Regional destinations to see in Japan in 2017

Feb. 17, 2017
  • Viewpoints

We at wondertrunk & co. spend our days informing people at travel media and travel agencies outside Japan about the many other great places to see in this country besides Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mount Fuji. In this article we showcase several such regional destinations on which we’re particularly focusing this year.

The top places to see in Japan in 2017, unveiled in partnership with a leading British travel publication

More than 80 percent of visitors to Japan are tourists from Asia. The key to getting more people coming to this country as 2020 and 2030 approach will be to acquaint European and North American travelers with all that Japan has to offer. So in January 2017, in partnership with Britain’s biggest free travel magazine Escapism,1 we unveiled our own list of the top ten regional destinations to see in Japan this year.2 This feature was handed out at the Telegraph Travel Show in London, where it came to the attention of travel industry insiders from Britain and the rest of Europe.

※1 Escapism is a free travel magazine published in Britain. It won the Independent Publisher Award for three successive years beginning in 2013, and bagged a couple of Travel Media Awards in 2015. With a circulation of 105,000 (and 252,000 readers), it is Britain’s largest free travel magazine.

※2 “wondertrunk & co.: The Top 10 Places to See in Japan This Year.” The ten destination were chosen with input from outside advisors Asami Shishido, CEO and Creative Director of Qetic Inc.; Tomoyuki Iwashita, CEO and Travel Consultant at i Communicate Inc.; and Taichi Sugiura, CEO of CINRA, Inc. Also involved in the selection were wondertrunk’s Co-CEOs Takehiro Okamoto and Wataru Takahashi and Global Network Manager Nayumi Gokyu.

Setouchi: The most beautiful Japanese archipelago

Setouchi — the Inland Sea region — is the destination wondertrunk is most focused on. Though still not well known by that name abroad, it has the potential to become one of the main attractions for visitors to Japan in the near future. There are basically two reasons for thinking that.

First, the Setouchi region is where Hiroshima is located. Hiroshima Prefecture’s two biggest attractions, Miyajima and the Atomic Bomb Dome, both World Heritage sites, are more familiar to Western than to Asian travelers, and interest is mounting in other tourist attractions nearby. Second, the region is endowed with a special charm by its varied islands: Naoshima and Teshima, both centers of the arts; the scenic isles along the Shimanami Kaido cycling route; Miyajima, where the Itsukushima Shrine is located; and Noshima, which in medieval times served as a base for the Murakami pirates. When we provided these details to the British editorial team, Escapism came up with this copy to describe Setouchi: “The most beautiful Japanese archipelago.”

Hakuba: A mountain resort that’s more than just powder snow

Next, Hakuba in Nagano. It’s well known how Australian tourists flock to Niseko on Hokkaido for the skiing, but in fact Hakuba has also become a household name among travelers in search of powder snow.
We however recommend Hakuba as a great place to visit in summer as well as winter. In Germany and Scandinavia trekking and staying in the great outdoors are popular tourist activities, so when you tell people about Hakuba in summer, they really pay attention. Hakuba offers all that mountaineering destinations outside Japan do and more: climbing trails across the Northern Alps, a magnificent valley where the snow doesn’t melt in summer, the Yari Hot Spring atop a 2000-meter summit. We believe that by developing attractions to enjoy both on the peaks and at the foot of the mountains, Hakuba can become a world-class alpine resort.

Setouchi and Hakuba featured on the pages of Escapism magazine

Keramashoto National Park, where 2017 will be Year One for inbound tourism

The third destination I’d like to mention is the Kerama Islands in Okinawa. This area, which is so renowned for its beautiful ocean that there’s even the word “Kerama blue,” has been designated a national park. When you show photos of Kerama to people from overseas travel agencies or media, their eyes sparkle. “Is this Thailand? The Indian Ocean?” They can hardly believe there’s such a gorgeous island vacation destination in Japan.
The Japanese government and Ministry of the Environment have launched a campaign to brand the national park as a world-class sanctuary. Wondertrunk is assisting with formulating strategy and running a social media campaign for the park targeting an overseas audience. Over the course of this year inbound tourism to the park is expected to pick up considerably. Kerama, we think, will attract many vacationers thanks to its potential as a resort and ease of access from the main island of Okinawa.

Shonai, where the mountain priests roam, and the wine country of Koshu

We believe that as long as a place offers a compelling concept, it has potential as a tourist destination even if it gets few overseas visitors as yet.

One case in point is the Shonai area of Yamagata. The secluded Dewa Sanzan mountains, a center of worship for the Shugendo religious sect, have been awarded three stars by the Michelin Green Guide. Here you can experience the sect’s ascetic practices for yourself while staying at a pilgrims’ lodge.
And Yamanashi Prefecture, or Koshu as it is traditionally called, could become a global mecca for wine tourism. Koshu grapes are the first native Japanese variety of grapes to have been registered internationally, and we believe that Koshu has what it takes to attract oenophiles and Japanese sake lovers from across the globe. Of course, these regions will require some development if they’re to become major tourist destinations, but we at wondertrunk would love to take our overseas counterparts to them, for they’re among our favorite places.

Kerama and Shonai featured on the pages of Escapism magazine

Outlying regions represent the next frontier for inbound tourism to Japan

Two other noteworthy destinations off the beaten track also featured in the list: Towada-Hachimantai, which like Kerama is one of eight model national parks designated by the Japanese government, and could become a mecca for trekkers and hikers; and the Northern Kyushu pottery route, which takes in places like Arita, Imari, Karatsu, and Hasami (kilns could prove a big draw for tourists, since recently ceramics from Kyushu have been actively expanding to overseas markets like Paris). Of course, destinations already well known among sightseers from abroad — Kanazawa, Shirakawago, Koyasan — should continue to set the pace in attracting inbound tourists to provincial Japan.

Koshu and five other destinations featured on the pages of Escapism magazine

Some 24 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2016, 70 percent of whom stayed in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. The attractions that the country’s other regions have to offer are still apparently little known abroad. While the voracious shopping sprees for which Chinese visitors are famous are becoming a thing of the past, Japan still has a tremendous range of local sights to enjoy. Such regional destinations could become world-class tourist spots by luring the unique types of overseas travelers featured in the previous article. They represent the next frontier for inbound tourism.


Takehiro Okamoto
Co-CEO, wondertrunk & co.
Takehiro Okamoto joined Hakuhodo in 2005, where he specializes in planning and executing integrated campaigns. He has run the Visit Japan campaign in seventeen national markets around the world on behalf of the Japan Tourism Agency and Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). He won the Grand Prize at the Tudou Film Festival for the Okinawa tourism video “Yirenxing – 一人行” and a Korean Advertising Award for the Visit Japan campaign in South Korea. A member of the Japan Foundation for International Tourism, he founded wondertrunk & co. within Hakuhodo DY Holdings Inc. in July 2016.
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