TT-890 (Tourism Edition) -- Nothing Interesting to Show? Create a Festival

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, Apr 02, 2017, Issue No. 890

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+++ Nothing Interesting to Show? Create a Festival.

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draw closer, local governments all over Japan
are starting to wake up and realize they need to fight to attract their
share of foreign tourists. However, given that there are 47 different
regions in Japan, the competition for attention is tough. We are finding
that over the last 12 months, the smartest regions are starting to
realize that to attract and retain repeater foreign tourists, they have
to differentiate. Until now, if you asked a tourism manager at a
regional government what they are best known for, the answer would
invariably have been that they have the best food, the best onsen, or
the best folk craft.

While it may be true amongst Japanese tourists, especially older
tourists who appreciate regional nuances, that the best tasting rice
does indeed come from a small city (Uonuma) in Niigata, most foreign
tourists couldn't taste that difference. And they certainly wouldn't
bother traveling hundreds of kilometers on top of the thousands they
traveled to get to Japan in the first place, to try a subtly different
rice flavor when to they can get much the same thing (from their point
of view) by strolling down from their Airbnb to a nearby sushi joint in

This in effect is the challenge that Japanese tourism officials have.
What they are used to touting to their countrymen doesn't really work
for foreigners because "Omotenashi" is all about nuance. And nuance only
works for people who know and experience enough of a thing to appreciate
it. Instead, foreigners are impacted by so many strange and wonderful
sights and experiences, nuance is lost on them. Furthermore, those
repeat travelers journeying outside of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, are going to
more the remote locations not for a bowl of rice but because of
something that appeals to them in their personal lives. Usually this
means they are pursuing a special interest, craft, or sport, or, they
desire thrills, a natural environment, or visual spectacle.

In risk averse Japan, the thrill scale is a bit more docile than some
other locations, but the most iconic and visually spectacular events are
superb. This is due to the fact that olden-day Japanese were
particularly good at vivid colors, lighting, and shapes. As a result,
many of these events have multicolored true-to-life costumes and props
that produce beautiful images and which have subsequently been reposted
thousands of times on social media - thus driving up the desire to one
day come here and experience it personally.

If we were to look at spectacular annual events that create high impact
messaging to foreigners online, we need only look as far as the
Shirakawago Lightup festival, Sapporo snow festival, Sumida River
fireworks, the Aomori Nebuta festival, Kochi Yosakoi Matsuri, Kyoto
Daimonji bonfire, Tokyo Marathon, and the various Tokyo and Osaka
shopping area illuminations. Now this is by no means a definitive list
and there are many other festivals and events around the country that
also provide spectacle. By some estimates there are now over 300,000
festivals held annually in Japan, almost two for each of the 77,394 (in
2013) registered temples and 81,389 registered shrines around the country!

[Continued below...]

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What the most popular festivals with foreigners have in common is that
they are not only visually rich, elaborately composed and managed, they
are also unique. Although many festivals and events come from old
traditions or religious celebrations, they have been beautifully
accentuated and choreographed over the centuries to rise to a level
similar to a professional production. This is of course testament to the
efforts of the local people in supporting each initiative, and their
ability to realize that tourists want authenticity, more than just a
slick "me-too" production.

So for those many towns and cities in more remote regions seeking a way
to attract foreign tourists, and there are over 684 cities of more than
50,000 people in Japan, their bureaucrats need to come up with some
original ideas of their own, where they will become the center of their
own universe for a day or a week, once a year, and allow visiting
tourists to get caught up in the atmosphere and action. We know of some
good examples of locations where in the absence of almost anything else
special, the locals have still come up with a great idea that keeps the
inbound numbers surging.

Take for example, the Shimanami Cycling "Taikai" (Rally), in which the
regional city of Imabari decided to put itself on the map by talking the
prefectural authorities into shutting down the freeway for a half day
each year and allowing contestants to ride up to 130km of super smooth
pavement and bridges across the Kurushima Strait and other inland sea
channels. We took part in the first and second of these annual events,
and witnessed the number of participants swell from around 3,000 with no
foreigners, to more than 7,000 and hundreds of foreign participants.

In fact the Shimanami event got so popular, the organizers decided to
downsize it for everyone's sanity. While understanding their reasons, we
believe the move to be short-sighted, when in fact instead of turning
people away, instead they could have been trying to spread the event out
over several weeks and other nearby cities - thus bringing the tourism
surge to nearby towns and cities. Luckily for them, though, the Rally
created enough interest in the ride (it doesn't hurt that they also have
the world's longest suspension bridge) that the area has taken on a
momentum of its own and now dozens of foreigners rent bikes at either
end and make the crossing every day.

Another great event that got too popular for its own good was the
Shirakawago Light-up festival, mentioned on our list of notables above.
Shirakawago is well known for its "gassho" (thatched-roof) houses that
used to be silk worm farms in the old days. In late 2016, the town
posted a notice online saying that they had temporarily suspended the
festival because of " unexpected surge in the volume of visitors
this year compared to previous years, safety measures were inadequate,
and we have received many comments and expressions of concern from
visitors." In the end they did let some tourists in, but carefully
rationed the numbers by choking off the means of transportation to get
there. (original notice) (great photo that will keep visitors coming in for

By luck we found another good example - that of a small Saga, Kyushu
city of 31,000 people, which successfully manufactured a tourism event
where there were few other resources. The city in question is Kashima,
originally known as the home to the Yutoku Inari (Fox) Shrine. Now
Kashima has a second string to its bow, in that it holds the annual
Gatalympics. Never heard of Gatalympics? Well, back in the mid-80's the
town decided to use the one resource it had in a plentiful supply, to
engender interest in the area. That resource was sea mud, lots of it,
lining much of the coastline around the island.

The Gatalympics consist of various races of skill and dumb luck, being
conducted in soft, oozing mud that is sometimes waist deep. None of the
contestants stays clean for very long, and that of course is the point.
It's silly events like these, that if they get discovered by the foreign
press and disseminated overseas, can create a powerful draw for others
wanting to see it and experience it for themselves. People frolicking
around in mud certainly makes for great photos. We're surprised it isn't
a "must-do" thing for Kyushu visitors already.

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