Dispatch, Japan: The wonders of Tohoku

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 Johanna Jainchill, Travel Weekly's editor at large, toured northern Japan as a guest of the the local tourism authorities in advance of the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit. Her third and final dispatch follows. Click to read Johanna's first and second dispatches.

For anyone interested in touring Japan as the Japanese do, a trip to the northeast of Honshu, Japan's main island, is in order.

Not many Americans have ever been to this region, Tohoku, or plan to go. For most Americans, the typical Japan tourist map consists of Tokyo and points west: As of 2010, 66.7% of American leisure travelers went to Tokyo, followed by Kyoto at 25.2%, Yokohama 20.9%, and Osaka 16.2%.

The percentage of Americans traveling to the Tohoku region was 4.7%.

The area is more popular with Asians — mostly Taiwanese and Koreans, and Australians come here to ski. But it is mostly popular as a domestic tourism destination for the Japanese.

Tohoku has an abundance of natural beauty — snow-capped mountains, ice-blue rivers and dozens of natural hot springs.

The towns here also host many creative seasonal festivals that include parades of ornate, colorful floats. These small cities boast unique museums; such as one showcasing the history of cherry-tree bark crafts.

In Akita, centuries-old homes of samurai families are open to the public — including one that still has a samurai family living in it.

The locals note that another reason Japanese tourists prefer this area to the ones most popular with foreign tourists is that they are more affordable.

Komagatke Kanko Hotel, a spa resort in Akita, is a ryokan-style hotel, offering traditional Japanese amenities such as a living area with tatami (straw mat flooring), low chairs and tables for sitting cross-legged, and a futon mattress set up on the tatami for sleeping. Several of the rooms have tea ceremony set-ups.

At Komagatke, where guests are comfortable wearing robes not only to and from the hot spring baths but to dinner and around the property, one night with a dinner and breakfast cost $122.

The locals here assured me that was much less than similar accommodations in Tokyo or Kyoto.

Despite all that Tohoku has to offer, the region does not yet cater to foreign tourists. In most places, there are virtually no signs in languages other than Japanese. It is often difficult to find a member of a hotel staff that speaks a language other than Japanese. And hotel websites are often not in any language but Japanese.

This is not exclusive to Tohoku. Tokyo has good English signage, but even at hotels that cater to international tourists, it is common to find front-desk employees who speak nothing but Japanese.

Travel leaders here said Japan is working to make itself a more accessible tourism destination. Such changes,they said, will hopefully make Tohoku and all of Japan more attractive to international visitors.

The CEO of the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) success with the tourism campaigns of the last decade, and said it was launching a new campaign to lure travelers from around the world.

The JTB also has a new strategy to attract more U.S. leisure travelers. “We don’t have as many as we should,” Tagawa said.

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.

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