Last month, the Italian island of Sicily announced that it will pay a portion of travelers’ post-coronavirus trip costs to come and visit later this year by covering half of airline tickets plus one out of every three hotel nights. Now Japan is feeling generous, too, and hoping to fill its currently empty ryokans, bullet trains and sushi restaurants with travelers from around the globe. According to the Japan Times, the head of the Japan Tourism Agency announced this week that the government has created a plan to attract foreign travelers back to the tourism-depleted country by offering to cover half of their travel expenses.
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This attractive new initiative will cost Japan a cool $12.5 billion. And while there aren’t any details about how the program will work or whether there will be expense limits, the initiative could start as soon as July 2020, depending on when travel restrictions for foreign visitors ease up. Japan has been considered a coronavirus success story and has fared much better than other countries in dealing with the pandemic. 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, even during non-coronavirus times. In 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 last year, 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 Nakameguro canal, pink lanterns are lit and the city has an open-air street fair to celebrate, complete with lots of pink champagne.
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 Fish Market – Tokyo
The food in Tokyo is like a work of art. A must-see is Tsukiji, the legendary fish and food market. It’s best explored on a tour with Arigato Japan, which will guide you to the best stalls and help you sample everything from sushi to snails.
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.
Hoshinoya Hotel – Tokyo
Hoshinoya Tokyo is a hushed, ryokan-style hotel in the center of Tokyo where you take your shoes off and wear slippers during your stay. On the top level is a hot spring-fed onsen.
Ryoanji – Kyoto
Ryoanji is a Zen temple in Kyoto with a famous rock garden. Beyond the temple is a spacious park with lovely landscaping and koi ponds.
Yoshida-Sanso Ryokan – Kyoto
Yoshida-Sanso is located in a former imperial villa built for a prince and surrounded by lovely gardens. It’s run by a woman and her mother who take care of you like you’re part of the family.
Set in the countryside is Nikko, which is famous for its temples and shrines, as well as its hot springs and waterfalls. Nikko is a little less than two hours away from Tokyo via Tobu Railways and well 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 Kai Nikko is a ryokan hotel set in Nikko with onsens fed by natural hot springs, traditional music performances for guests, multi-course kaiseki dinners and beautiful views of the lake and mountains.
Edo Wonderland – Nikko
At Edo Wonderland, everyone in the family can dress up in Edo-style attire, from flowing princess robes to black ninja gear. The park is modeled after an ancient village from 17th century Japan, with houses where you can practice shuriken throwing, learn to play a shamisen (a musical instrument used by geishas), watch a ninja performance and more.
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