Japan tourism: Why Australians keep going back

Japan - View from Above

Travel to Tokyo's metropolitan skyline, Kyoto's shrines and temples, Fuji's iconic cliffs, and the elegant pagodas and toris of the Japanese countryside.

When will Australian tourists hit peak Japan? When will this obsession end? When will we decide that, hey, maybe there are better places to go for a holiday than the Land of the Rising Sun?

Apparently, no time soon. The obsession continues. Australian travellers keep piling into Japan, increasing their numbers year on year, month on month, taking this country from a niche craze to a full-blown mainstream staple, and still it shows no sign of abating.

Back in 1997, about 101,000 Australians travelled to Japan. Twenty years later, in 2017, that number had risen by a truly incredible 490 per cent to 495,000 Australian visitors. And when you take into account which of those visitors were tourists, the increase goes to almost 1000 per cent.

I'm one of those Australians responsible for the boom. I've got the Japan bug. I was scrolling through some travel photos the other day and realised I've been to Japan at least once a year for the last six years, and a fair few of those trips have been personal holidays, rather than work trips. I've been twice this year. I plan to go again.

So what gives? What's the attraction?

Skiing is a big part of the boom, obviously. Almost 70,000 Australians went to Japan in January this year alone, drawn by the waist-deep powder and the surprisingly affordable lift passes. However, we almost matched that number a few months ago in April, when about 60,000 Australians headed over to see the cherry blossoms. And in May there were 40,000, so it's not like there's any real down time.

And this for a country that not so long ago, in the grand scheme of things, was known as our enemy. I still speak to plenty of people of the older generations, those who were directly affected by various wars, who wouldn't even dream of travelling to Japan. It's not a place that's on the radar as a holiday destination.

Everyone else in Australia, however, apparently loves it. In 2017, Japan ranked number eight on the list of countries most visited by Australians. It was only behind perennial favourites like New Zealand, Indonesia and the USA, and stopover hubs like Singapore and China.

Next year, Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup. The year after that, Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games. There's no way this tide of visitors is going to abate.

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That influx comes with problems, of course. Recent Japanese government crackdowns on "minpaku", or Airbnb-style share accommodation, is indicative of a gentle pushback from residents who must be getting a bit tired of the waves of visitors suddenly turning up on their front doorsteps. This famously insular country might still have very low immigration numbers, but its streets in major centres look different these days, with far more foreign faces visible among the crowds.

That's not to say that visitors will ever feel they're anywhere but a vastly different and fascinatingly foreign place. Unless you happen to be hanging out in Niseko or Hakuba around peak ski season, or in Kyoto during cherry blossoms, it's unlikely you'll run into too many other Australians. The sheer weight of numbers of the Japanese, as well as a tourism industry that relies far more on China and Korea than us, means we're still a minority.

You have to wonder, though, if we'll ever tire of this place, if the cycle of travel will move everyone on to a hot (or cold) new destination. Surely it will. The Japan boom can't last forever.

But the question is, where would we go next? Where offers a product remotely similar or anywhere near as exciting – and yet still safe and approachable – as Japan? There's South Korea, which is a worthy alternative. There's Taiwan, which has great food, but no snow. There's China, but it's already popular, and it's very different to Japan.

The truth is that there's nowhere that's really like Japan, nowhere that can offer everything to Australians that Japan does. The natural travel progression from Japan is Japan itself. This is a country in which every prefecture is subtly different, that has its own micro-culture, its own cuisine, its own festivals and traditions.

Most Australians have really only scratched the surface of Japan. We've been to Tokyo and Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. We've hit up Niseko and Hakuba. Few people, however, have made it to Kanazawa or Fukuoka, Niigata or Akita. They haven't skied Furano or Kiroro.

There's so much more to explore, which is why I can't see this obsession ending any time soon. The next Japan? It's probably Japan.

Have you caught the Japan bug? What is it about the place? Do you think there's a "next Japan"?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Six of the best uniquely Japanese experiences

Listen: Flight of Fancy podcast – Japan, the world's weirdest and most wonderful destination, with special guest Adam Liaw

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