Room at the inns

Japan's traditional ryokans have been hardest hit by the nation's tourism decline, writes Danielle Demetriou.

Sliding screens, paper lanterns, tatami mats, kimono-clad staff and exquisite cuisine: a stay in a ryokan, or traditional inn, is often an atmospheric highlight of a visit to Japan.

The nation's precious ryokan industry has hit hard times: 68 inns closed across Japan in the first five months of the year alone, according to recent research.

The global economic crisis is seen as the driving force behind the demise of many inns, though this has been compounded by the triple disaster earlier this year of an earthquake, a tsunami and a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

"Many ryokans were already suffering from reduced revenues due to fewer guests because of the global financial crisis. For some, the decrease in people taking holidays after the earthquake was the final blow that led to their having to close," a spokeswoman at the Japan National Tourism Organisation, Kylie Clark, says.

'Japan right now is very safe. It's fine to come here. It's beautiful.' - Lady Gaga

While plenty of ryokans remain for visitors - an estimated 1400 luxury establishments are scattered across Japan - the closures reflect the challenges facing the nation's tourism industry.

The earthquake of March 11, combined with a strong yen and the global economic crisis, has resulted in a sharp tourist slump. At its worst, in April, the number of international visitors was down 63 per cent compared with last year. However, there are signs of recovery: August visitor totals were 27 per cent lower.

Lady Gaga, one of the high-profile visitors to the country this year, was honoured by the Japan Tourism Agency with an award for being the "best tourist draw in Japan". The singer won the gratitude of authorities after a concert in July to raise money for earthquake survivors.

She declared then: "I can't say enough to people all over the world that the majority of Japan right now is very safe. "It's fine to come here. It's beautiful."

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Many travel operators and airlines are also trying to woo visitors back with significant price reductions. KLM, for instance, is offering return flights from London to Tokyo for £480 ($741).

At the same time, the Japanese government is planning to give away 10,000 free flights to bloggers wanting to visit.

James Mundy, the marketing manager of Inside Japan Tours, based in Bristol, says his company is offering free sumo wrestling or geisha dance tickets with certain bookings.

"Many bigger hotels are offering cheaper rates than usual and we are, of course, passing these on to customers in the tailored bookings.

"Packages include stays at traditional ryokan and family-run minshuku guesthouses, which have only a small number of rooms and cannot afford to offer discounts on accommodation, although the service and hospitality offered will be even warmer than usual," he says.

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