How has Japan changed during the tourist boom?

Japan is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and naturally enough, this has brought some changes. I’ve just come back from another trip to Japan and have had time to reflect on what I’ve noticed over the years.

There are a lot more tourists

Visitor numbers increased from just over 10 million in 2013 to just over 30 million in 2018. In some areas, this is really noticeable. Sights are more crowded and shops are busier. The street I’ve stayed on in Asakusa has doubled the number of hotels over the last six years, with another one currently being built.

There are still plenty of pockets of quiet. In Tokyo, I had coffee and a cardamom scroll at a sourdough bakery located in a traditional house. It was peaceful and relaxing sitting in the courtyard, with a couple of locals the only other customers while I was there. Kiyosumi garden was blissful and beautiful, enjoyed by a small number of mostly Japanese visitors on a weekday.

Further afield, in Hirosaki I was the only participant in an indigo dying class, held in an authentic traditional workshop. That was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Japan. Going north, Otaru was crowded with tourists. Around Furano and Biei, it was early in the summer season, so Farm Tomita was relatively uncrowded. The Blue Pond however was really busy and crowded.

The message here is, understand that there will be crowds in the most noteworthy spots, i.e. anything that’s very instagrammable or appears on Top 10 lists. Plan some activities in less well-known places, many of which are well worth seeing but just overlooked in the list-ticking mindset of many visitors.

English language support

Foreign language signs and other tourist material are more widespread. It’s not just signs at train stations and tourist attractions, but also in hotels, restaurants and shops, particularly in popular tourist areas. There are more people speaking at least some basic English, or who have discovered the wonders of Google Translate, as in the case of elderly owner of the ryokan I stayed at in Furano.

There’s a range of English information available now to deal with emergencies, from needing medical help, to dealing with natural disasters. If you have specific dietary requirements, there are various cards available to use in restaurants, covering religious, medical, and other dietary restrictions.

Improvements in facilities

With the Olympic Games being held in Tokyo in 2020, there is a huge amount of work going on in Tokyo to upgrade facilities. There has been major work on the subway and metro lines, which is still continuing. Some stations are a bit hard to navigate at the moment as they are being upgraded, but where the work has been completed, the stations are so much brighter and easier to navigate.

There has been a boom in hotel building in Tokyo and other large cities. Some of the new hotels are apartment style, which appeals to families, groups and those wanting to self-cater. Apartments used to be hard to find, so this is a welcome development.

Environmental awareness

In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed businesses thinking more about environmental impact.

Hotels are now asking people to indicate their room cleaning preference, with an environmental option where sheets aren’t changed every day. Some also ask people to select toiletries at the front desk instead of automatically putting an assortment of plastic wrapped goodies in the room. I sometimes thought these actions were more due to cost-cutting than environmental concern, for example where a hotel offered bottled water as a reward for reusing bed linen. On the whole though, it seems a trend that is gathering momentum.

Consumption of plastic in Japan is high, with the amount of plastic used in packaging. The ubiquitous vending machines are full of plastic bottles and stores often place purchases in several plastic bags. I was asked a couple of times on this last visit if I wanted an item placed in a plastic bag, and if I wanted plastic cutlery which used to be automatically provided. Shops were also very happy to place things in the reusable bag I had with me. I’ll be talking a bit more about reducing waste and dealing with rubbish in a future post.

Smoking

Smoking is still more prevalent in Japan than in many western countries, but the number of smokers is reducing. There are also more restrictions being placed on where people can smoke. Many cities don’t permit smoking on the street in busy areas. Tokyo has just banned smoking in public indoor places (hotels, restaurants, public transport etc) from 1 April 2020.

Second-hand smoke and lingering odours in hotel rooms are far less common than they used to be.

Change will continue

Things will undoubtedly continue to change. Some changes will be positive, as in greater foreign language support. Other changes may not be, as destinations struggle to deal with the massive increase in tourist numbers. If you are planning to visit Japan, it is worthwhile looking for up-to-date information to help you plan and make key decisions.

Do you have any questions about travelling to Japan? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.