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How Japan is courting Muslim tourists

A barbecue restaurant which serves Halal certified food in Tokyo, Japan.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images
A barbecue restaurant which serves Halal certified food in Tokyo, Japan.

When Mohamed Farhan visited Fukuoka, a prefecture located south-west of Japan, in 2006, the Singaporean was confined to a menu of salad and instant noodles for five days.

So it came as a huge relief for the 27-year-old in a recent Tokyo trip, when he was able to savor Japanese-style Halal food. He had udon, barbecued yakiniku and even bought arare, a form of rice crackers, as souvenirs.

The experience of having to miss out on Japanese cuisine is shared by many Muslims in Japan, where a homogeneous society of non-Muslims means that Halal food – food that is allowed and prepared according to the Islamic dietary guideline – is hard to come by. But things have changed as the land of the rising sun steps up to the demands of a group of visitors it has long neglected.

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Major airports in Japan are now equipped with prayer rooms, with Kansai International Airport intending to have its 16 restaurants go pork and alcohol-free. Various prefectures like Kyoto and Chiba are encouraging restaurants to introduce Halal versions of traditional Japanese fare like tempura and even the controversial whale meat.

Why entice Muslim tourists?

Analysts say Japan's courting of Muslim tourists is linked primarily to its quest for 20 million foreign visitors by the time Tokyo holds the Olympic Games in 2020.

"Most tourists [to Japan] are from Taiwan, South Korea and China but ongoing tensions [have] affected the inbound volume. Thus, Japan would like to diversify its sourcing countries," said Tomohiko Sawayanagi, Managing Director of Jones Lang LaSalle's (JLL) Hotels & Hospitality Group in Japan.

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In July 2013, Tokyo waived the visa requirements for Thailand and Malaysia which led to a 60 percent on-year spike in holidaymakers from these two Southeast Asian countries in 2013, according to JLL's Sawayanagi. Moving forward, a relaxation in travel requirements may be in the pipeline for tourists from Indonesia, Philippines and India.

Nearly 180,000 Malaysians visited Japan in 2013, up 36 percent on year. Tourist numbers from Indonesia surged 35 percent last year.

This growth boils down to more than easing visa restrictions, said Euromonitor's Research Analyst Ayako Homma. "Other factors include a rising middle-class backed by rapid growth within Southeast Asia, capacity expansion by low-cost carriers and a weakening yen," she added.

Businesses flourish

Japan's interest in rolling out the red carpet for Muslim tourists has also spawned local businesses.

One of which is "Halalminds" – a mobile phone app which aims to help Muslims locate and identify Halal products in Japan.

Partly inspired to design the app after his exasperating experience in Japan, Agung Pambudi, an Indonesian native, spent $3,000 designing "Halalminds" which has been downloaded 4,000 times since it launched four months ago.

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"We didn't have any marketing after the launch as we don't have [external] funding. But for the next version that we will launch in August, we believe there'll be more downloads even without marketing," Pambudi said. "Our target for next year is 1 million downloads."

Travel agencies like 5-year-old Feel Japan with K has also rolled out Muslim-only tours in recent years to tap into the burgeoning market. While the sourcing for Halal restaurants has become easier, accommodation remains a challenge.

"We are facing a tough stage now for it's difficult to secure proper hotel rooms in cities like Tokyo and Osaka," K. Kishida, a representative from the agency told CNBC.

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While problems remain, tourists like Farhan welcome these changes.

"This recent trip is a totally different experience and it certainly makes me want to visit Japan more often," said Farhan. "I'll like to venture out of Tokyo next year. Maybe revisit Fukuoka to make up for my previous visit."