In Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture, business and political leaders want to secure one of those spots for a proposed casino alongside the windmills and canals of Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park modeled on a 17th century Dutch town.
The complex, which would include a hotel and entertainment facilities in addition to gaming tables and slot machines, would generate nearly $1 billion in annual revenues, the local group estimates, jolting new life into a region that once had a vibrant manufacturing sector but is increasingly reliant on tourism. The plan is to attract tourists from nearby South Korea, China and Taiwan in addition to locals.
"Tokyo shouldn't absorb everything," said Hideo Sawada, the chairman of travel agent H.I.S., which owns Huis Ten Bosch. "We need balanced growth between Tokyo and the local cities."
In contrast to the massive resorts of Las Vegas and Singapore, aspiring hosts outside the big cities are looking to the more compact facilities of Europe as a guide.
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The German spa town of Baden-Baden, which also has casinos, is serving as a model for casino proponents in two traditional hot springs towns - Atami, in Shizuoka Prefecture, and Naruto, in southwestern Japan's Tokushima Prefecture.
Casinos Austria AG and Switzerland's Grand Casino Luzern, both of which say they are considering entering the Japanese market with a local partner but don't have billions of dollars to spend. To cut costs, they could use existing hotels and buildings.
"There are buildings that could be re-utilized and rejuvenated in Japan. That's a key feature of the European model," Grand Casino Luzern CEO Wolfgang Bliem, who recently spoke at casino conferences in Naruto and Tokyo, told Reuters. "The casino operation should blend into the community."
Big-ticket casinos set up in recent years have cost billions of dollars. The Marina Bay Sands, built on the mouth of the Singapore River, cost $6 billion while the Sands Cotai Central that opened in Macau last year cost $5 billion. Las Vegas magnate Steve Wynn has said his new Macau luxury resort, set to include a large lake with dancing water fountains and air conditioned gondolas, will cost $4 billion.
Mountains and beaches
The northernmost island of Hokkaido is shaping up as one of the key casino battlegrounds with three locations - the port towns of Otaru and Tomakomai and Kushiro on the eastern coast - officially putting themselves forward as aspiring hosts.
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Hokkaido, which draws tourists seeking a cooler location in the summer and skiers in the winter, has been cited by casino executives as one of the most attractive spots outside Tokyo and Osaka, along with the beaches of Okinawa in the south.
Caesars Entertainment said both Hokkaido and Okinawa were on its radar screen. It has visited officials in Kushiro, a Hokkaido city of 200,000 that is proposing a casino built around a hot springs resort that would also promote the culture of the indigenous Ainu people.
Caesars is qualified to run a casino in Japan regardless of whether it is "an urban resort in Tokyo or Osaka, a beach resort in Okinawa, or a mountain resort in Hokkaido," said Steven Tight, head of the company's international development division.
Casinos Austria is one of the global casino operators that has shown an interest in Otaru, a harbor town whose proximity to Sapporo, the biggest city on Hokkaido, is considered a key asset in the casino stakes.
While Otaru attracts nearly 7 million tourists a year, too many pass through, spending a fraction of what they would if they stayed overnight. Otaru Mayor Yoshiharu Nakamatsu thinks a casino - perhaps one along the town's canal district or inside a retired cruise ship in the harbor - would change that.
Without a catalyst, he warns Otaru faces a bleak future. A third of its residents are above the age of 65, well above the national average and the highest among cities in Hokkaido.
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"Our economy faces a negative spiral," Nakamatsu said in an interview last month. "Otaru is not the only place with these problems."