In 1995, a modest 3.3 million people visited Japan, a fascinating land of ancient temples, neon skyscrapers, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches. That year it was the 34th most visited country on the planet, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), behind the likes of Bulgaria, Ukraine and Belgium.
Growth was steady, if unspectacular, for the next decade or two. In 1998, 4.1 million overseas travellers spent at least one night on Japanese soil, making it the 33rd most visited nation. In 2005, 6.7 million went, moving it to 32nd on the list. It rose one more place, to 31st, in 2010, when foreign arrivals totalled 8.6 million.
The country took a hit after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, and in 2012, visits fell to 8.4 million. Since 2013, however, something remarkable has happened.
Annual arrivals have soared by more than 20 million, making Japan - by some distance - the decade's fastest growing major destination. The UNWTO estimates that 28.7 million overseas travellers stayed in Japan in 2017, a rise of 334 per cent since 2010. It is suddenly the 12th most visited country on the planet.
And the country is certainly popular with Australians. In 2017, Japan was the eighth most popular international destination for Australians, with more than 400,000 of us heading there. That compares to just 148,000 in 2008, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an increase of more than 280 per cent.
It is by no means the only nation to have seen rapid growth in recent years. Worldwide tourism is booming, driven by the increasing affordability of flights and the rise of China's globetrotting middle class. But Japan's surge easily outstrips its rivals. Overseas arrivals to Thailand, for example, one of its closest rivals in terms of growth, have risen by just 223 per cent since 2010.
What went right?
Japan's rise demonstrates the value of cutting red tape. In 2013 the country relaxed visa restrictions for visitors from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Since 2015 it has been slowly easing restrictions for Chinese citizens. In 2017 it became easier for Azerbaijani travellers to visit and this year those from India and Ukraine were the latest to benefit. A total of 66 nationalities can now visit Japan as a tourist without a visa.
The rise of the Chinese tourists has also fuelled Japan's boom. In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 145m – an astounding increase of 1,380 per cent. In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world's most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US – and leaving it in its wake. According to the UNWTO, Chinese tourists overseas spent $261.1bn in 2016, up from around $10bn in the year 2000 (the figure for 2017 is likely to top $300bn). Collectively, America's globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $123.6bn.
In 2014 China overtook South Korea as Japan's biggest source market and now provides more than six million annual visitors. For comparison, just over one million travel to Japan from the US each year.
The falling value of the Japanese yen has been another factor.
One US dollar bought around ¥80, on average, in 2012. That rose to ¥98 in 2013, ¥112 in 2014, and more than ¥120 in 2015. It currently stands at around ¥110, still way up on the start of the decade. One Australian dollar is currently worth about ¥81.
What is going wrong?
Unchecked tourism is good for the economy - but it causes problems. Rapid growth means strained infrastructure and overcrowding in big cities and at major attractions. During recent months there has been tension rise between locals and visitors in destinations including Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Madrid and Mallorca, and "overtourism" has become something of a buzzword.
And these problems have affected Japan too. Earlier this month The Japan Times reported on what the country's media calls "kankō kōgai," or "tourism pollution". Kyoto is the key battleground, it says, with residents claiming the city is so overrun they can't use local buses or get a reservation in their favourite restaurants. The city's "miyabi", a refined atmosphere unique to Kyoto, has been destroyed, they say.
How will these problems be addressed alongside the country's aim to raise overseas arrivals to more than 40 million by 2020? The Japanese government will, from next year, charge overseas visitors a ¥1,000 exit tax and use the funds to boost tourist infrastructure. More welcome, perhaps, are suggestions to market more sustainable trips and lesser-known corners of the country, away from Tokyo, Kyoto and Mount Fuji.
The Telegraph, London
Listen: Flight of Fancy podcast - Japan, the world's weirdest and most wonderful destination, with special guest Adam Liaw
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.