How did Takayama, a small city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture, become one of the most popular inbound tourist destinations in all Japan? Katayama Osamu investigates.
The government has been taking active steps to drive Japan’s tourism as part of the “Abenomics” growth strategy, the economic stimulus package adopted by the Abe administration. Among others, initiatives to attract inbound tourism play a pivotal role in the government efforts.
Now it looks almost certain that the government will achieve its target number of visitors to Japan four years earlier than the original estimate. The government initially expected that the number of inbound tourists would grow to 20 million in 2020, but this target seems quite likely to be achieved as early as next month. The government has set higher targets for inbound tourism in coming years, anticipating 40 million visitors in 2020 and 60 million visitors in 2030.
A strategic approach will come into play to achieve those targets. For example, it will be crucial to diversify the destinations for foreign tourists in Japan. Currently, a large number visit Tokyo and other big cities.
More substantial measures are underway to attract foreign tourists to rural tourist destinations across the country. Some regional cities have actually achieved great success in these nationwide efforts. One is Takayama in Gifu Prefecture.
A Tale of Takayama
In 2015, around 360,000 international tourists visited Takayama, a city with a population of only about 90,000. I have visited twice myself, in 2015 and 2016. I found many foreign visitors throughout the city, including in hotels, gift shops and restaurants each time I went there. I was amazed to witness the city’s success as an international tourist destination.
I wondered about the city’s tourism marketing strategy and tried to learn the recipe for its great success. Later, I have come to realize that their efforts were nothing like making a show of being different from other tourist destinations.
Takayama has become known nationwide as a major tourist destination, developing a reputation that was triggered by the “Discover Japan” tourism campaign promoted by the former Japan National Railways in 1970. However, the tourism industry in the city was significantly tested by the extraordinarily heavy snowfall in 1980 and 1981, and the city suffered a considerable drop in the number of visitors, down as much as 15 percent.
Minotani Takashi, chairman emeritus of the Takayama City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, rose up to the challenge confronting the city’s tourism industry in an attempt to sustain its attractiveness without leaving it as a one-hit wonder. I met with Minotani in 2015. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 81 in April 2016.
The primary reason for Takayama City’s success as a major international tourist destination is attributable to the initiatives driven by the private sector.
Minotani demonstrated his leadership by reorganizing the Takayama Tourism Association, formerly a private organization, into an incorporated association with a more public status. The activities of the association are financed primarily by its members, with only 3.7 million yen granted by the city as promotional subsidies out of the 30 million yen of the association’s total annual budget. Despite the initial negative comments and responses received from various quarters, his drastic approach has proven to be successful in developing a sense of ownership among the association members in later years, driving the efforts to promote Takayama City as a major tourist destination.
The city’s tourism association launched promotional activities aimed at attracting inbound tourists, not merely attracting domestic tourists, soon after it was established.
“It seemed obvious to me even as early as in the 1980s that Japan would see its population decline soon or later,” Minotani said. “Given the outlook that Takayama’s popularity as a tourist destination would peter out if we simply remained focused on attracting domestic visitors, we took steps to attract international tourists to visit Takayama.”
Promotional activities driven by the private sector in Takayama were not limited to those undertaken by the city’s tourism association.
Tanabe Nobuyoshi, president of the long-standing Ryokan Tanabe traditional Japanese guesthouse, is another who played an important role in promoting the city’s initiatives to attract visitors. Tanabe served as a leader in the local hotel business in the region for many years. He was known for his aggressive approach to building relations beyond the local business community to promote tourism. He was bold enough to visit the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) in the Kotsu Kaikan Building in Yurakucho, Tokyo, without an appointment and asked for advice in person regarding effective methods to attract international tourists.
Japan’s Most Popular Restaurant with Foreign Tourists
In Takayama City, there is a popular restaurant among visitors from abroad. It is a casual Chinese restaurant that has been around for more than fifty years known as “Heianraku,” located a three-minute walk from JR Takayama Station. Heianraku was ranked as the most popular restaurant among international tourists visiting Japan, according to the restaurant reviews in Japan for 2016, a survey conducted by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website operator.
Heianraku looks like one of those local pubs with a rustic ambiance. When I visited, Furuta Naoko, owner of the restaurant, welcomed me saying, “Please come in and relax. I’ll bring you a tissue to wipe off your glasses.”
Furuta then explained how the restaurant adapted to the influx of international tourists.
“Takayama was once known as a tourist destination among a limited number of foreign visitors. When we began to see more international tourists in town, we didn’t know how to accommodate them. Some years later, we realized that it is not as difficult as we had previously thought. We thought that language skills were necessary for us to communicate with international visitors. That is why we started having an English conversation workshop for owners of hotels and restaurants operating in the community. We learned the language primarily by ourselves, little by little, through efforts to communicate with body language in the moment,” saidFuruta.
At Heianraku, 70% or 80% of the customers are international tourists visiting Takayama.
What is worth learning from the successful services offered by restaurants and traditional guesthouses in town, including Heianraku, is that the unpretentious atmosphere and accommodating service are highly appreciated among customers. Many of the international tourists visiting Takayama are fascinated by the rustic but comfortable ambiance of the local restaurants. Recently Heianraku is visited by more repeat guests.
The citizens of Takayama try to keep up with efforts to maintain the city’s tourist attractions while enjoying exchanges with international tourists. This serves as a strong point of appeal for the city when it comes to attracting inbound tourism. It could be said that the citizens of Takayama are proud of their friendly personalities and atmosphere as the most fascinating tourist attraction of the city.
Meanwhile, the city government of Takayama has been very active in supporting private sector-driven activities aimed at remodeling the city into an attractive tourist destination.
The city government has been making consistent efforts in this area since 1960, including conclusions of sister-city agreements with four different cities around the world as well as providing more extensive tourist information.
Takayama Governor Kunishima Michihiro often goes on a trade promotion tour himself to different countries seeking to publicize aspects of his city. In fiscal 2014 alone, he spent a total of almost fifty days visiting assorted countries for marketing purposes. This is amazing, indeed.
The city government published travel guide brochures in five foreign languages (English, French, German, Korean and Chinese) in 1990. Beginning in 1997, they launched a website in English detailing Takayama’s tourist information. Now the website is accessible in as many as twelve foreign languages, including English, Chinese (simplified and traditional characters), Korean, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Thai, Spanish and Hebrew.
As we have seen, Takayama’s promotional efforts have made great strides as a result of the successful collaborations between the public and private sectors. The city’s current stellar reputation as an international tourist destination is also largely attributable to the consistent grassroots efforts that have been underway for many years.
KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).