Wealthy travelers from abroad are willing to pay big bucks for cultural experiences in Japan, and the tourism industry is shifting to accommodate them.
In the July-September period this year, foreign sightseers spent more money in Japan than they had during those same months before the COVID-19 pandemic, to the great relief of those in the travel industry.
This increase in cashflow has been largely attributed to travelers who spend 1 million yen ($6,670) or more during each visit.
In response, top-notch artists, chefs and other crafts people have started showcasing their trade secrets through English-based classes for affluent foreign travelers.
The sushi restaurant Matsunozushi sits near Omori-Kaigan Station in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward on the Keikyu Line. Founded in 1910, the well-established eatery serves only one group of visitors during lunch hours.
At one of these lunches, Yoshinori Tezuka, 44, the restaurant’s fourth-generation owner, stood behind the counter and explained how the taste of tuna can change depending on the technique used to slice and mature the fish meat.
He also showed the group another fish that had been caught in a stationary net in a sustainable fashion. Tezuka then went on to illustrate proper preparation techniques and other cooking steps, and provided a number of sushi-related tidbits in English.
This scene marked a sharp contrast with the traditional image of sushi chefs silently working on their dishes.
Tezuka provides different types of seafood and explanations based on his patrons’ interest and responses.
To keep the experience lively, visitors can sample wasabi and sushi vinegar, and enjoy a demonstration of how well sharpened kitchen knives can cut.
In different courses, participants can prepare sushi by themselves following Tezuka’s guidance or make a morning trip to a fish market to decide what to buy on their own.
Tezuka honed his English conversation skills while working as a ski guide for wealthy tourists in Europe and the United States after college.
He then took over his family business.
“What is important is communicating what I want to say clearly and directly so that people’s enthusiasm will not fade away,” said Tezuka. “My core policy lies in promoting Japanese culture via sushi.”
Japanese pop culture experiences are also highly sought-after by foreign visitors.
Nao Yazawa, who has been a manga artist for more than 30 years, holds a job as a lecturer at a cartoon school in the capital’s Nakano Ward.
She also sometimes receives requests to teach manga techniques to affluent travelers. Yazawa organizes classes for up to four groups of foreign sightseers a day, five or six times a week in her busiest season.
Releasing titles primarily for young female readers, Yazawa started using English in her professional life 20 or so years ago. Around that time, Yazawa had begun receiving invitations to workshops and publishing events outside Japan after an animated adaptation of one of her works was aired in Germany.
She began by learning how to write emails in English and can now teach foreign students how to create manga in person, using her own textbook. She is also able to adeptly explain industry details, like the difference between manga and comic books, in English.
“Even adults who come to my lessons with children to celebrate their birthdays become interested in manga’s history and publishing process,” said Yazawa.
Another secret behind her course’s popularity is the fact that the pro artist draws portraits of the participants that they can take home as souvenirs.
Travel agencies are also cashing in on well-to-do travelers’ desire for cultural experience programs.
Once such agency, Tokyo Luxey Inc., based in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, said that wealthy tourists often ask their favorite travel agencies and hotel staffers to reserve experience programs for them.
Organizers must be equipped with excellent skills to respond to customers’ detailed requests and abrupt changes to the schedule, place and content of experience packages.
To that end, Tokyo Luxey has deepened its bonds with partner companies at business fairs and elsewhere overseas.
“Japan can still compete with other countries the world over with its soft power, such as cuisine, anime and manga,” said the president of Tokyo Luxey, Chie Maeda. “By changing our perspective a little, we can find business opportunities.
“There is room for us to earn more foreign currency in this industry. We can help create one-of-a-kind experiences that connect people and places.”
One estimate projects the market scale for wealthy visitors to Japan will balloon to 3 trillion yen by 2030.
But Maeda said that many smaller regions lack the ability to organize and advertise the types of events that would draw big spenders in.
“Locals underestimate their hometowns’ hidden attractions,” Maeda said. “They are not good at marketing, either.”
Another problem is a shortage of guides working with travel agents, despite their rising wages. Some guides can now reportedly make upwards of 100,000 yen with a single tour.
“We are keen to recruit human resources that have yet to be fully utilized, proposing a new style of working,” said Maeda, referring particularly to personnel who have experience working with non-Japanese people in business meetings and other events.