There were times last year when foreigners all but vanished from the elegant wooden veranda of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most celebrated tourist spots, but now they are flowing back – and most of them seem to be speaking Chinese.
A flood of visitors from mainland China, swelled over the past week by the lunar new year holiday, is highlighting the importance of Chinese demand for Japan’s tourism sector, which was badly hit following the earthquake and tsunami last year.
In the former imperial capital of Kyoto, long a magnet for foreign visitors, Chinese tourists are an increasingly obvious presence at temples, gardens and scenic spots, says Hiroaki Wakino of the Kyoto City Tourism Association.
“This week it’s almost all Chinese,” Mr Wakino said.
Travel to Japan plunged after a huge earthquake and tsunami hit the north-east coast on March 11, triggering a nuclear crisis. But while arrivals from most of the world remain below pre-disaster levels, the number of Chinese travelling to Japan soared more than 30 per cent year on year in November and December.
Powering the growth is the rapid expansion of China’s urban middle class, many of whose members have considerable disposable income and are eager to see more of the world.
Meanwhile, troubled by anemic economic growth, Japan has in recent years put aside fears of illegal immigration and sharply eased its visa requirements for Chinese.
Ge Fengnian, a shoe businessman from China’s southern city of Guangzhou who this week took his wife, child and parents to enjoy the panoramic view from Kiyomizu Temple’s 17th century veranda, proudly showed a three-year, multiple entry visa.
“Now China is getting richer, other countries have to give Chinese visas,” said Mr Ge. “We Chinese are great shoppers.”
Indeed, surveys by the Japan Tourism Agency suggest that Chinese visitors who go shopping in Japan spend an average of over Y88,000 ($1,140), more than twice as much as British or US tourists.
At the Isetan department store next to Kyoto’s main station, mainland Chinese already account for about 70 per cent of applications for duty free purchases – vastly outnumbering even South Koreans, still the most numerous foreign visitors to Japan.
Chinese visitors may be becoming less free with the wallets and purses. While many tours still center on hitting the retail outlets in Tokyo and Osaka, some are shifting to more cultural itineraries.
Li Yuban, an office worker from Beijing taking in Kyoto’s sights with her family, said she did not plan to spend as much time shopping as she had on her first trip to Japan. “You can buy pretty much anything in China these days, and it’s usually cheaper,” Ms Li said. “This time, I’m aiming to see more tourist sights and eat fine foods.”
Even if shopping is less frenzied, the overall rise in numbers means Chinese visitors are likely to grow in importance to retailers, while tourist authorities in Kyoto see an opportunity to persuade visitors to spend more time in the city.
Japan has made attracting foreign tourists a priority. Under a “new growth strategy” announced by the Democratic party-led government last year, Japan aims to attract 25m visitors a year by 2020.
Visits fell to 6.2m in disaster-hit 2011 from a record 8.6m the year before, but tourism minister Takeshi Maeda said this month he was aiming for a rebound to 9m in 2012 despite a stubbornly expensive yen.
Japan certainly appears to have plenty of appeal: Chinese visitors in Kyoto were enthusiastic about the clean environment, quality service and relative rarity of tourist rip-offs, particularly compared with other Asian and European destinations.
At Kyoto’s glittering Golden Pavilion on Friday afternoon, flocks of Chinese visitors filled viewing spots and paths with chatter in Mandarin and Shanghainese. None seemed troubled by fears of further seismic activity or the effects of the meltdown at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant far to the east.
Radiation levels in destinations such as Tokyo and Kyoto are far lower than those even the most conservative experts consider to pose a health threat.
“I did wonder about earthquakes and radiation,” said Qu Man, a bank worker from Beijing. “But I talked about it with friends and with the tour company and decided that it wouldn’t be a problem.”