What Makes Tokyo an Attractive Tourist Destination?

David Atkinson

[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE] David Atkinson, CEO of Konishi Decorative Arts & Crafts, author of the bestselling "The New Tourism Nation" and many other books discusses tourism in Tokyo.

Senso-ji in Asakusa is a very popular spot for foreign visitors to Japan, but Tokyo has so much to offer. Photo: iStock

A massive metropolis serving tens of millions of people, Tokyo offers an unparalleled diversity of attractions for the traveler from overseas.

Taking food as one example, obviously Tokyo offers the widest range of Japanese food from exquisite and expensive kaiseki cuisine or sushi to the delights of the everyday food enjoyed by so many Japanese at local eateries in the downtown areas of the city.

In addition to this, Tokyo offers the most diverse range of food from overseas, ranging but by no means limited to the cuisines of Italy, France, Greece, and South America through India, Thailand, China and Korea, and so many more countries. Many of these present an interesting twist on the original cuisine as they have been adapted to Japanese tastes. Tokyo also has one of the greatest ranges of bars to be found in any major city.

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza nestled amongst modern skyscrapers. It was rebuilt in 2013 following the traditional design of the previous building. Photo: iStock

Tokyo offers modern theater, opera and orchestral music as well as traditional kabuki and noh theater. 

In architecture, there is the ultra modern right next door to traditional Japanese wooden buildings, as well as the fascinating fusion of the two that was so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Visitors can enjoy shopping for traditional Japanese products including pottery, porcelain, knives, kimono, antiques and so many other everyday items, combined with one of the widest selections of international luxury goods to be found anywhere in the world.

And of course, there are the anime, manga, otaku and other unique niche cultures for which the city is so famous.

It is important to realize that everyday life can be at least as important as high culture or an impressive palace or castle.

The Importance of the Originality and Diversity of Tokyo

Tokyo is not just a metropolis. It includes the Ogasawara and other islands to the south of the city, and mountains and unspoiled nature to the far west of the city.

Tourism is closely linked to this diversity, since no one attraction can serve all of the needs of the 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals that the world saw in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The key to leveraging this diversity is to maintain its originality whilst making it accessible to the overseas visitor.

Hands-on Japanese traditional activities are popular, but communicating Japan's unique culture requires a deep knowledge about the world outside Japan. Photo: iStock

Much work has been done in creating signage in English and other languages that has been written by or at least checked by native speakers so that the content can be easily understood by people from around the world. While "local translations" can themselves be a part of the experience of being here, key signage has to meet international standards. Free Wi-Fi has been introduced, and the trains and subway systems are much more easily understandable than they once were.

Obviously,  many visitors to Japan come to learn something of Japanese history and culture while they are here, and thus expect to be provided with that information rather than studying it beforehand. Since they may have little or no knowledge of Japan, information needs to be provided that explains Japanese culture and the country's historical background in a sensitive way.  Simply because Japan is so different from the rest of the world, it needs to be made accessible so that it can be enjoyed by all visitors, not just by the Japan experts. Pitching that information appropriately is much more difficult than it might sound and requires a deep understanding of Japan and the rest of the world.

Enjoyable but Authentic

Actually, it is my experience that much of this work on explanation is done with the international visitor in mind, but that investments into signage and other forms of infrastructure investments are just as appreciated by Japanese people. For example, when the Tokyo National Museum started providing explanations in English and other languages for the exhibits in its exhibitions, it also added Japanese text. The response to the careful and sensitive explanations of the importance historically and culturally of an exhibit was just as well-received by Japanese visitors as it was by those from overseas.

Activities, in particular, have become increasingly important globally. Experiencing Japanese culture first hand has become more common than before when so much of the culture was only to be seen or explained. Traditional Japanese culture is so different from other cultures, and from modern Japanese culture in many cases, that its very differentness is its attraction, and experiencing it physically is so much more intimate and personal than just seeing it. Taking part in a tea gathering or actually arranging flowers in ikebana gives the visitor a much deeper understanding of Japanese culture than just looking.

Having said that, while activities have to be tailored to the needs of the user, and have to enjoyable, they must also maintain as much authenticity as is feasible. That again is by no means an easy balance to achieve.

In short, the attraction of Tokyo as a destination is something that has to be invested in to make it available to the overseas and the Japanese visitor. Tourist destinations have to be "manufactured."

Tokyo as Destination and Home

Ultimately, the people of Tokyo are its most important asset, and it is just a question of making communication between the people of Tokyo and the rest of the world easier and enjoyable for all parties involved. That must mean that the tourism industry has to provide sufficient economic benefits to the communities of the city that outweigh the costs of entertaining people from so many diverse cultural backgrounds.

Tokyo is naturally a very attractive place to visit, since it is home to so many people. The key is how to make that sustainable.

David Atkinson

David Atkinson is the CEO of Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co. He has a background in financial services consulting and holds an MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Oxford. He has held various positions in Goldman Sachs and has served on several government committees related to growth strategy, tourism, administrative reform, and more. He has published several books in Japan.