The Yomiuri Shimbun
A monk stands in a room at the Shorinan lodgings prepared to accommodate wealthy visitors staying overnight at Ninnaji temple in Kyoto. (The Yomiuri Shimbun/File)
Staying at a temple lodging for ¥1 million (US$9,068.71) a night. Having a samurai sword made for ¥20 million.
As more and more foreign visitors flock to Japan, there has been a growing variety of plans targeting the more affluent tourists of the world.
National and local governments have taken up the task of coming up with special services that, while pricey, offer chances for experiences otherwise unavailable on the general tourist trail.
Whole temple to yourself
On an autumn day in a garden of Ninnaji temple, a World Heritage site in Kyoto’s Ukyo Ward, a group of priests were seen reciting scriptures in chorus. An American family of five, sitting nearby in a tatami room, observed with solemn looks.
The five were staying in a two-story wooden structure known as the Shorinan lodgings on the temple grounds. The temple started the lodging service this past spring. The service also allows visitors to tour the Kondo main hall, designated as a national treasure, which is normally off-limits to the public. The American family said it gave them the opportunity to commune with the essence of Buddhism.
Up to five people can stay at the Shorinan lodgings at a cost of ¥1 million per night. Drawn to the notion of “having the whole temple to yourself” outside of the general hours the temple is open, about 10 groups have booked the plan through next spring, mainly deep-pocketed tourists from Europe and the United States.
“We thought this could help secure funds for the upkeep of the temple, but the response has been much greater than we expected,” said Gishin Kanazaki, who is in charge of the temple’s property management. “I have a good feeling about this.”
In the Nishiki Market, regarded as Kyoto’s Kitchen and located in Nakagyo Ward, the Japanese restaurant Tobeian started a special service on Nov. 26. With a limit of one group per day at a price of ¥18,000 per person, participants can accompany one of the restaurant’s chefs to the market as he procures fresh products for their meal.
In a further nod to the well-to-do, it is also possible to rent out the restaurant for a private dining experience for an additional ¥200,000.
Major travel agency JTB Corp., aiming to attract the affluent of Europe, proposed to a Swiss travel agency tours of Japan that cost between ¥700,000 and ¥900,000 per person, excluding airfare. Interest is high in a plan covering the Tohoku region that started in April and includes a special viewing of a Tsugaru Shamisen performance.
In Kyoto and other cities and regions witnessing vast increases in foreign tourists, plans targeting the wealthy have been growing in recent years.
One reason has been the vastness of how much is spent. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 341 million people took trips overseas from the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Australia in 2016. About 1 percent (3.4 million) were regarded as “affluent tourists,” spending over ¥1 million during their trip. However, that 1 percent accounted for 13.5 percent (about ¥44.2 trillion) of the total amount spent on trips. That is seen as a factor for the proliferation of luxury rooms in hotels.
One after the other, national and local governments have been entering this sector.
The Nara Visitors Bureau, established by Nara Prefecture, Nara city and other entities, set up a website in April that introduces a sightseeing route aimed at tourists with deep pockets. Among the plans available: for ¥20 million, a visitor can have an original samurai sword made at a swordsmith; for ¥600,000, one can privately stroll the grounds at night of the Kasugataisha shrine, a World Heritage site. Three groups from Europe or the United States have already booked the shrine plan, while there have been inquiries about the sword making.
“Nara has many visitors making one-day trips, so we’re looking to attract the affluent who will make extended stays,” a bureau official said.
In June, the JNTO invited 46 travel agencies from nine countries, including the United States, Britain and France, that handle travel products aimed at wealthy tourists. They met and talked business with domestic travel industry members at a business conference held in Tokyo.
Promotional activities have been ongoing in the Japan Luxury Travel Alliance, an organization set up by the Kyoto city government in 2016 that is aimed at pursuing ways to attract the wealthy. Its members are six prefectures or cities including Wakayama Prefecture and Sapporo.
David Atkinson, an authority on Kyoto tourism and a member of the central government’s Council for the Development of a Tourism Vision to Support the Future of Japan, said the wealthy are looking for special experiences that they will not find anywhere else. With Japan blessed from the standpoints of both nature and culture, the Briton said that if an itinerary can be prepared that makes use of these tourism resources, there is no reason many wealthy people cannot be attracted.