Mt Fuji
A magnificent view of Mt. Fuji surrounded by beautiful cherry blossoms Image Credit: Shutterstock

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Japan is pulling out all stops to attract tourists to its shores steeped in tradition and natural beauty, including investing in a halal-friendly environment
 

Holidays are like relationships. Just like some people are fleeting moments in your life, not every destination sticks with you. Some, however, leave an indelible imprint on your life. Japan fits this analogy perfectly. One visit is all it takes to start an enduring relationship with this country where antiquity and modernity exist in harmony. Japan has a modern outlook anchored in technological innovation. A rich culture, profound Buddhist and Shinto spiritual traditions and picture-perfect natural attractions make it appealing to travellers of all hues.

Japan welcomed a record 31 million tourists in 2018, up 8.7 per cent from 2017 and rising for the seventh straight year. Last year, 7,600 people from the UAE visited Japan. This is an 11 per cent increase from 2017, but the country is not resting on its laurels.

“More than 80 per cent of Japan’s tourists come from East Asia,” says Dr Akima Umezawa, Consul General of Japan in Dubai. “We are widening the scope of our travel marketing to other regions, including the Gulf. We are working on improving visa relaxation rules and facilities to make tourists, especially Muslims, more comfortable.”

Japan Tourism seminar
The recent seminar gave an interactive platform for the UAE travel sector and the Japanese tourism delegation Image Credit: Clint Egbert

Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) has launched a campaign called Enjoy My Japan to target frequent travellers who do not see the country as a travel destination. JNTO’s mandate is to change this perception and achieve the government target of 40 million visitors by 2020, with visitor expenditure reaching 8 trillion yen (Dh267 billion) and repeat visitor numbers reaching 24 million.

“We want to send a clear message to the UAE travel industry that we are finally here,” says Kazuhiro Ito, Executive Director, Global Projects Department, JNTO, during a presentation at a seminar on Japan tourism hosted recently in Dubai by the consul general.

With the number of Muslim visitors increasing considerably in recent years, Japanese tourist associations and businesses are making efforts to ensure they feel at home. “For example, we are working with the government, hotels and restaurants to create a halal-friendly environment,” says Ito.

“We have created a website (Muslimguide.jnto.go.jp/eng/) to make it easy for Muslim tourists to find halal places to eat. The website is available in 11 languages, including Arabic.”

Hotels too are introducing facilities such as prayer rooms and halal menus. “We put food labels on all items, for religious sensitivity, allergies and so on,” says Yugi Ogino, Sales Manager at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. “We also have a halal restaurant map for Muslim guests.”

When to visit?

Japan’s climate can be distilled down to four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter), and each is culturally important. Late spring (March to May) and late autumn (September to November) are considered the best times to visit as there is little rain, clear skies and mild temperatures. What’s more, the magical sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring and the vividly-hued trees in autumn are visually stunning. In Tokyo, the flowers usually bloom sometime between end March and early April.

“Spring is known for its beautiful cherry blossoms, but we also have a lot to offer throughout the year,” says Dr Umezawa.

“The prefectures that are proud of cherry blossoms have their campaigns every year, but the Japanese tourism strategy is not focused on the cherry blossom season alone.

“We have a lot to offer in summer and autumn too,” said Dr Umezawa. Japan receives the highest number of visitors in April followed by June and July. “We also get considerable tourists in winter because of the food, scenery or activities such as skiing.”

Lesser-known regions

While Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are a must-visit for first-time tourists, Japan’s 47 prefectures are dotted with plenty of just-as-appealing sights, culture and history.

“I have travelled to almost all 47 prefectures, but I’ve never set foot on Shikoku Island,” reveals Dr Umezawa. “It offers the warmest hospitality with great food and accommodation, but it is a bit challenging to get there even though we now have a train. Lack of easy access means lesser tourists, but also ensures that the island remains pristine.”

Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu, is also a paradise for tourists looking to get off the beaten track. The lush green countryside is home to active volcanoes, waterfalls, natural hot springs and a semi-tropical coastline. “Kyushu has seven prefectures,” says Kenji Ichimura, Deputy Manager, Global Projects Section, Global Projects Department, JNTO. “You will encounter untouched nature.”

Sushi is sophisticated, but we have food that while not being as presentable is absolutely delicious. For example, we love ramen even if it does not look great in terms of presentation.

- Dr Akima Umezawa, Consul General of Japan in Dubai

What people don’t know

In 2013, Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural organisation, added traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It joined French food in the exclusive club.

Japanese cuisine conjures up mouth-watering images of sushi, sashimi, tempura, teriyaki and Wagyu beef, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Certainly, these are delightful foods made popular abroad, but Japanese cuisine is much more diverse,” says Dr Umezawa. “Sushi is sophisticated, but we have food that while not being as presentable is absolutely delicious. For example, we love ramen even if it does not look great in terms of presentation.”

Finally, the million-yen question. Does everyone in Japan practise minimalism, an art that is the rage globally? “It’s minimalism for the rest of the world, but for us Japanese it simply means tidying up our surroundings and minimising waste,” says Dr Umezawa.

“We were taught to clean up our classrooms, especially in elementary school. We believe that using fewer items in daily life leads to less waste.”