followed by Osaka and Kyoto -- no surprises there -- but 5th place turned out to be Shirakawa-go, several picturesque villages in rural Gifu Prefecture famous for their traditional gassho zukuri farmhouses with sharply sloping thatched roofs, which earned it  the status of a UNESCO world heritage site from 1994.

"Visitors are up by threefold from a year ago," notes a reporter at a national daily newspaper.

Just as the hordes of foreign visitors have worn out their welcome at Mount Fuji, the reporter suggests the residents of Shirakawa-go have begun to suffer under the recent influx. 

The former head of the town's preservation group, Haruyoshi Neo, age 86, described some of the run-ins with foreign visitors his town has had to deal with, ranging from littering and blocking street traffic with their rental cars to making snowmen on residents' private lots.

It seems that because of the economic downturn in China, a higher share of visitors this season appears to belong to the nation's affluent segment. 

"So you'll see fewer tour groups being led around familiar places like Asakusa, and less friction with Japanese locals," commented a journalist covering the tourist industry. "Rather than shopping expeditions, they're seeking out things that can only be experienced in Japan."

Taking notice of this phenomena, some business operators have been quick to grasp new opportunities.

Take Mingle KK, a company based in Toyama Prefecture, which has put on sale a tours packages priced as high as ¥10 million.

"I don't want to give out too many details because we have competitors, but we offer three basic travel plans," Mingle president Tomoki Kobayashi tells the magazine. "One is aimed at families and involves catching a Pacific blue tuna, after which they can watch the fish being fileted, and then enjoy a meal of various cuts prepared by an expert sushi chef.

"The second," he continues, "caters to couples, who will undergo a full day of treatment by professional make-up artists, from hair styling to wardrobe coordination.

"The third," says Kobayashi, "is aimed at groups of at least 10 people, who are given exclusive access to a ski resort. Along with meals, accommodations and so on they'll be treated to a private nighttime show involving 100 drones."

More foreign visitors are being steered to eateries where the dishes go at a premium. One example is the famous Kitakata ramen from Fukushima -- said to be one of Japan's three most famous varieties -- goes for ¥3,000 yen a bowl.

"I myself feel that's a bit on the pricy side," a restaurant manager tells the reporter. "But the ingredients are all local, including the wheat used for the noodles and slices of chashu (in this case roast beef), from Aizu steers, which is matured in yeast. Even the lacquered bowls and chopsticks are locally produced."

Another activity attracting more foreign visitors is the "ninja experience," where Musashi Ichizoku Godo Kaisha offers 90 minutes of group instruction about ¥25,000 per person.

"Other services will let you dress up like a ninja and fling shuriken (throwing stars) for as little as ¥3,000, but our instructors are certified ninja with 10 years or more experience," says Vanessa Shibata, a veteran member of the troupe. "Our customers are serious and want to know about techniques like how to conceal their presence."  

Shibata's clientele are said to include wealthy Europeans, members of royal families from the Middle East and (gulp!) Russian intelligence operatives.

"We get quite a few repeaters," Shibata asserts. "They all return home pleased and satisfied."

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While it all sounds fun, I fail to see how most any of it qualifies as “authentic “ since it all seems to be cultivated or reproduced experiences of things that no longer exist.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

For every trip, I get a tiny reminder that is personal. It might be a sea polished stone or a sun baked tiny pot that held yogurt made the same way for 2 thousand years, or a cardboard coaster from a pub.

In visits to Japan, I usually have photos of interesting places, but I have to admit, I've never traveled to Japan just for a vacation. Work was always the primary reason, then I'd stay a few extra days after work was done to add on a few experiences.

Recreations of events don't really interest me. I'd rather spend 2-3 hours in a museum with the real artifacts learning the history. I want to meet old friends when I'm there. Have a meal with each and perhaps do something that is fun for us AND them. Could be anything. When I was younger, we enjoyed skiing, but never skied in Japan. Too late now.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I tend to visit countries nature and eat from mum and pop food shops than spend time buying material things.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I went skiing in Karuizawa during the Chinese New Year, and I guess 90% of the people around were foreigners, mostly Chinese. The private ski and snowboard lessons, in Chinese or English, 30,000 jpy or more were selling like hot cakes

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Russian intelligence operatives."We get quite a few repeaters," Shibata asserts. "They all return home pleased and satisfied."

sorry but I have a huge problem with russian intelligence operatives getting pleased and satisfied while their country is killing innocent Ukrainian people and sending their own people to death in Ukraine. at least splurt some tomato juice over them.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

I like to bring back something that is unique, beautiful, and useful from wherever we go. So, from Sweden it was a beautiful, very warm winter coat, good down to below 30 degrees F. From Hawaii, locally made woodcrafts. Same from Scandinavia.

From most places in Europe, what I brought back was memories of their food and drink, and learning experiences. I never had a good cup of coffee until I went to Paris. It was a real eye opener. The wines from Europe were exquisite.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Just as the hordes of foreign visitors have worn out their welcome at Mount Fuji, the reporter suggests the residents of Shirakawa-go have begun to suffer under the recent influx.

Whoa there! They certainly haven't worn out their welcome at all. We just need to find a way to fit them all in here a bit better, and we are getting there. During the Covid years much work was done in getting ready for what hit us in March of last year.

And we are in a better position than poor Shirakawago due to its size. I went there last October with some customers and it wasn't very pleasant at any stage. Shiroyama was just chaos.

It might help if drivers here knew how to drive and park a car, which they don't.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Saw on TV about a couple married for 7 years, came to Japan to have another "marriage ceremony" at the Jinja.

Whatever makes you happy, I guess.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The usual story of being greedy for foreign tourism money but whining about any and all perceived transgressions.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Big spenders. The story is about big spenders, not 5 or 10 yen-ers. I would like to see this and I'm not even a big spender.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Authentic only exists if you have enough money.

All other is just commerialized for having cash flow.

That is around the world every where the same.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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