[Forbes, Getty Images]
Last month, the Italian island of Sicily announced that it will pay a portion of travelers’ post-coronavirus trip costs by covering half of airline tickets plus one out of every three hotel nights. Now Japan is also looking for similarly creative ways to fill its currently empty ryokans, bullet trains and sushi restaurants. According to reports, the head of the Japan Tourism Agency announced this week that the government has created a plan to boost tourism by offering to subsidize a portion of travelers’ expenses. While details of the program are evolving, some sources say that the program will apply to domestic travelers; other sources say the program could follow Italy’s lead by extending the subsidy to international visitors when travel restrictions are lifted.
This new program will reportedly cost Japan a cool $12.5 billion. And while there aren’t any details about how it will work or whether there will be expense limits, the initiative could start as soon as July 2020, depending on when travel restrictions ease up.
While Japan was initially bracing for a hard hit from the pandemic, the country has been considered a coronavirus success story and has fared much better than other nations. The country of 126 million people has had only 16,433 infections and 784 deaths. Experts attribute the country’s low numbers to early proactive measures, universal healthcare, low obesity rates, expertise in treating pneumonia and a culture that is already known for its excellent hygiene habits and social-distancing skills.
This isn’t the first time that Japan has tried to attract more tourists. During non-coronavirus times last December, Japan Airlines and Nomura Research Institute (an economic think tank) announced a promotion that would involve giving away 100,000 seats on domestic flights in an effort to get international visitors to explore the country beyond Tokyo and Kyoto.
And Japan needs the business, as tourism is a major economic driver for the country. According to reports, Japan has been hard hit by the lack of international arrivals, which dropped a staggering 99.99% year over year since April 2019 with only 2,900 tourists visiting the country in April. The previous low for monthly foreign visitors was 17,543 in February 1964. Last year, the country recorded the highest tourism numbers on record with more than 32.5 million international visitors.
In fact, my family and I were among those 32.5 million travelers in 2019, as we vacationed in the country during the spring cherry-blossom season. Here are some photos and highlights from our trip that will help inspire wanderlust and prepare you to consider a post-pandemic (and possibly cheaper) trip to Japan.
Tokyo Cherry Blossom Season
During Sakura, cherry blossom season, Tokyo comes alive. Along the Nakemeguro canal, pink lanterns are lit and the city has an open-air street fair to celebrate, complete with lots of pink champagne. (With all its cool restaurants and stylish boutiques, the Nakemeguro neighborhood is fun to check out any time of the year.)
Mori Digital Art Museum – Tokyo
Mori Digital Art Museum (aka Teamlab Borderless) is a must-do. Plan to spend a few hours wandering from room to room and taking in the magic of the digital art installations.
Tsukiji Outer Market – Tokyo
The food in Tokyo is like a work of art. A must-see is the Tsukiji Outer Market, which is lined with fish and food stands. It’s best explored on a tour with Arigato Japan, which will guide you to the most delicious stalls and help you sample everything from sushi to snails.
Skytree – Tokyo
Don’t miss a visit to Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. From the sky-scraping observation levels you can take in views stretching to Mount Fuji. Skytree is also home to Solamachi, a multi-level entertainment center filled with cool shops and restaurants (we loved the conveyor-belt sushi at Toriton). There’s also a wonderful aquarium, Sumida, where you can see fascinating Japanese eels, blowfish and penguins.
Tobu Levant Hotel – Tokyo
The views are spectacular from Tobu Hotel Levant, a well-priced find that overlooks Skytree tower and the skyline of Tokyo. The hotel’s breakfast buffet is nothing short of fabulous.
Shiba Park Hotel – Tokyo
Set in the heart of Tokyo is the sleek and modern Shiba Park Hotel, where the staff makes origami with kids. My daughter loved the huge spinning globe in the lobby.
Hoshinoya Hotel – Tokyo
Hoshinoya Tokyo is a luxe, ryokan-style hotel in the center of Tokyo where you take your shoes off and wear slippers during your stay. On the top level are onsen baths fed by a hot spring deep underground.
Hello Kitty Land Tokyo
Kids love Sanrio Puroland, a.k.a. Hello Kitty Land Tokyo, a theme park in the Tokyo suburb of Tama. It’s just 30 minutes by train from Shinjuku station and worth the detour to check out the character-themed rides, kabuki theater experience and the best collection of Hello Kitty-themed merchandise you’ve ever seen.
Ryoanji – Kyoto
Not to be missed in Kyoto is the Ryoanji temple, a Zen space with a famous rock garden. Beyond the temple is a spacious park with lovely landscaping and koi ponds. In Kyoto, it’s a good idea to hire a private guide like Bodhi Fishman, who showed my family a side of the city that we otherwise would have missed and arranged priceless experiences like lessons from a master calligrapher.
Yoshida-Sanso Ryokan – Kyoto
A lovely place to stay in Kyoto is Yoshida-Sanso, which is located in a former imperial villa and surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. It’s run by a woman and her mother who take care of you like you’re part of the family.
A great side trip from Tokyo is Nikko, a small town set in the mountains that is famous for its temples and shrines, hot springs and waterfalls. Nikko is a little less than two hours away from Tokyo via Tobu Railways and worth the journey
Kanmangafuchi Gorge – Nikko
Lining Nikko’s Kanmangafuchi Gorge are Buddhas statues as far as the eye can see, wearing hats knit by the locals to keep them warm.
The place to stay in Nikko is the Kai Nikko, a ryokan hotel with onsens fed by natural hot springs, traditional music performances for guests, multi-course kaiseki dinners and beautiful views of the lake and mountains.
Gyoshintei restaurant – Nikko
In a hushed temple-like setting, the women-run Gyoshintei restaurant specializes in authentic shojin cuisine that is vegetarian, based on Buddhist principles and totally delicious.
Edo Wonderland – Nikko
At Edo Wonderland—Japan’s version of Colonial Williamsburg—you can dress up in Edo-style attire, from flowing princess robes to black ninja gear. The park is modeled after a 17th century village, with houses where you can practice throwing shuriken (ninja weapons), learn to play a shamisen (a musical instrument used by geishas) and immerse yourself in ancient Japanese culture.