Relaxation: Robert and Akira at Tawaraya © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Japan has everything you would expect of a tourist destination. Everything, it seems, except the tourists.

To some people, of course, this might add to the allure. A destination unsullied by foreigners clutching selfie sticks sounds rather appealing. But Japan’s relatively sluggish performance in winning overseas visitors is now an issue of prime ministerial concern. Things are improving. Japan looks likely to have attracted close to 20m visitors in 2015 — a big leap from the 13.5m it secured in 2014, a figure which placed it seventh in Asia behind China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Macau and South Korea. China attracted more than 55m visitors in the same year. 2015 is obviously significantly better than the year before but even 20m feels like a low bar for such an important nation.

More than half of Japan’s tourists come from Taiwan, South Korea and China. Europeans account for fewer than 10 per cent of visits. Japan boasts a fascinating culture, spectacular scenery, beaches and mountains. It is safe, modern and — my children assure me, although they have not been there themselves — cool. A nation that prides itself on the quality of its hospitality is somehow failing to pull Asia-bound tourists.

Robert Shrimsley (centre) and travelling companions, Ken Kobayashi, photographer (left), and Akira Kobayashi, (no relation) of Nikkei (right) begin their journey in Tokyo © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

To find out why, I joined a Nikkei colleague, Akira Kobayashi, and photographer Ken Kobayashi (no relation) on a sprint through Kyoto and Tokyo to see what tourists are missing and what might be putting them off. We took the shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo main station to Kyoto and as we reclined in our seats I realised that the time difference meant that at this hour I would normally have been travelling to work on Network Rail. Akira informed me this was in fact one of the older rolling stock, so not quite up to snuff. In England it could be the royal train.

At Kyoto, we scrabbled through the tumult of the main station and headed to a ryokan, or traditional Japanese bed and breakfast, replete with tatami matting, sliding screens and minimalist decor. Had I passed this establishment on the street, I would barely have given the unassuming exterior a second glance, but this was Tawaraya — widely regarded as the best ryokan in Kyoto and a once favourite haunt of Steve Jobs (though apparently Charlie Chaplin preferred the one opposite).

In our suite, we changed into traditional dress and sat back to enjoy a 10-course meal of the highest quality. Tawaraya is everything the romantic imagines about Japan. It is an 18-room hotel but we never heard the sound of anyone else and our suite offered a window on to an exquisite, miniature garden. My single futon mattress allowed as comfortable a sleep as any I have enjoyed. True, the cost of a room with dinner was commensurate with a luxury destination — at Y62,100 (£350/$521) per person.

The following day was spent rushing between some of Kyoto’s great sites. Japan’s ancient capital boasts a fair few wonders, including some monuments to tranquillity, notably the Golden Pavilion, and the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Gardens. Unfortunately the problem with being a world-renowned centre of tranquillity is that peace is the one thing you are guaranteed not to find, especially in the peak season of November. Suddenly Japan’s tourist problem did not seem so apparent. Both sites bustled with visitors and school parties; the Golden Pavilion — a place I had long wished to see — was crammed. Kyoto station seemed peaceful by comparison.

Something old, something new: the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (left) and the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

The Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple and the Nishiki food market were similarly crowded, though here at least the hubbub added to the atmosphere. Kyoto itself surprises at each turn. More than 1m people live in the city surrounded by hills. A view from a shrine on one of them shows how densely packed in everybody is.

Kyoto’s old quarter lives cheek by jowl with the new. Streets offer an unlikely mix of old-style machiya — wooden townhouse — buildings next to tacky bargain stores. Traditional tea houses vie for custom with the artisan roasters of a flourishing coffee culture. Their establishments are as tantalising as any in Europe or the US, although unpopulated as yet by the requisite hipster beards.

Then there is the food. After a long day’s sightseeing, sitting in another minimalist, traditional restaurant, I watched the emotion on my colleagues’ faces as we tasted the exquisite and unusual dishes, each served on different shaped plates designed to highlight the artistry of the cuisine.

In the smoked potato — crisp outside, sweet within — Akira could “taste autumn”. A bowl of vegetables symbolised Kyoto and spoke of the hills surrounding the city: “With each dish we feel the questions asked of us by the chef,” he noted, adding that “it is like a battle between chef and taster”, as I polished off some grilled fig with a wafer-thin layer of beef.

If it was a battle the food wanted, I showed it no mercy. The seared tuna dissolved in the mouth and may have been the best I have tasted but it was clear I was missing the point. With each course I began to feel the inadequacy of my response. This was a flavour of Japan in more than one sense: the delight in the detail, the examination of the senses and the appreciation of the work that went into the food’s creation.

In Tokyo, by contrast, we sought out modernity. We drank until late in the miniature bars of the Golden Gai district of Shinjuku, sampling the Suntory whisky from the Yamazaki distillery we had visited in Kyoto that morning.

Akira and Robert visit the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

I shopped for presents in the huge manga — comic books — and electronics emporia of Akihabara and visited the burlesque of the Robot Restaurant. We waited for the show in an anteroom, as a man dressed as a silver Power Ranger strummed a ballad on electric guitar in a setting so bejewelled it would have been too vulgar for Vegas.

The show — in which dancing girls fought with robots in what can only be described as a downmarket Disney on acid — is a huge crowd-puller, although neither camp enough to be funny nor sufficiently titillating to serve some other purpose. I suppose it is meant to capture that crazy side of Japanese culture. There certainly was something unusual about hearing a majorette singing Ave Maria as illuminated robots glided across the floor.

Crowds on the road to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

Time constraints meant we did not even touch the museums or umpteen other notable sites. We did not see the beaches of Okinawa, the nightlife of Osaka or the ski slopes of Hokkaido. I did not venture into an onsen — hot spring — or brave Disneyland Tokyo. I spent little time perusing the shops, because, well, I spend little time doing that at home, but there can be no doubt of Tokyo’s merits as a high-end shopping destination.

Pachinko: Robert gets to grips with the local pinball-style arcade game, spending Y1,000 ($8.50) in the process © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

There were moments of bewilderment. The public transport network is not as easy to navigate as one would wish. Kyoto main station is confusing. Of other diversions, I spent Y1,000 in a special parlour devoted to pachinko — a local form of pinball — and still do not have the slightest idea how to play the game.

I did, however, see more than enough to be sure that Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, is right to believe Japan could do better. I could find no compelling reason why tourists would not be coming.

Robert and Akira end their journey among commuters at Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing © Ken Kobayashi/Nikkei

Perhaps for westerners, this is down to perceptions of distance and cost; maybe the linguistic and cultural challenges seem too much like hard work, although I found no obstacle that could not be overcome with a little effort, especially with the aid of a deeply solicitous citizenry.

So perhaps the country is not saying the right things. I have, for example, never seen a travel advertisement extolling Japan. It is an island chain, yet one never thinks of its beaches. It has a Disneyland, yet somehow one does not think of it as a family destination.

Perhaps it is no longer enough to let a country’s attractions speak for themselves. Sometimes it takes an invitation, an indication that you are wanted.

Robert spent

Tawaraya Ryokan — dinner, bed and breakfast for one: ¥62,100 ($521) per night

Okura Hotel — second night in Kyoto (including breakfast): ¥29,700

Taxi in Kyoto (base fare): ¥590, up to 1.7km

Entry to Golden Pavilion: ¥400

Entry to Ryoan-ji Gardens: ¥500

Robot restaurant — price per person (admission without meal): ¥7,000

Tokyo subway tickets (depending on distance): ¥170–¥310

Shinkansen — Tokyo to Kyoto (one-way ticket): ¥13,080

Note: Robert travelled in November, which is high season in Kyoto, so costs will vary at other times of year

Get alerts on Japan when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article