Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

KANAZAWA, Japan -- We had not even put away our bags, let alone sat down and settled in, when we realized that the Shinkansen bullet train was already in motion.

We were headed here after an intense two days of WIT Japan & North Asia, where the talk was all about how tech was changing travel in Japan: robot dances and samurai workouts that are now bookable online; super apps that keep customers within their ecosystems; payment options that make it easier for travelers to go cashless.

There was also discussion of alternative accommodations being created out of empty homes in abandoned villages as Japan's population declines by about 1,164 people a day. That was a data point we learned from economist and analyst Jesper Koll of WisdomTree Asset Management, who also gave us other interesting insights into the Japanese economy. 

But more about that later.

Taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to anywhere in Japan is like riding a fast train into the past. You are transported at high speed from a city that inspired futurist-fiction writers like William Gibson to places that remain mired in traditions and retain a Japaneseness beloved by travelers.

To me, Planet Japan is made up of two worlds. There's Tokyo, which is like a space station orbiting out where the future is being created and imagined. And then there is the rest of Japan, happy to remain as it is, with some places reluctantly being dragged into the future.

In Kanazawa, the train station looks like it was designed in outer space: fluid, flowing lines of steel and concrete that speak of Japanese engineering at its finest.

This city of under 500,000 people retains its Japanese traditions within the walls of its old city: canal walks; Kenrokuen castle and gardens; and its samurai district, with its old houses and shrines. Most of the local restaurants take cash only. English is hardly spoken, although Google Translate is getting better at bringing down this barrier.

The hotel we stayed in, Uan Kanazawa, offers a lovely local and contemporary experience, with staff who serve with a graciousness found only in Japan.

The 'kimono' moment

Kimonos and selfies go hand in hand in Kanazawa, Japan.
Kimonos and selfies go hand in hand in Kanazawa, Japan. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon

As with most destinations in Japan, Kanazawa, a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Tokyo, is seeing more foreign travelers, who are discovering the charms of "Little Kyoto." It's easy to spot the tourists -- they're the only ones wearing kimonos -- and you see an equal number of East Asians and Westerners swishing their way along in the traditional Japanese attire.

As in Kyoto, kimono rental is big business here, and I found myself wondering what local residents think of this. Do they mind their national attire being usurped by foreigners for selfie moments? They certainly minded Kim Kardashian West initially naming her shapewear line Kimono, with the celebrity being accused on social media of cultural appropriation.

Beyond how tech is changing travel, there was also talk at WIT Japan & North Asia about how the growth in inbound tourism in recent years is changing Japan.

In Kyoto, where we heard reports of overcrowding and local businesses being swamped by visitors during peak season, tourism authorities are running programs to educate visitors about local customs and traditions. Okinawa has also seen an influx of foreigners. In 2017, it received 9 million visitors, outranking Hawaii for the first time. Out of that total, 2.7 million were foreign tourists, arriving mainly on cruises.

Miyuki Hirakawa, director of global marketing for the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, said there were initiatives afoot to spread travelers out to other islands, such as Ishigaki.

"We are also doing a lot of educating of locals because to them, accepting foreign visitors is quite new," Hirakawa said. "At the same time, it is important visitors are respectful of local traditions so that no tension is created between locals and travelers."

Hitting 40M visitors won't be easy

Beyond trying to strike a balance between tourism and tradition, Japan inbound tourism is facing another challenge: Inbound growth is slowing, particularly from north Asian markets.

Tadashi Kaneko, executive director of global strategy at the Japan National Tourism Organization, said that while reaching the group's target of 40 million visitors by 2020 "was still possible," it won't be easy.

Though high growth is being seen from Europe, North America and Australia, the reality is that 75% of visitors are from East Asia, and the high repeats from these markets -- up to 85% from Hong Kong and 60% from South Korea -- mean they will need more reasons to return.

Kaneko said the organization is developing a two-pronged strategy: promoting 100 local experiences for long-haul markets and marketing the "underlying strengths" of the main cities to visitors from East Asia.

Worrying, too, is what the 2020 Olympics will do for tourism, with Kaneko producing historical data showing that typically, visitor numbers tend to decrease in Olympics years because travelers feel they should avoid the event.

Even in Kyoto, where the media keep reporting on the ills of overcrowding, Kazuya Fukuhara, managing director of the city's tourism office, said annual tourist numbers peaked at 56.8 million in 2015 and have been slowly decreasing.

The good news is that the difference in numbers between low and high season was also decreasing, from a 3.6-times difference in 2003 to a 1.5-times difference in 2017.

Masashi Takahashi, CEO of tours and activities provider Voyagin, said the company's top priority in 2020 was to develop unique and local experiences to take pressure off overcrowded spots. For example, it is offering an organic farm tour and cooking class in Kyoto prefecture and a tour of a traditional fishing town in Kyoto.

The world's richest baby boomers

Inbound is clearly the top story in Japan, one that's been fueling the growth of global online travel giants such as Booking.com, Agoda, Expedia and
Airbnb. But the WIT audience was also reminded not to write off outbound.

Having stagnated in recent years, there are signs of an uptick. Japanese overseas travelers in 2017 reached 17.9 million, the second most after 2012, and the number continued to grow in 2018, to 18.9 million.

WisdomTree's Koll spoke of the dawning of "Japan's New Golden Age," arguing that while its population might be dwindling, Japan is creating a new middle class as well as the richest baby boomers in the world -- rich in both in time and money.

With the best income distribution anywhere, he said, the Japanese economy is bringing up the bottom, and employment is still growing. That also means engaged human capital, with older women returning to the workforce under the government's Work Style Reform program.

What it all adds up to is a fair and equitable society in a nation of nearly 130 million people who have the means and inclination to travel.

Benjamin Holt, Hilton Worldwide's director of regional marketing for Japan, Korea and Micronesia, said that while the demographics of Japan were "fundamentally challenging," there were also opportunities to be found.

"We will have more elderly travelers," Holt said. "How do we engage them and give them trust and assurance and sense of being taken care of? This will also happen in South Korea and China."

The key, he said, is to plant the travel seed at an early age. When asked why he thought South Korea had a healthier outbound market -- it is now the second largest in Asia, with 28 million trips taken by a population of 55 million -- Holt said, "The difference probably is that South Korean kids are exposed to travel from an early age. We need to start introducing travel in schools to get them thinking about it."

Meanwhile, young Japanese women are leading the outbound growth. Peach, the low-cost airline, sees more than 60% of its business from this demographic. Magi Castelltort, tourism counselor for the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo, said that Spain has seen an above-average increase in young female visitors.

"This helps us to adapt our products," Castelltort said, "and women are 'better spreaders' than men, which is great, because they are doing our job for us."

One such "spreader" is Ayumi Amemiya, a writer who's been to 50 countries and sees it as her mission to inspire young women to travel. She said that social platforms like Instagram have been good for tourism, "painting positive images of traveling."

But "positive" is open to interpretation. When asked what type of content was most popular, Amemiya recalled a post she had written during Songkran, the water festival in Thailand, "of good-looking men in wet shirts."

"That got a lot of likes and comments," she said, laughing.

I bet. More than my post about foreigners in kimonos, I am sure.

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