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Travelers flock to Japan at record pace

His head wrapped in cloth and wearing black head-to-toe, Michael Studte throws darts, turns summersaults and twirls lassos in a ninja class for foreign tourists in Japan.
Image: Ninja hand-in-hand combat
Jeremy Giang, a tourist from Sydney, Australia, left, practices a Ninja hand-in-hand combat technique against James Okada, a staff member of Bujinkan Hall, during a ninja class for foreign tourists in Tokyo.Junji Kurokawa / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

His head wrapped in cloth and wearing black head-to-toe, Michael Studte throws darts, turns summersaults and twirls lassos in a ninja class for foreign tourists in Japan.

"It didn't seem quite like the normal touristy showy sort of thing," the 40-year-old information-technology engineer from Pearth, Australia, said Wednesday, a little breathless after pushing down a mock opponent.

Foreign visitors have always flocked to old tourist spots in Japan like Kyoto, the Sapporo Snow Festival, hot-springs baths and Mount Fuji.

But these days, they're also checking out new offbeat ways to experience Japan like ninja classes, a geeky pop culture in Tokyo's Akihabara gadget district and animation museums displaying manga, or Japanese style cartoons.

And they're coming in record numbers — many of them from elsewhere in Asia. Last year, an all-time high 8.34 million foreign tourists came to visit Japan, up 14 percent from the previous year.

Japan — traditionally considered an expensive destination — has become cheaper for many because of the recent surges in the euro, Australian dollar and other Asian currencies against the yen, says Junsuke Imai, a government bureaucrat in charge of promoting the 25-trillion-yen-a-year tourism industry ($232 billion).

The government has set a goal of raising that to 30 trillion yen by 2010, Imai said.

Even Americans, whose dollars have weakened against the yen, are visiting Japan at about the same numbers at 815,900 people last year, unchanged from the previous year.

Visitors from France rose 17 percent to a record 137,700 last year.

Eager to accommodate the droves of foreign tourists, Tokyo department stores now employ clerks who speak Korean, put up signs in English and French, and accept Chinese-style debit cards, which were previously rejected.

The number of Japanese stores, restaurants and hotels that accept a dominant debit card, China Union Pay, has jumped 50 percent to about 8,400 from the previous year, partly because of efforts by the government to promote tourism.

"Chinese people easily buy three times what average Japanese buy in one visit," says Hiroyuki Nemoto, director of Invest Japan Business Support Centers, a government-backed organization.

Department stores are hoping to make up for dropping consumer spending among Japanese with the stronger buying power of China, South Korea and other Asian nations.

Visitors from neighboring Asian nations are finding it quicker and easier to travel to Japan to buy European designer items than to go all the way to Europe, said Tatsuya Momose, spokesman for the tony Takashimaya department store in Tokyo.

"We are so grateful for this," he said of the flood of Asian shoppers.

The appeal of Japan as a travel destination is mostly its novelty, as Koreans have already traveled a fair amount to the U.S., Europe and China, said Park Yongman, counselor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Tokyo.

"These days, Japan is seen as the best place to travel," he said, adding that the changing image of Japan has done wonders.

Young Koreans don't harbor the bitter memories of Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II. These days, Japan is emerging the perfect spot to enjoy animation, video games, movies and other entertainment, he said.

For the first time ever, the number of South Koreans visiting Japan at 2.6 million people surpassed the number of Japanese visiting Korea at 2.2 million last year. Adding to the momentum is the strengthening won, up 6 percent against the yen over the last year.

Depending on the area, hotels typically cost between 6,000 and 10,000 yen ($55-$92) a night — and up.

The visitors at the 15,000 yen ninja class said they had seen ninja in samurai movies, manga and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and wanted to try it out.

The travel agency that set up the 2 1/2 hour ninja class, H.I.S. Experience Japan Co., also offers make-your-own-sushi workshops, "taiko" drumming classes, a visit with sumo wrestlers and sake-tasting.

Ninja master Masayuki Waki, 49, who was teaching newcomers the art of fleeing grabs and choke-holds, acknowledged foreigners were more interested in spirituality and other things Japanese than are most Japanese.

"They are so dedicated," he said. "People abroad are far more drawn to the sensibilities of survival than are Japanese, who tend to take comforts for granted."

Jason Chan, 28, an information-technology business analyst from London, who has also visited Spain, Germany and Hong Kong, said he had fun playing ninja.

"I watched the movies, and ninjas are always the ones that get away," he said. "Generally it's a misconception that traveling in Japan is really expensive. I actually find it pretty reasonable compared to everywhere else."