From Mount Fuji to manga: Pop culture ignites a tourist boom


TOKYO — His head wrapped in cloth and wearing black head-to-toe, Michael Studte throws darts, turns somersaults and twirls lassos in a ninja class for foreign tourists in Japan.

“It didn’t seem quite like the normal touristy showy sort of thing,” the 40-year-old information-technology engineer from Perth, Australia, said recently, a little breathless after pushing down a mock opponent.

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

But these days, they’re also checking out new offbeat ways to experience Japan, such as 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 visited Japan, up 14 percent from the previous year.

Wooing shoppers

Japan — traditionally 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, says Junsuke Imai, a government bureaucrat in charge of promoting the $232 billion-a-year tourism industry. The government has set a goal of raising that to $278 billion by 2010, Imai said.

Even Americans, whose dollars have weakened against the yen, are visiting Japan in about the same numbers. The 815,900 visitors last year was unchanged from the previous year.

Eager to accommodate the droves of foreign tourists, Tokyo department stores now employ clerks who speak Korean; put up signs in English and French; and accept Chinese-style debit cards, which were previously rejected.

The number of Japanese stores, restaurants and hotels that accept China Union Pay has jumped 50 percent 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,” says Hiroyuki Nemoto, director of Invest Japan Business Support Centers, a government-backed organization.

Department stores are hoping to make up for dropping 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 all the way to Europe, said Tatsuya Momose, spokesman for the tony Takashimaya department store in Tokyo.

“We are so grateful for this,” he said of the flood of Asian shoppers.

Let’s sumo wrestle

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, adding 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 2.6 million Koreans visiting Japan last year surpassed the 2.2 million Japanese visiting Korea.

Adding to the momentum is the strengthening won, up 6 percent against the yen over the last year.

The visitors who paid $139 for the ninja class said they had seen ninja in samurai movies, manga and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and wanted to try it out.

The travel agency that set up the 2 ½ 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.

Jason Chan, 28, an information-technology business analyst from London, who has also visited Spain, Germany and Hong Kong, 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,” he added.