News On Japan

Interview with Thierry Maincent, the chairman of Japan Experience

Feb 01 (newsonjapan.com) - We’ve all heard the news: Japan has finally reopened its borders to the world. In the wake of this announcement, how does the tourism situation look in Japan and what should we expect for 2023?

We’ve been waiting for this news for more than two and a half years. Most of the conditions for traveling are now the same as before the pandemic. It’s finally time to return to Japan!

One thing I can say for certain is that people’s love for Japan hasn’t vanished at all. If anything, the wait has made them yearn for the country even more - despite the high prices of plane tickets, demand has been significant. Of course, these types of trips tend to be planned well in advance, so I reckon it’ll be some time before Japan recovers the tourists it had pre-pandemic. I expect to see the number of visitors to grow over the coming year, peaking for the cherry blossom and Autumn leaf seasons this year, and even more growth for 2024.

What is your favorite time for traveling to Japan?

I would personally recommend traveling during the second half of May. You’re almost guaranteed to have great weather that comes with Spring, while avoiding the rush of tourists coming for cherry blossom viewing. The days are longer as well, so you get to enjoy your time all the more.

Not to say that the other three seasons don’t each have their draws: if you love outdoors, summer is perfect for hiking through the Japanese Alps or exploring Hokkaido’s national parks. Between September and November, you’ll find beautiful red and gold leaves blanket the country’s landscapes. And winter is a very underrated season. It’s snowy, but the air is dry, and the sky sunny. As a bonus, the people brighten the dark days with a variety of festivals and celebrations.

However, you’re better off avoiding trips during Japan’s national holidays - Shogatsu (Japanese New Year), Obon (in mid-August or mid-July, depending on the area), and Golden Week (between April 29 and May 5). Locals tend to travel a lot during these periods, so the major sightseeing spots can get very crowded.

If a tourist does decide to travel at these moments, are there any hidden gems you can recommend?

If you’re looking for natural landscapes, I recommend Japan’s smaller islands, especially those in the Inland sea, which were left mostly untouched. In the same vein, you’ll find the country’s most beautiful primary forest on the island of Yakushima, south of Kyushu. Instructions to visitors are very strict, so they leave as little of a trace of their visit as possible.

For seasoned hikers, the temple of Ikumo in Ishikawa Prefecture is a very well-kept secret. Visitors are very nicely welcomed by the monks coming here to meditate, and the 360° panorama on the sea and Hakusan Mountain is a sight to behold. Not only that, but you’re also likely to be alone; there are only 2 to 3 rooms, and the climb is rather challenging.

And if you’re coming to Japan during the cherry blossom season, I suggest the banks of the Kamo river. It’s a classic, but the pink trees lining the river have a beauty that’s almost magical. If you come here on a weekday in the morning, there won’t be many people.

Many people are already planning their trip. Are there any cultural differences they should be aware of before traveling?

One word that perfectly describes Japanese culture is courtesy, for the sake of which certain customs are expected to be followed. Because the Japanese are unlikely to get angry even when offended, they can be difficult to decipher. As a general rule, the best way to avoid social mistakes is to do as the Japanese do, but there are a few specific recommendations.

It’s common knowledge that the Japanese are very clean and strongly dislike littering. You won’t find many trash cans on the streets, bring a small bag to collect your trash throughout the day. And for very much the same reasons, they won’t appreciate you eating while walking.

In the same vein, silence is golden in public transportation - passengers talk very rarely and never call. Before boarding a train, make sure to wait for passengers to disembark.

Shops may refuse customers for any reason. If this happens to you, it’s best to not insist any further. Note that tattoos can play a part in this, due to their association with the yakuza - the Japanese mafia - so covering them can help. Also, avoid tipping. Japan does not practice tipping - in fact, it’s considered an insult to do so!

Laws are followed to the letter. For instance, the Japanese will respect pedestrian signals even if there are no cars nearby. They also won’t smoke outside in the streets - it’s forbidden to smoke outside of specially-designated areas.

What about travel requirements?

Most of the restrictions that were put in place for the pandemic have been relaxed, but there are still a few formalities travelers should be aware of. If you are not vaccinated at least three times, you’ll need to present a negative COVID PCR test result, taken within 72 hours of your departure. Unless you are from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and EU, among others, you’ll also have to apply for a tourist visa. Either way, you should pre-register on the Visit Japan Web service: this’ll make border control much smoother. We also strongly recommend applying for health insurance if your credit card does not provide one; it should cover medical expenses and hospitalization.

Do you have any good deals for travelers on a budget?

If you’re traveling as a group of more than 3 people, you could consider renting a house instead of booking separate hotel rooms, especially in areas such as Tokyo. Besides, it’s the perfect way to live a more authentic experience!

When it comes to transport, I recommend the train to get around the country. Japan’s railway network is very developed - the Shinkansen bullet trains can get you across the country in just a few hours, while the regular trains can help you reach more remote locations. The latter is also perfect for enjoying panoramic views of Japan’s natural landscapes.

It can get rather expensive, however, so if you’re staying in Japan for at least a week and have a lot of cities to cover, I recommend you purchase a Japan Rail Pass. It’ll give you unlimited access to most trains for 1 to 3 weeks. Or, if you’re staying in one specific region, it might be worth it to purchase a Regional Pass instead - such as the Hakone Free Pass, which is quite popular with tourists. Either way, you’ll quickly get your money’s worth. It also affords a lot of flexibility, as you can board most trains without a stop to a Ticket Office.

Japan Experience is the first European tour operator to specialize exclusively in Japan. Can you tell us more about your activities?

We are a team of enthusiasts - we live and breathe Japan, and we’re constantly exploring new unique activities that we want to share with our customers. For over 40 years, we’ve been devoting all our energy to promote Japan with passion to all those who wish to travel there and, of course, to all those who simply wish to learn more about the country.

Whether you’d like to organize your trip yourself, or let us handle all the details, we have everything you need among our large catalog of products. If you’re in need of personalized advice, don’t hesitate to visit us at one of our local offices in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, or Tokyo.

After all, for us, Japan is more than just a destination - it’s our raison d'être.

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