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How to Spend Your Precious Holiday – Just Relax or…?


Hunting for the Hotaru Firefly, fishing for Ayu Sweetfish, cuddling up with the  fluffy Akita Inu, or visiting power spots that feature on video games and musicals – a lot of Japanese people travel near and far with clear objectives. The concept of the holiday is very different in Japan, as it is more geared to activities. The Japanese translation of tourism is “Kanko”, which does not just mean relaxing, but is much more activity based.

Kanko – Learning from the Other People’s Strength

For Japanese people, it is not easy to take long holidays, so they tend to be short, typically about a week or less, so travellers are selective of destinations, and the schedule tends to be jampacked with site visits and activities.

But the shortage of time is not the only reason why Japanese tourists get so busy during their holidays. Travelling, or going on tour, has for Japanese people always been an act with the purpose of exposing themselves to new experiences.

The word Kanko originates in the Chinese saying, “seeing the light of a nation”.  It means to go to a foreign land and learn something new. Japan’s first steamship, presented by the Dutch king in 1855, was named Kanko Maru.  For a nation newly introduced to the international community, it was essential to learn from anything and anyone.  The word and spirit of “Kanko” stayed with people even after the decommissioning of the vessel in 1876.

Tourism Mecca in Japan – Ise Shrine

The origin of tourism goes back to a ninth century pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine. It is a sacred place, deep in the mountains of the present-day Wakayama prefecture, and hard to visit.  Soon, the leading destination changed to Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture, which was near the coastline with much easier access.

In the Edo era, five highways connecting major cities were modernised, and station towns with inns became sophisticated to serve provincial lords and their servants, who regularly travelled to Edo to deliver their taxes.

These investments also contributed to the increase in the numbers of ordinary travellers visiting the Ise Shrine.  (Pilgrimage to Ise was the only way to gain official permission for the passage of civilians.)  But, it was not only the destination that benefited from an increase in visitors but also towns along these routes.  The famous series of Ukiyoe prints by Hiroshige Utagawa, Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido, was not seen as artwork but almost as promotional materials.  A collection of short comedy stories about a pair of foolish travellers, Yaji and Kita, getting into a string of troubles along Tokaido, was published in 1802 and quickly became a bestseller.

Their destination was the Ise Shrine, but they just wanted to get away from the miserable lives in the city of Edo. By then, just like in the story, the pilgrimage for most people was an excuse for travelling, and the real purpose was to visit places, enjoy local food, and experience the different ways of living that they found on Ukiyoe and novels, equivalent of the internet advertisements and Instagram of the present day.

Present Day Tourism – What Kind of Omotenashi?

The prime objective of a holiday for British people is “just relaxing” (from Office of National Statistics, 2016) but for Japanese people, “sight-seeing” scores the top spot.  It is in line with the idea of Kanko developed throughout history and sealed in Meiji era, underlined by the inquisitive nature of Japanese people.

But 81% of the Japanese tourism market remains domestic demand.  With difficulties in taking an extended holiday from work, extreme congestion and high costs during the high-season (New Year’s holiday, Golden week, and spring/summer holidays), shorter travelling options – weekend activities or city trips – are much more popular.

Additionally, there are plenty of sites and activities on offer as the government recognises the importance of the tourism industry and of pushing local institutions to develop “Kanko” resources, including infrastructure such as hotels and transportation systems.

Historic buildings, which were not accessible to the public such as Akasaka and Kyoto Guest Houses, are now open with organised tours having multi-lingual guidebooks. Rural areas are encouraged to develop a programme for homestay in traditional farming and fishing houses, with the government ’s target being to reach 500 such “open” regions by 2020.  The participants receive extra funds to assist in establishing tours and refurbishing old homes. There is a push for investments and advertisements for cycling and nature trails, traditional theatre viewings, and extended opening hours for museums.

These are very typically Japanese views of tourism, jampacked with activities, as a result of the government calling for developing “Kanko” resources – experiences rather than relaxations. It would work for Japanese tourists, but this segment in the market has been stagnant for some years.

It is inbound demand that is driving growth. Japan was the shopping destination from Eastern Asian countries for the last ten years, but repeat visitors are on the increase, and the country has on offer a more comprehensive range of options to meet demands with different ideas on holidays.

“Omotenashi” – Hospitality – can be very subjective, and is viewed differently.  It can mean providing guests with loads to do, but it can also be about  providing quiet private space.  It may be time for the Japanese tourism industry, which is very good at pampering guests, to look at supplying a more relaxing experience for tourists to take in the everyday life of Japan in their own time, and in their own way.

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