Terrie's Take 890 (Tourism Edition) -- Nothing Interesting to Show? Create a Festival.

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Mon Apr 3 02:48:29 JST 2017

* * * * * * * * 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 is 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 "...an 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 

http://bit.ly/2oxFrfO (original notice)
http://bit.ly/2ntGr2Y (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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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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