February 23, 2024

Last April, I wrote about the influx of visitors wanting to stay in my spare room. It only got worse. After 12 months of non-stop guests, there was a point around Christmas when I thought everyone I knew in this life who aspired to visit Japan had done so in 2023. Wrong.

The repeat guests are now on their way, lured by a weak yen that offsets soaring mortgage payments back home. The Australian skiers and snowboarders are here in droves, packing the Qantas flights into Haneda before heading to the powder snow meccas of Niseko, Hakuba and Tokakushi.

But it won’t end there. Japan mania peaks during cherry blossom season that takes place in late March and tourist numbers are forecast to smash pre-pandemic records.

“2023 was a record-breaking year for travel by Australians to Japan. We are seeing Australians of all generations coming to Japan,” says Justin Hayhurst, Australia’s ambassador to Japan.

A post-COVID-19 boom in foreign tourists has given Japan’s economy a much-needed tailwind. AP

“We anticipate further growth in travel, as well as increasing demand for consular services when Australians find themselves in trouble. Tokyo is now one of Australia’s most significant consular posts in the overseas network – something that was not the case a few years ago.”

While Japan is relatively safe, the earthquake in central Japan two weeks ago highlighted the vulnerability of foreigners who do not speak Japanese when disaster strikes. There were also eight Australians on the Japan Airlines flight that burst into flames when it crashed with another aircraft in Tokyo on January 2.

Australians are being drawn here in record numbers for many reasons. Top of the list is the weak yen, which means the place is about 25 per cent cheaper for people spending Australian dollars than it was before the pandemic.

Japan’s low inflation also means the price of most things is the same as it was 15 years ago when the country was viewed as expensive.

“I remember Japan as being extraordinarily expensive, and now I’m surprised at how affordable it is,” says former Australian treasurer Joe Hockey who recently spent two weeks skiing in Niseko.

“The food is fresh and people are incredibly pleasant. It’s very safe and incredibly clean. The underground is a challenge, though. For the first time I felt as though Japan really wanted tourists.”

Hakuba Iwatake snow field and Mount Shirouma in Hakuba, Nagano.
 Getty

Australians’ interest in Japan goes well beyond price. Proximity, safety, the convenient high-speed rail network, and attractions that appeal to everyone from kids, teenagers, retirees, foodies, skiers, hikers and bikers have put it high on travel bucket lists.

“There is also very good coffee in Tokyo: they may take it more seriously than Australians. Department store food halls are incredible – David Jones you have a way to go!” says Gail D’Arcy, a Sydney public relations consultant who visited in January.

It also helps that Japanese is the most common foreign language being studied at schools in Australia. It is also a host country for the New Colombo Plan. The hope is that all the interaction between Australians and Japanese will deliver benefits both ways.

There are downsides to Japan’s tourist boom, though. Labour shortages, a shortage of hotels and packed public transport in hotspots being overrun by tourists are frustrating visitors and annoying the locals.

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AFR correspondent Michael Smith (right) joins the crowds on the summit of Mount Fuji at sunrise. Ayana Matsuura

Kyoto, Japan’s second most popular destination after Tokyo, introduced a code of conduct for tourists last year that tourism operators say is working. This includes written advice such as not taking photos in temples, or chasing geishas around asking for photos.

In the ski town of Hakuba in the Japanese Alps, local mayor Toshiro Maruyama is a big fan of the Australians who prop up the local economy. But he also wants to educate visitors to be mindful of Japanese culture and to be aware of rules such as the legal drinking age of 20.

“This year we are getting more families and older people. Before COVID a lot of the young Australians coming to enjoy our snow would drink a lot every night and get into trouble,” says Maruyama, who is working with the Australian embassy on a plan to manage thousands of visitors expected in the town for a music festival next month.

“We need controls and discussions about safety, such as giving out information in advance about Japan’s rules,” he says.

Other tourist operators are trying to educate Australians to travel outside the well-trodden routes of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

“We hope to see Australians explore Japan responsibly and sustainably, partly to help us avoid over-tourism, but also to discover lesser-known corners,” says Naoki Kitazawa, the Sydney head of the Japan National Tourism Organisation.

With the Aussie tourist influx only warming up, part of me is almost relieved I only have three months left living in this tourism paradise before returning to Sydney.

I am now forwarding any spare room bookings for the spring and summer months to Jessica Sier, who will succeed me as The Australian Financial Review’s North Asia correspondent in April.

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