Never thought of visiting Japan? Well, you might be soon. In our “Breakout Role” series, we take a look at places that have seen huge increases in tourism in the last few years, and try to figure out what’s causing all the hype.
Japan is in no way a travel secret. It isn’t some hidden gem or under-the-radar destination with little to no tourism traffic, as other countries in this series have been, it’s a well-known destination that has enjoyed success in drawing global travelers for quite some time now.
Even 20 years ago Japan was seeing almost 4 million tourists per year, which was at the time impressive its own right.
However, something has certainly changed in the past half decade, as the country’s number of yearly visitors has increased by more than 20% for each of the past four years. In 2015 alone, more than 19 million foreigners visited the country, showing that Japan isn’t just a big tourism nation anymore—it’s a huge one.
Photo: tokyoform, CC-BY
In 2020, Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games, a fact that undeniably has contributed to at least a portion of Japan’s newfound popularity on the global stage. However, as the country ramps up its infrastructure, transportation and attractions in preparation, the capital isn’t the only location that has been benefitting.
Kay Allen, an assistant director with the Japan National Tourism Organization’s L.A. Office, says Japan’s new developments can be felt outside of the large metropolises of Tokyo and Kyoto just as much as they can within, with many less-seen rural areas becoming far more accessible to tourists.
“Going to Japan you’ll be amazed by how much beautiful nature there is once you get out of the metropolitan areas,”
“I think that we’re seeing a lot more areas becoming more tourist friendly,” Allen says. “I think that people are the most surprised that it’s not as industrialized as people think it is. When they think of Japan they think everything is like Tokyo.”
It is in these areas—the ones outside of the bright city lights and skyscrapers that come to mind when someone says “Japan”—that are truly feeling the tourism boom. According to Allen, many travelers are ditching Tokyo and heading out to the countryside, where animal-themed excursions, culinary tours and whisky distilleries await.
Photo: Colin Tsoi, CC-By
As a result of more tourists going off the beaten path, and with the impending rush of foreign visitors that will come with the 2020 Olympics, many of these rural regions have made efforts to become more convenient for travelers.
“Before, a lot of the times when you went to Japan it was not as visitor-friendly if you went away from metropolitan areas. Even asking around would be kind of difficult,” says Eileen Orquiza, a tour marketing specialist for All Japan Tours, a company that leads trips throughout the country.
Orquiza cites the increasing prevalence of English speakers and tourism centers—even in small towns—as an effort to make travel throughout the entire nation feasible for travelers. In terms of affordability, the country has offered solutions in the form of so-called Goodwill Guides, which offer volunteer-based tours of attractions and sights to foreign tourists. The tours, which are totally free and typically offered in multiple languages, offer visitors a chance to inexpensively experience Japan one locale at a time.
Photo: Chen Qu, CC-By
All that said, Japan’s more mainstream attractions still stand strong as the country’s largest draw for many groups of visitors. For example, more than half of Chinese visitors, who by far spend the most money in Japan each year, come to travel the country’s golden route, which includes hot-spot destinations such as Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Osaka and Kyoto.
Outside of the norm, however, natural tourism is king. In addition to tours centered around food and alcohol, Japan also has 25 national parks, each with its own draws.
“There are so many different faces of Japan, and I think people are just surprised by the sheer amount of the change of vistas in the country,” Allen says. “You can see everything from subtropical forest to Mediterranean islands to desserts that look like Tatooine.”
Allen says many people visit some the more highly trafficked attractions their first time around, and then come back for the small towns, farmland and scenery after realizing how beautiful the country really is. For Orquiza, the trick to truly exploring Japan is similar—get away from the city. “Going to Japan,” Orquiza states, “you’ll be amazed by how much beautiful nature there is once you get out of the metropolitan areas.”
When You Should Go
Flight Rates: $815 – $1,747
Travel Concerns: There are no current safety threats, however the U.S. Department of State does advise using extra caution when in Roppongi, “Kabuki-cho and other Entertainment and Nightlife Districts in Tokyo.”
Currency Exchange: 1 USD = 103 Japanese Yen
More Info: For more information, head to the Japan National Tourism Organization’s official website.
Top photo: Moyan Brenn, CC-BY
Dillon Thompson is a University of Georgia student and freelance writer with a love for travel and an addiction to coffee and hip-hop music.