Japan becomes the affordable destination

The Associated Press

Foreign visitors have always flocked to old tourist spots in Japan like Kyoto, the Sapporo Snow Festival, hot-springs baths and Mt. Fuji.

But these days, they're also checking out new, offbeat ways to experience Japan -- like ninja classes, a geeky pop culture in Tokyo's Akihabara gadget district and animation museums displaying manga, or Japanese-style cartoons.

And they're coming in record numbers, many of them from elsewhere in Asia. Last year an all-time-high 8.34 million foreign tourists came to visit Japan, up 14% from the previous year.

Japan, usually considered an expensive destination, has become cheaper for many because of the recent surges in the euro, Australian dollar and other Asian currencies against the yen, said Junsuke Imai, a government bureaucrat in charge of promoting the tourism industry, which generates 25 trillion yen ($233 billion) a year in revenue.

The government has set a goal of raising that to 30 trillion yen by 2010, Imai said.

Even Americans, whose dollar has weakened against the yen, are visiting Japan in about the same numbers, 815,900, last year as the previous year.

The number of visitors from France rose 17% to a record 137,700 last year.

Eager to accommodate more foreign tourists, Tokyo department stores now employ clerks who speak Korean, put up signs in English and French and accept Chinese-style debit cards.

The number of Japanese stores, restaurants and hotels that accept a dominant debit card, China Union Pay, has jumped 50% to about 8,400 from the previous year, partly because of efforts by the government to promote tourism.

"Chinese people easily buy three times what average Japanese buy in one visit," said Hiroyuki Nemoto, director of Invest Japan Business Support Centers, a government-backed organization.

Department stores are hoping to make up for declining consumer spending among Japanese with the stronger buying power of China, South Korea and other Asian nations.

Visitors from neighboring Asian nations are finding it quicker and easier to travel to Japan to buy European designer items than to go to Europe, said Tatsuya Momose, spokesman for the tony Takashimaya department store in Tokyo.

"We are so grateful for this," he said of the increase in Asian shoppers.

The appeal of Japan as a travel destination is mostly its novelty, as Koreans have already traveled a fair amount to the U.S., Europe and China, said Park Yongman, counselor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Tokyo.

"These days, Japan is seen as the best place to travel," he said, noting that the changing image of Japan has done wonders.

Young Koreans don't harbor the bitter memories of Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II. These days, Japan is emerging as the perfect spot to enjoy animation, video games, movies and other entertainment, he said.

For the first time ever, the number of South Koreans visiting Japan (2.6 million people) surpassed the number of Japanese visiting Korea (2.2 million) last year. Adding to the momentum is the strengthening won, up 6% against the yen over the last year.

Depending on the area, hotel rooms typically cost $55 to $92 a night.

The visitors at the ninja class, which costs $139, said they had seen ninja in samurai movies, manga and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and wanted to try it.

The travel agency that set up the 2 1/2 -hour ninja class, H.I.S. Experience Japan Co., also offers make-your-own-sushi workshops, "taiko" drumming classes, a visit with sumo wrestlers and sake-tasting.

Ninja master Masayuki Waki, 49, who was teaching newcomers the art of fleeing grabs and chokeholds, acknowledged that foreigners were more interested in spirituality and other things Japanese than are most Japanese.

"They are so dedicated," he said. "People abroad are far more drawn to the sensibilities of survival than are Japanese, who tend to take comforts for granted."

Jason Chan, 28, an information-technology business analyst from London, said he had fun playing ninja.

"I watched the movies, and ninjas are always the ones that get away," he said. "Generally, it's a misconception that traveling in Japan is really expensive. I actually find it pretty reasonable compared to everywhere else."

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