A land of sur­prises

Dis­cov­er­ing the hid­den at­trac­tions in Ja­pan, from an­cient shrines to amuse­ment parks


Ja­pan is far more than Mount Fuji and Tokyo, but ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Mckin­sey re­port, the vast ma­jor­ity of Ja­panese tourism at­trac­tions are rel­a­tively un­known to the world. The Great Bud­dha of Ka­makura, the To­dai tem­ple of Nara, the Toshogu Shrine of Nikko, Ise-jingu Shrine, Shire­toko Na­tional Park—the list of at­trac­tions in which aware­ness rated un­der 10 per­cent of those polled was too long.

Yet these cul­tural at­trac­tions have great ap­peal. Ka­makura’s Great Bud­dha, a mon­u­men­tal out­door bronze statue reach­ing some 13 me­ters high, is the sec­ond largest Bud­dha in Ja­pan, sur­passed only by that at To­dai. The Ku­mano Nachi Shrine, a few kilo­me­tres from the hot springs re­sort of Kat­suura, on the lush south­ern tip of the Kii Penin­sula, is part of a large com­plex of neigh­bor­ing reli­gious sites that ex­em­plify the fu­sion of Bud­dhist and Shinto in uences. ere, in the ver­dant sur­round­ings, vis­i­tors can see the tallest water­falls in Ja­pan. Ise-jingu in Mie Pre­fec­ture con­tains 125 shrines and is roughly the same size as Paris. More than 1,500 rit­u­als are per­formed there yearly to pray for the Im­pe­rial fam­ily and the peace of the na­tion. The in­ner shrine at Ise, es­tab­lished more than 2,000 years ago, is con­sid­ered Ja­pan’s most sa­cred shrine.

These are just a few ex­am­ples of Ja­pan’s im­mense, and mostly un­ex­plored, of­fer. Aya Aso, Pres­i­dent and of Agora os­pi­tal­i­ties, says, “While Ki­monos and Mount Fuji are well known sym­bols of the coun­try, they do not de­pict Ja­pan’s full cul­tural di­ver­sity. Tourists usu­ally visit Tokyo and Kyoto, and then leave. To fur­ther en­hance our coun­try’s at­trac­tive­ness, we must pro­mote our di­ver­sity to its full­ness.”

iroshi Mi­zo­hata, om­mis­sioner of the Ja­pan Tourism Agency, agrees. “While Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans are aware of the ma­jor at­trac­tions of Ja­pan, they quite of­ten do not have a com­plete pic­ture of the coun­try. They are not aware of its di­ver­sity,” he says.

This lack of aware­ness also spills over into Ja­pan’s recre­ational of­fer. Ja­pan of­fers some of the best pow­der skiing in the world, for ex­am­ple, with an av­er­age of 10 to 18 me­ters of snow per sea­son at most re­sorts, but it is a des­ti­na­tion that ies un­der the radar of most in­ter­na­tional skiers. This is slowly be­gin­ning to change, says Shuhei Suzuki, CEO of Nip­pon Ski Re­sort evel­op­ment Com­pany, in akuba, a re­sort in the Ja­panese Alps near Nagano. “ akuba has the sec­ond largest con­tin­gent of for­eign skiers in Ja­pan, but it has yet to reach its full po­ten­tial. But year af­ter year, its rep­u­ta­tion as a des­ti­na­tion with re­li­able deep pow­der snow and Ja­panese tra­di­tional cul­ture is in­creas­ing,” he ob­serves.

In sim­i­lar fash­ion, many vis­i­tors over­look Ja­pan’s won­der­ful parks, where true gems of Ja­panese cul­ture can be found hid­den away. The coun­try’s old­est park, Asakusa anayashiki, in Tokyo’s lively Asakusa district, has been op­er­at­ing since 1853, when it opened as a ower park for the visit of the Com­modore of the U.S. Navy, Matthew Cal­braith Perry. To­day, it of­fers a full range of at­trac­tions and eater­ies, along with shops boasting vin­tage sou­venirs. It also has Ninja training and full ki­mono and tea cer­e­mony ex­pe­ri­ences at more ac­ces­si­ble prices than many of the larger parks.

“Asakusa anayashiki is not just an amuse­ment park; we are not fancy like Dis­ney Land and we do not aim to be so. What we in­stead want to em­pha­size to our vis­i­tors is the cul­ture and the long his­tory of the park,” says park man­ager irota Ak­i­hito, adding that Asakusa anayashiki col­lab­o­rates with the Asakusa district through car­ni­vals and fes­ti­vals to cre­ate a mul­ti­plier ef­fect.

“Start­ing in De­cem­ber 2016, we es­tab­lished a new joint ac­tiv­ity where we of­fer Ja­panese agoita classes. os­t­ing these events col­lab­o­ra­tively and of­fer­ing free en­trance to the tourists in the area are some of the ef­forts we are fo­cus­ing on. We are also con­struct­ing a multi-pur­pose hall to be opened in June, 2018, which will of­fer more cul­tural events such as the Geisha show and the Tea Cer­e­mony.”

Edo Won­der­land in Nikko is an­other park with an au­then­tic cul­tural of­fer. Based around the Edo Era (1603-1868), the 50-acre park is a replica of a small Edo-style town, re­plete with forested ar­eas, shops, small eater­ies, the­aters, mu­se­ums and ex­hi­bi­tions, with ninja stag­ing mock ghts and geisha parad­ing through the streets. Ry­oichi Yuki, park CEO and pres­i­dent, says, “Peo­ple come here to un­der­stand the Edo Pe­riod, and the his­tory of Ja­pan. Tokyo was Edo so to know our cul­ture, one must get to know the Edo Era, and it has been main­tained here in a very au­then­tic way.”

Mr. Yuki says he hopes to at­tract more Amer­i­can vis­i­tors in the fu­ture. “Cul­tural ex­change be­tween coun­tries is like an in­ter­na­tional mar­riage. It is about ex­chang­ing val­ues and un­der­stand­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tures and how we can com­pre­hend each other. As a Ja­panese per­son, I want to sup­port the way that Ja­pan is open­ing to the world. I want to be part of the trans­for­ma­tion.”

“Cul­tural ex­change be­tween coun­tries is like an in­ter­na­tional mar­riage. It is about ex­chang­ing val­ues and un­der­stand­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tures” Ry­oichi Yuki, Pres­i­dent and CEO, Edo Won­der­land

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