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Ah, for 'No More Walls' between Japan and Foreign Travellers - The Time Has Come.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Thursday, 30th May 2013
 

I am sitting in a ryokan (Japanese inn) by the Pacific Ocean as I write this; the sun is just rising, the birds are flitting about in the early light of dawn, the beach is deserted, a contrast from yesterday afternoon when surfers were out riding the waves.

Last night, we had an amazing dinner. In Japan, I always feel like I am eating art rather than just food. Each course is prepared and decorated so elaborately – squid sushi that comes rolled up in leaves and tied up with a string and knot, abalone that is cooked in sake in a little pot in front of you, saga beef so thinly sliced and beautifully marbled that it melts in your mouth.

After dinner, I soaked in an onsen. There’s something cleansing about a ritual that requires you to be naked with friends and strangers. And of course you also feel thoroughly clean in hot spring water that’s been directly piped down from the mountains.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryI am taking a short break in Imaiso, a traditional luxury ryokan in Izu-Kawazu, a town of about 8,000 people, on the Japanese peninsula, after our WIT Japan conference on Friday. I can just about discern all seven islands on the horizon from my balcony.

Imaiso is one of thousands of ryokans that foreigners like me would love to experience but they remain largely inaccessible and elusive to travellers despite the high penetration of online travel in Japan, just under 40% according to PhoCusWright’s Japan Online Travel Overview.

Not only are they hard to find and book online but even when you do find them, there’s very little done to accommodate foreigners – no English signs, no guidance on etiquette, etc. For instance, I walked into the male onsen (and I swear this was by mistake). Some ryokans  don’t even want to have foreign guests, I am told.

To get here, we took the Shinkansen, it’s a three-hour ride. There are no signs in English at the train station and the ticket is all written in Japanese. Even for well-travelled folk, it’s hard to figure out your seat number, presuming you’ve found the right carriage on the right platform on the right train.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryFor a country that keeps saying it has the best hospitality – most Japanese hoteliers pride themselves on that – and its people the most polite, gracious and service-minded of any in Asia, Japan makes it hard for people to enter its shores.

Each time I visit, I have to get a visa. This time, I even got a letter from the Ministry of Tourism explaining the reason I was visiting Japan thinking I could secure a multiple entry visa. It didn’t work. I got a single entry visa, valid for 14 days.

Which is why I was the first to applaud when Shuichi Kameyama, director of international tourism promotion division, Japan Tourism Agency, announced at WIT Japan that they’d be easing visa regulations for South-east Asian nationals. My tweet about that immediately went viral among our Indonesian followers. It indicates the pent-up hunger South-east Asians have for Japan.

In 2012, Japan attracted 8.3 million visitors, down from the record high of 8.6 million in 2012. It is aiming for 10 million this year. Currently the biggest markets are South Korea, China and Taiwan but I am told by inbound operators they’re seeing huge interest from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

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