• The mayors of two Japanese cities known as the home of ninja, or feudal mercenaries, launched a ninja council Tuesday to boost tourism in cooperation with private businesses. Clad in ninja costumes, the mayors of Iga in Mie Prefecture and neighboring Koka in Shiga Prefecture signed an agreement at the inaugural meeting of the council at Aburahi Shrine in Koka. The shrine is believed to have been a gathering point for the Koka ninja clan in medieval times. The two cities are planning to disseminate information on ninja by setting up a common website or video footage to attract foreign tourists in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Koka Mayor Hiroki Iwanaga called the event "a historic moment that revived collaboration" between the two areas, while Iga Mayor Sakae Okamoto said, "I'm filled with deep emotion when I think about our ancestors who came together like this. We are good friends." The Koka ninja clan and Iga ninja clan are often depicted as hostile to each other in films and animations but the cities said they were in a collaborative relationship. In April, the two cities were selected as "Japan Heritage" properties to promote tourism. ==Kyodo
    2017.06.28 | Shiga
  • A new complex containing restaurants and stores opened in Osaka Castle Park on Thursday with the operator aiming to cash in on the growing number of foreign and local tourists visiting the major historical attraction in Osaka. The two-story complex, named Jo-Terrace Osaka, is located near JR Osakajokoen Station and has a total floor space of around 4,800 square meters. It houses about two dozen outlets, including restaurants, cafes and a convenience store as well as a tourist office providing multilingual information. Also among the outlets is a facility serving runners, and a range of restaurants, with one Japanese-focused eatery offering an experience in which customers can dress up in traditional Japanese attire. Osaka Castle is known as a token of the power and fortune of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a prominent 16th-century warlord. Its main tower attracted 2.56 million visitors in fiscal 2016 to last March, an all-time annual record. "Hopefully this park will draw more visitors and continue to grow as an attractive regional tourism hub by showcasing a piece of history," Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said in a speech at the opening ceremony of the complex operated by a business consortium including Daiwa House Industry Co. Another similar complex is scheduled to open near the castle's main tower in October as local businesses and municipalities look to take advantage of the recent tourism boom. ==Kyodo
    2017.06.23 | Osaka
  • Aichi Prefecture said Thursday it will build a theme park based on an animation film by director Hayao Miyazaki within a park in central Japan, aiming to open the area in the early 2020s. In collaboration with Studio Ghibli Inc., the tentatively called "Ghibli Park" will be constructed to restage situations and landscapes of Miyazaki's 1988 film "My Neighbor Totoro" at the Expo 2005 Aichi Commemorative Park, Gov. Hideaki Omura said at a press conference. Omura said Toshio Suzuki, the company's producer, agreed on the plan during their meeting on Wednesday, adding that the prefecture and Studio Ghibli will decide on details of the plan such as operators and size of the new area, and will also solicit other companies to join the project. "Studio Ghibli's films have love toward living creatures and Earth, which fits the concept of the expo," Omura said. "I would like to pass down this idea to future generations." The 200-hectare commemorative park, also known as Moricoro Park, was the site of the 2005 expo in Aichi Prefecture. Under the plan, playgrounds and other parts of the park will be used for the Ghibli Park to avoid felling trees, according to the governor. The expo park, which attracted some 1.6 million visitors in fiscal 2016, already contains the attraction "Satsuki and Mei's House," which was modeled after the house belonging to the lead characters in the film "My Neighbor Totoro." ==Kyodo
    2017.06.02 | Aichi
  • Explaining the essentials of Buddhist teachings to tourists in English would seem to be a new calling for monks at a famous pilgrimage center in western Japan. One of those rising to the challenge is Nobuhiro Tamura. He is among the monks who attend the burgeoning number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya, a World Heritage Site with a history of over 1,200 years, where he leads them on night treks through a sacred forest and offers meditation classes in English. One of the main attractions for the visitors are overnight stays at "shukubo," temple lodgings originally built for monks and worshippers at the Japanese headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism founded by monk Kukai. Not all monks appreciate the influx of foreign visitors, citing language difficulties, while others who are more welcoming feel the need to spell out the dos and don'ts of temple life to their guests. Tamura, who works at Ekoin temple in the central area of the mountain, saw the need to enlighten visitors in English after seeing a surge in foreign guests. Mt. Koya, along with other temples and pilgrimage routes of the Kii mountain range in western Japan, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2004. "There was a sharp increase in the number of foreign visitors. Those I talked to were looking forward to stepping into Buddhist culture and tradition," he said in a recent interview. Tamura, who studied at a language school in Britain, started producing English translations of meditation programs held daily at the temple's shukubo. Sitting in front of foreign lodgers, he teaches them how to calm their minds and breathe rhythmically. The secluded temple complex on Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture was established by Kukai, who is also known as Kobo Daishi. It forms the start and end point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage -- a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the famous monk. Mt. Koya, known in Japanese as Koya-san, was given three stars in 2009 by the Michelin Green Guide, which evaluates tourist sites. The National Geographic Traveler also selected it in its list of 20 destinations to visit in 2015-- the only destination chosen from Japan. The number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya's 52 temples that accept lodgers has nearly tripled in the three years since 2013, according to the Koyasan Shukubo Association, which offers suggestions to visitors on where to stay. Some temples, however, find it difficult to accept visitors from overseas due to the language barrier, leading them to think that they cannot meet the requests by the lodgers, said the association. But with increasing media exposure and recommendations on social media, the tourist rush isn't going to die down any time soon. Including Tamura, Ekoin has three monks who speak English. In addition, the temple has placed an English booklet in each room explaining temple etiquette as well as the history and teachings of the faith. "There were times when foreign visitors walked inside the temple with their shoes on, not knowing it's against Japanese custom," says Tamura. "But after we made the booklet, we haven't had these problems." At night, he often leads a tour to the Okuno-in, the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Some 200,000 tombstones line the trail to his resting place, where followers of the faith believe the sage continues his meditations to this day. "Do you know Kobo Daishi? He is a Japanese monk and the founder of (this school of) Buddhism. We believe that he is not dead and he is still there in eternal meditation, as he has been for more than a thousand years. We're going to see him tonight," Tamura says as he leads dozens of people along the trail. He makes several stops en route to explain various Buddhist precepts and to answer questions. When the group arrives at the mausoleum, Tamura asks the hikers to close their eyes and come up with one wish, while he chants a Buddhist sutra. "Many people (from abroad) ask me about my life as a monk because they have never spoken to one before." The questions range from how to become a monk, to whether monks can get married. "I am grateful that people are interested, and it is my job to answer their questions," Tamura says. "I always try to explain to foreign visitors as thoroughly as possible so they can gain an understanding of and a familiarity with Buddhist teachings, here on Mt. Koya." Alison Weber, a 54-year-old visitor from Melbourne, Australia, travels to Mt. Koya several times a year as part of a group walk she organizes. "Koyasan is not just a tourist attraction -- we can experience many things here like meditation and the morning services. Nobu (Tamura) explains everything well and it's easy to understand," Weber said. ==Kyodo
    2017.05.26 | Wakayama
  • Japan's long-selling popular dress-up doll Licca-chan has proved to be a strong tourist magnet supporting reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture from the 2011 nuclear and earthquake-tsunami disasters. The beloved doll in the form of an 11-year-old schoolgirl, which first went on sale in 1967, is featured in a theme park in the rural town of Ono that the doll's maker Tomy Co. opened in 1993. During Japan's Golden Week holidays in early May, Licca-chan Castle was packed with families and fans of what is often touted as the Japanese version of the Barbie doll. The theme park is the embodiment of a dream by Yasuta Sato, Tomy founder and a native of neighboring Iwaki city, to "show children the process of manufacturing." The castle not only showcases dolls from the original to the current fourth-generation versions but also allows visitors to observe how craftsman implant hair and color the doll. After passing through a newly built garden commemorating the 50th anniversary of the doll, visitors are welcomed by a life-size Licca-chan. Costumes are available for both adult and child visitors and some parents and children even wear matching dresses. Chieko Aizawa, a 58-year-old woman who came to the castle with her granddaughter from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said she looked out for a Licca-chan doll of her "own generation." The walls on the second floor of the building are filled with visitors' messages encouraging people to overcome the 2011 disasters such as "Stay strong, Fukushima," and "Our hearts are with you." "At the time of the disaster, we were very worried about what would happen next," said Yoshino Hakata, a 48-year-old staffer at the theme park.  After the nuclear crisis, the castle, located around 40 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, was not designated by the government as belonging to an evacuation zone. It therefore resumed operation about 50 days after the accident, but the number of visitors drastically fell to around 30,000 from some 100,000 a year, with many inquiring about radiation effects from the disaster. To make visitors feel safe, the theme park set up an indoor play area and posted radioactive levels around the facility every day on a blog. Thanks to such efforts, the number of annual visitors has recovered to about 80,000. "I am helped by children's smiles. I feel rewarded for doing this," said Hakata. The castle had been strongly tied to the town even before the earthquake and nuclear disaster. In 1993, Licca-chan was appointed as the "princess ambassador" for revitalizing the town with its ageing population. In front of the facility, illumination events have been held every year on a road named after the doll. Following the nuclear crisis, the park opened its facility free of charge so that local children who were deprived of safe places to play could come to the site. Licca-chan and her "family members" were also given special residence certificates by the town. Those making donations to the town under the "furusato nozei" hometown tax scheme can now select gifts including a Licca-chan doll in a pink dress. The gifts have proved popular, with only 45 dolls left as of Monday out of up to 500 gifts prepared since May 3. The national tax scheme allows people to make tax-deductible contributions to a prefectural or municipal government of their choice, usually for a gift in return. "Licca-chan is an indispensable icon for the town. We want her to play active roles in various places," said Yasuhide Akasaka, deputy head of the town's industrial promotion. The petite doll is named Licca Kayama but has become better known as Licca-chan, with a suffix attached in Japanese denoting endearment, usually to a baby or young girl. ==Kyodo
    2017.05.25 | Fukushima
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