Southeast Asian Visitors Pursue the Total Japan Experience


Japan is an ever more popular destination for tourists from Southeast Asia. No longer content with Tokyo and Kyoto alone, they are heading further afield and seeking out distinctly Japanese experiences. The travel industry and local authorities should make the most of this trend by working to ensure that all visitors are satisfied.

Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

“Excuse me, are you Japanese?” I was at a gathering in Indonesia when somebody suddenly addressed me. “Shirakawa’s a nice place, isn’t it?” Perplexed, I responded, “Yes, I’m Japanese, but I don’t know any place called Shirakawa.” After a lengthy chat, I realized that he was talking about Shirakawa-gō, the UNESCO World Heritage site village in Gifu Prefecture famous for its farmhouses with steeply sloping roofs. To my surprise, it turned out that he and his family had visited it for the first time earlier in the year, even staying in one of the traditional farmhouses.

Japan is a booming travel destination for Indonesians. In the past, they used to mainly visit the Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan theme parks, the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara, and locations in the modern capital like Asakusa, Tokyo Tower, and Tokyo Skytree. All of these sites are highly popular with domestic tourists too. Beginning around last year, though, Indonesians have begun heading farther afield on their Japanese travels.

The man who visited Shirakawa-gō said that last year he had gone to see the snow corridor at Norikuradake, the Nagano Prefecture peak, and had skied at Niseko in Hokkaidō. “It was great to show my family snow and hit the slopes,” he told me. Next year, he plans to make a trip to the Kotohiragū shrine in Shikoku.

Tourist visa applications from Indonesia are rising steadily each year. At the Japanese consulate in Jakarta, 2016 saw a 40% spike from the previous year. In March this year, the facility opened a dedicated counter, which handles up to around 1,800 visa applications every day.

Cherry blossom hunters were particularly abundant this year, packing national airline Garuda Indonesia’s flights to Japan in sakura season. Cathay Pacific picked up the slack with a campaign offering round-trip Jakarta-Narita services via Hong Kong for 5.8 million rupiah (¥48,000), which immediately sold out.

Cultural experiences are also increasingly a draw for these visitors. Near Kyoto’s famous Yasaka Shrine, there are places where visitors can dress up in kimono. These are a big hit with women tourists from abroad, who get help from English-speaking female staff in choosing and putting on the kimono, obi sash, and zōri sandals. When I was there, I saw several kimono-clad tourists walking around the neighborhood and taking commemorative photos against a backdrop of cherry blossoms.

The Boom in Southeast Asian Visitors

Japan National Tourism Organization statistics indicate that in 2016 the number of Indonesian visitors rose 32% from the previous year. In 2017, the total for January and February was up 57% year on year. The lure of the cherry blossoms in April this year led to a new monthly record of 45,200 tourists from Indonesia, a rise of 45% from April 2016.

A quick look at the flowers is not enough for some visitors. Tours may begin with the blossoms at Osaka Castle after arrival at Kansai International Airport, followed by a hop to the famous viewing spot at the temple Daigoji in nearby Kyoto. A Shinkansen journey then allows the opportunity for strolling and appreciating Tokyo’s famous sakura at Ueno Park and along the Imperial Palace moat at Chidorigafuchi before the tour participants depart from Narita Airport. In May, there was also a popular tour following the “cherry blossom front” through northern Japan from Tōhoku to Hokkaidō.

Visitor numbers from other Southeast Asian nations are also rising. The JNTO reported that in April, there were 138,600 tourists to Japan from Thailand (up 5.8% from April 2016), 62,000 from the Philippines (up a whopping 47.8%), 43,200 from Malaysia (up 13.6%), 38,900 from Vietnam (up 14.0%), and 35,400 from Singapore (up 15.8%). In fiscal 2016, the total number of visitors from these six Southeast Asian nations was 2.51 million. This represents a great opportunity for the travel industry and local economies.

It is not a time for simply rubbing one’s hands in glee as business grows, though. While an Indonesian woman I spoke to said she very much enjoyed her trip to see cherry blossoms in April, she pointed out some inconvenient aspects of urban public transport. The subway and JR lines are extensive and have English-language maps, but, she said, “It was exhausting because there were so many stairs.” Away from the major stations, Japan still has a shortage of escalators and elevators, which can make it difficult when travelers have heavy luggage or small children. In Indonesia, stairs are generally only used for emergencies and on pedestrian overpasses, and many Indonesians would rather take a risky dash across the road than climb up to use a bridge.

She could avoid the rail network’s stairs altogether if she used the bus, but this presents its own problems. “I’d like to go by bus, but even if I know where I want to go, it’s almost impossible to work out how to get there, and very hard to get hold of a route guide. Usually the onboard announcements are only in Japanese, too.” Making buses easier for foreign visitors to ride is a necessary improvement before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Keeping Visitors Coming Back

Indonesians in the travel industry give a range of reasons for Japan’s popularity. It is nearby, the food is good, and restaurants and other facilities are clean. They also note that Japanese people are friendly to travelers and that the country is a safe place to visit, to the extent that women can walk alone at night.

Other than the number of stairs, the disadvantages for Indonesian travelers are that they often cannot communicate in English, there is limited understanding of their halal food requirements, and it can be impossible to get on trains at rush hour. Overall, however, Japan remains highly attractive as a destination.

As part of its summer campaign, the Jakarta branch of the travel agency HIS is promoting homestay tours letting visitors see what life is like in a Japanese family. Other popular tours to Japan are also based around experiences, proving popular with a wide range of travelers. For example, many tourists try out a “desert experience” in the sand dunes of Tottori Prefecture, taste delicacies at sake breweries in Kobe, bury themselves in the hot sand baths of Kagoshima Prefecture, go on anime pilgrimages to locations like the hometown of Case Closed detective Conan creator Aoyama Gōshō, or take factory tours of the popular Hokkaidō chocolate maker Shiroi Koibito and ramen tours in Sapporo.

In 2017, Japan marks 130 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Thailand and 60 since establishing relations with Malaysia. Next year will be the sixtieth anniversary of forming ties with Indonesia. These milestones offer a chance to boost tourism from the three countries still more. However, Japan must work to improve its hospitality to ensure as many visitors as possible go home thinking, “That was a great trip. I really want to go back.”

(Originally published in Japanese on June 27, 2017. Banner photo: Southeast Asian visitors dress in kimono in Kyoto. Photograph by Ōtsuka Tomohiko.)

tourism Southeast Asia