What's New in Japan for 2019

Halekulani Okinawa will offer 360 guestrooms, including 47 suites and five villas.  

More than 30 million overseas travelers visited Japan in 2018, an all-time record, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) reports. That represents an 8.7 percent increase over 2017 — the previous record year. Tourism from the United States rose 11 percent, accounting for about 5 percent of all visitors. 

Naohito Ise, the JNTO’s New York-based executive director, said in a written statement that, “American tourism to Japan is expected to continue to rise in 2019 as the country builds up to host major international sporting events,” adding that, “more and more Americans [are] seeking beyond the classic tourism destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto to discover lesser-known parts of the country.” 

To court such travelers — and their agents — the JNTO last month launched a new website and video series dedicated to the Tohoku region, the “hidden gem” of northern Japan (see sidebar on page 17). Japan should also get a boost from a number of other developments.

In its 2019 Luxe Report, Virtuoso surveyed 17,500 travel advisors to come up with nine top experiences for travelers to do this upcoming year. Number six on the list is “Attend the Rugby World Cup.” Held in Japan during the fall, this six-week tournament lines up with exactly when the country’s leaves are turning vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. And when Affluent Traveler Collection (ATC) asked more than 500 travel advisors about the top destinations going into 2019, Japan ranked third behind only Iceland and South Africa.

The country also got a boost from the media, continued Ise, “with a host of prestigious American media including Japan in their much-valued annual lists of the most recommended places to visit in the coming year.” The list of media includes The New York TimesWall Street Journal, AFAR, Architectural Digest, Departures, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s. In addition, Travel+Leisure pronounced Japan the “Destination of the Year” in 2018 while Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards cited Tokyo and Kyoto as the top two big cities in the world.

Enso Ango Fuya II, which opened in Kyoto, Japan, late last year, is spread across five Zen-inspired buildings.

Tour Operators Up the Ante 

Perhaps more significantly, Abercrombie & Kent has introduced a new dedicated office in Japan. Hatsuko Tsujimura, a lawyer with more than 12 years of experience in the travel industry, leads the A&K team there as the region’s country manager. The move was spurred by the extreme growth the company has seen in the country, especially pertaining to luxury small group travel and tailor-made private travel, according to Kath Fok, A&K’s China managing director.  

Announcing his predictions and recommendations for 2019, Big Five Tours & Expeditions President Ashish Sanghrajka pointed out the growing culinary travel opportunities in Japan. Foodies can, for example, take a Yakitori street food tour in Tokyo or head to Fukuoka to tour the area’s ramen noodle stalls.

Inside Japan Tours’ 2019 lineup of new experiences across Japan includes such cultural and urban adventures as the Setouchi Art Festival, Inside Circle Tours of Tokyo, Bespoke Photography Tour, and Kyushu Elements Small Group Tour, designed for those who want to experience Japan like a local. (The island of Kyushu will host the aforementioned Rugby World Cup games.)

On the transportation front, a limited express train service connecting Shinjuku and Kawaguchiko stations is slated to debut this month, mainly targeting inbound tourists looking to travel directly from Tokyo to enjoy views of Mount Fuji. Dubbed the “Fuji Excursion,” the service will connect Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station and Kawaguchiko Station on Fuji Kyuko’s Kawaguchiko Line in Yamanashi Prefecture near Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest and most famous peak.

New Hotel Highlights

Fans far and wide of Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki should be thrilled to hear the brand will be opening a second property — in Okinawa, Japan. We’re told by Halekulani Corporation’s Chief Operating Officer Peter Shaindlin that, much like its predecessor, Halekulani Okinawa will offer activities and amenities based on the microculture specific to the Pacific island.

The resort, which will be a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, opens July 26 and is set on the island’s west coast (about an hour from the airport). It will have a clean, contemporary design with a focus on wellness and cuisine. Fun Fact: Okinawa is renowned for its healthy residents, with 97 percent living free of any disabilities, according to the Okinawa Centenarian Study. What does this mean? It’s just about the ultimate wellness destination. A standout feature at the spa will be a bath fed by a natural hot spring. Bonus: Each of the five villas (of 360 guestrooms, inclusive of 47 suites) will have its own natural hot spring, in addition to a pool. 

There will be several food and beverage outlets, including Innovative, a French restaurant under the guidance of two-Michelin-starred chef Hiroyasu Kawate. Other venues include a wine and steak concept, a Japanese restaurant and an all-day eatery, in addition to a poolside bar and barbecue deck.

Aman Kyoto will include separate arrival, living, dining and spa pavilions, as well as four guest pavilions.

Okinawa can be accessed from several major cities, including Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and Shanghai. It also offers a plethora of active excursions from marine options such as snorkeling or diving offshore and kayaking in the rivers, to hiking and ATVing inland. For travelers who have been to Tokyo, Kyoto and the like, and are looking for the next destination in Japan, they may find just that in Okinawa. 

Also in the Okinawa Prefecture, The Luxury Collection opened the 58-room Iraph Sui in January on Irabu Island. The new hotel’s guestrooms range from 495 to 1,290 square feet, with several suites even including their own private swimming pools. The on-site restaurant serves international dishes that feature local ingredients such as wagyu beef, pork and fresh seafood. Iraph Sui’s spa offers a range of treatments that incorporate natural Okinawan products. 

Irabu’s Toguchinohama Beach, known for its flour-like sand, and Sawada Beach, famous for the large boulders that are scattered about on its shore, provide two unique oceanfront options. Visitors can also choose to explore the island with a local storyteller or take luxurious, fully catered dive trips. Particularly suited for diving, the surrounding waters include volcanic rock formations, Ryukyu limestone arches, vivid coral reefs and colorful marine life.

The Iraph Sui is a 20-minute drive from Miyako Airport. The new Shimojishima Airport, which will also cater to private jets, is expected to open this year.

Set to debut on November 1, Aman Kyoto will mark Aman’s third resort in Japan. Consisting of a series of standalone pavilions, the property will offer a retreat among 80 acres of forest and gardens while remaining close to the city’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The centerpiece of the property, the eight-acre garden, is formed as a series of manicured platforms, enclosed on one side by a small stream and on another by a wooded hill. Moss-covered stone pathways cross the site with garden stairways leading guests up and down the platforms. Colorful yama momiji maples and kitayama-sugi trees, planted in avenues, border the garden. Large granite boulders are strewn within the formal lawn at the center of the site, placed there by the former owner.

Kerry Hill Architects, who designed both Aman Tokyo and Amanemu, is leading the design of Aman Kyoto. The hotel will include separate arrival, living, dining and spa pavilions, as well as four guest pavilions that will house 24 guestrooms and two separate two-bedroom villa pavilions.

Aman Kyoto’s signature restaurant in the dining pavilion will showcase Japanese haute cuisine, offering multi-course dining experiences featuring hand-picked local produce. The welcoming living pavilion will offer a central fireplace and open out onto a Zen garden. Home-cooked Kyoto obanzai-style cuisine will be served throughout the day with bamboo picnic hampers available for reservation should guests want to eat al fresco in the garden or forest.

Small Luxury Hotels opened Enso Ango Fuya II in Kyoto, Japan, late last year. Spread across five Zen-inspired buildings, the property allows guests to walk the city’s historical paths and immerse themselves in the local culture. Visitors here can join Zen meditation sessions with Buddhist priests, take traditional cooking and crafts lessons, practice yoga or participate in a traditional tea ceremony.

Tomi II restaurant at Enso Ango offers flavors from Spain and Japan, with dishes that combine hot and cold Pintxos-style plates with locally-sourced Japanese fare. There are guest lounges in each building too, offering cold-brewed coffee, cool drinks and delicious snacks.

Looking Ahead

After teaming up to open the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences Kyoto in December 2016, partners Four Seasons and Berjaya Okinawa Development are planning their second hospitality project in Japan. Four Seasons Resort and Private Residences Okinawa will be part of a $400 million development slated to open in four years.

The resort will be situated on 100 acres of beach on the western coast of the island, about 30 miles northeast of Naha International Airport. Expect 100 hotel rooms, 120 residences and 40 villas by award-winning architects Kengo Kuma and Okinawa-based Kuniken. Note: Kengo Kuma was chosen to design Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games. The resort aims to celebrate Okinawa’s rich cultural heritage and natural landscapes, and guests will be able to explore the grounds on foot, bicycle, or golf cart. Amenities will include a beach club, multiple dining outlets, boutiques, and other recreational facilities.  

Okinawa is the fifth largest island in Japan, located 300 miles north of Taiwan, and it was the site of an important battle during the Second World War (the American military continues to use the island as a strategic base). 

The Tohoku region is regarded as one of Japan’s “hidden gems.” Seen here is scenic Mount Bandai. 

Promoting Tohoku Region

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) worked with Nathan Thornburgh and Matt Goulding, founders of travelogue and publishing house, Roads & Kingdoms, to produce a series of videos that showcase the breadth and depth of the Tohoku region.

Thornburgh and Goulding’s style of journalism “is extremely unique, as are the wonders of Japan’s Tohoku region,” said Keita Kadowaki, executive director, JNTO, Los Angeles, in a written release. “We hope that with the new video series, American travelers will become even more inclined to explore Tohoku and other lesser-known regions of Japan.”

Throughout the videos, Thornburgh and Goulding couple Tohoku’s many delicacies with century-old customs offering viewers a glimpse into the illustrious culture of the region traveling by shinkansen, or bullet train. An overnight in Tohoku’s center of arts and culture, Morioka, located in Iwate prefecture, sets the stage for a traditional Kaiseki dinner and show put on by two of the nine Geigi, or local form of Geisha, who still perform. 

The duo’s exploratory journey includes a scenic ride from Aomori to Akita aboard the Shirakami Resort Train, visits to the temples of Yamadera, Sendai city, Tohoku’s largest city, and more.

Nathan Thornburgh describes Tohoku as “the kind of place where the Japanese go to feel more connected to their roots, to feel more Japanese” and where visitors are “welcome behind the sliding door to see what that all really means.”

To learn more about Japan’s Tohoku region and to check out the video series created by Nathan Thornburgh and Matt Goulding, visit jnto-tohoku.anmldev.com/visit-tohoku.

A Cunard shore excursion in Kumamoto includes a visit to that city’s namesake castle, which welcomes over two million visitors a year.

Japan Makes Waves on the Cruise Front

Japan has also become a hot ticket for upscale cruising in recent years. Cunard Line will make many inaugural calls in Japan in the next two years, including Hakodate, Akita, Kanazawa, Sakaiminato, Yatsushiro (for Kumamoto) and Muroran (for Sapporo) in 2019.

Cunard’s “Highlights of Kumamoto” tour will take cruisers to Kumamoto Castle, with a “keep” reconstructed in the 1960s but several outer original wooden buildings. It has an imposing exterior and sloping ramparts. Unfortunately, not all areas are accessible as it was damaged in an earthquake in 2016. Still, it remains the city’s top tourism attraction with more than two million visitors a year. Cunard’s tour will give cruisers a look at the castle and educate them about reconstruction efforts now under way, before the tour heads to the Japanese Suizenji Garden for a visit. 

Another Kumamoto tour offered by Cunard is “Hitoyoshi & Shochu Brewery,” which visits the Hakutake Denshogura (Kuma Shochu Spirit Museum) so cruisers can learn about this traditional Japanese spirit, often made from rice. (It’s been brewed in this region since the 16th century.) Cruisers will learn about the fermenting and distilling process and enjoy a tasting. Then the tour continues on to the ‘Little Kyoto of Kyushu,” once a thriving castle town; cruise guests will have panoramic views of the Hitoyoshi castle ruins and then learn about the town’s past at Hitoyoshi History Museum.

Cunard will have more Japanese first-time calls in 2020 at Miyazaki (tours from Aburatsu), Shimizu, Fukuoka, Maizuru and Otaru.

Crystal Cruises’ 848-passenger Crystal Symphony will operate the 17-day “Accents on the Orient” sailing from Hong Kong to Tokyo on May 9 with overnight stays in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka and Tokyo, plus maiden calls to scenic Hualien, Taiwan and the unspoiled beaches of Ishigaki, Japan. 

In Ishigaki, in the southernmost region of Japan, Crystal’s guests who love putting their toes in the sand can certainly do so. This destination has white sands, coral reefs and clear, blue waters; we’d suggest heading to Kabira Bay on the island’s northwestern coast. Divers often spot large manta rays. Sunset Beach is also popular for beach enthusiasts and stand-up paddleboarders, and, not surprisingly, it’s a great place to watch the sun go down. 

Also sailing to Japan in 2019 is Azamara Club Cruises, currently introducing more country-intensive voyages across the globe, all offering many late nights and overnight stays. For example, a 15-night “Circle Japan Intensive Voyage” is operated by Azamara Quest on April 27; that voyage has eight inaugural Japanese calls, including Hakodate and Akita. 

Azamara recently announced that it will return to Japan in 2021 with these intensive voyages. Those new 15- and 16-night itineraries will visit up to 13 ports across the country — including Tokyo, Aomori, Hakodate and Kobe — while offering a range of excursions to showcase the local culture of each.

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