Ancient palaces sit in the shadows of modernistic skyscrapers; a 430-foot-tall observation tower soars above Nishi-Hongan-ji, a World Heritage Site in Central Kyoto, built in 1587. Centuries-old traditions thrive along with futuristic technologies. A sweet perfume of blooming flowers accompanies a stroll along the spotless streets, with scenic views at every turn.
Japan "is one of the few places in the world that, surprisingly, hardly anyone has been to, although lots would want to visit," says James Kent, sales and marketing manager, The J Team, Japan's original destination and event management company. He points to the distance from North America, Europe, and Australia as a factor, but adds that, "Once a Westerner gets here, they tend to have an open-mouthed wow until they leave."
The Japan Convention Bureau, a division of the Japan National Tourism Organization, in cooperation with Japan's convention cities, recently hosted 16 international meeting and association planners for its annual "Meet Japan" program
The Japanese tradition of omotenashi, which translates to warm hospitality or heartfelt service, was evident upon arrival to the luxurious Palace Hotel Tokyo: waiting on each attendee's bed (after many transpacific flights) was both a nightshirt and warming eye mask.
This level of treatment continued throughout the trip. During a welcome dinner on the Palace Hotel's 19th floor, visitors were not only treated to a sumptuous feast, but a view of the Imperial Palace -- the largest castle in the world when it was completed in 1640.
The next morning, the group scattered throughout the country, visiting 24 different cities that are focused on meetings, incentives, conferences, and events. I flew to Okinawa where the weather was warm and the beaches white. This subtropical island is coming on strong as a meeting and incentive destination. (Learn more about the experience here.)
New Ideas Start Here
With the tagline, "New Ideas Start Here," Japan is showcasing the fact that it is a knowledge hub, brimming with creativity and that its expertise, culture, and knowledge are readily available to be shared with meeting groups.
After the three-day tours, the group reconvened in Tokyo at the 1,438-room Keio Plaza Hotel. The morning was spent touring the Tokyo International Forum in the city's central Marunouchi district and its eight exhibit halls, 34 conference rooms, and soaring glass atrium. With 11 floors above ground and three below (and 134 pieces of art scattered throughout), this convention and art center's striking design has earned it status as one of Tokyo's leading landmarks.
The group was treated to a performance of Kanze-Noh, a style of traditional Japanese musical drama, at the Kanze Noh Theater that opened last year in Ginza Six, a new 13-story upscale shopping complex in central Tokyo, with nearly 250 shops, a rooftop garden, and art installation by Japan's famed avant-garde artist Yaoi Kusama.
One of the most popular cities in the world, Tokyo is also quirky. Standing at the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station, packed with people and neon signs, a parade of people whiz by on, of all things, go-karts. This style of transport has become a common sight on Tokyo's busy streets -- with drivers sometimes dressing as characters from the video game Mario Kart. How is that for a unique teambuilding option?
This is a thriving center of culture and innovation. There is no other place in the world that boasts a hotel run entirely by robots, for example, as you will find at the futuristic Henn-na, in the Tokyo Disney Resort district.
A rainbow of colored lights flash from the city's famed vending machines. On nearly every block in the country, they sell not only soft drinks and candy but hot coffee, tea, soup, fresh fruit, and even business cards. Kit Kats are a craze and available in flavors that range from banana and strawberry, to matcha green tea and even wasabi.
"I could not believe how modern and different Tokyo is from any other city I've ever been to in the world," says Michelle Ocampo, CMP, conference planner for IEEE Computer Society, based in Los Alamitos, CA. "I'm so glad to have experienced Tokyo as well as my study tour cities, Toyama and Kanazawa, to see the diversity of culture Japan has to offer."
Toyama, a coastal city, the center of the country's pharmaceutical industry, also boasts a strong tradition in decorative glassware. Kanazawa, often referred to as the face of old Japan, is one of the best-preserved cities in the country. Though less familiar than metropolises like Tokyo and Kyoto, these destinations also have CVBs at the ready to help.
"All of the CVBs offer tremendous support to conferences which is really great as a meeting planner," adds Ocampo. "Kanazawa has many cultural activities for delegates to enjoy, such as Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa Castle, and Chaya District, where young female tourists dress like geisha and take photographs amidst the historic scenery. Toyama has the best sushi in Japan and is near Gokayama, a UNESCO world heritage site, a centuries-old village hidden in the mountains that was truly a breathtaking site and would be a special visit for any international delegate."
Giulia Ineke Sarri, marketing communications and social project assistant for event management company AIM Group International, based in Milan, Italy, was part of the group that visited Toyama and Kanazawa, and echoes these sentiments.
"What surprised me and was incredibly positive is the gentleness, the kindness, and the keenness to help, demonstrated by Japanese people. I just loved how careful and nice they all were," she enthuses.
One of the takeaways of Christoph Schewe, managing director of the Montreal-based International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations after the Meet Japan program, is that the country offers a multitude of meeting destinations and venues. "While especially Tokyo is assumed to be a relatively expensive place to hold meetings or conventions, the easy access to other Japanese cities by short national flights or by the bullet train makes them interesting and cheaper alternatives," says Schewe. "I was also surprised by the attractive financial benefit packages that most of the smaller cities offer for events." He visited Nagoya, home of Toyota and rich in Samurai history, and Shizuoka, sometimes referred to as Japan's Riveria, and home to Mount Fuji, the country's most iconic landmark, by high-speed bullet train, also known as Shinkansen.
Back to Business
Back in Tokyo, an afternoon was spent at the Meet Japan Trademart, where convention bureaus met with attendees, including Ocampo, Sarri, and Schewe for one-on-one meetings. Towering 202 meters above the city, a farewell party was held in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No. 1 South Observatory, a venue with stunning 360-degree views of the city. A heartfelt toast was given with flutes of syrupy-sweet sparkling sake, and the celebration was underway with a colorful buffet surrounding black lacquer platters overflowing with beautifully arranged sushi. With precision and attention to detail, a local food specialty shop was set up so attendees could purchase gifts during the party to bring home to colleagues and loved ones.
Another highlight was joining in an energetic Yosakoi dance with performers donned in brightly colored costumes where we ran, jumped, and chanted Soran Soran, words from an old fishermen's dialect from Hokkaido Island.
Tokyo Goes for the Gold
Excitement is in the air throughout Japan as preparations are underway in Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. The games will be declared open by a new emperor, Shogun Ieyasu's son, the first abdication by an emperor in about 200 years.
At last count, 45 new skyscrapers are being built, in addition to a new train station and stadium, in Tokyo as the city prepares for the Olympics. The National Stadium, costing approximately $1.4 billion and scheduled to open in November 2019, will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies.
Marriott's high-end Edition brand will open two locations in Tokyo ahead of the Olympics in the Toranomon and Ginza areas. The Toranomon property, being designed by Ian Schrager, will have 200 rooms and the Tokyo Edition Ginza is a new 13-story structure with 80 rooms, near the main shopping street in Ginza.
Near Tokyo's Haneda International Airport, the Kawasaki Tonomachi Tokyu REI Hotel will be built in the science and technology innovation hub, the Kawasaki Innovation Gateway.
Toranomon Hills Station Tower is a mixed-use high-rise complex that will feature offices, hotels, retail spaces, and a new subway station. The 48-story, 265-meter tower will be Tokyo's tallest office building.
Infrastructure projects include a road being built on the perimeter to bypass central Tokyo, another road being built to better connect central Tokyo to the Tokyo Bay area and its Olympic sites, and a new railway being constructed to connect Haneda airport and Tokyo Station, cutting travel time from 30 to 18 minutes. Railway improvements are also in the works for Narita Airport, cutting travel time from almost an hour to 36 minutes.
The Olympics isn't the only sporting event the country is focused on as the Rugby World Cup is coming to Japan next year. It is estimated that 400,000 international fans will travel to Japan for Asia's first Rugby World Cup, that is being spread out amongst 12 host cities.
Although tourism is expected to surge as a result of the games, numbers at present are up as 28.7 million tourists were welcomed last year, up 20 percent from 2016.
"Our goal is to welcome 40 million tourists by 2020," says Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi, Consul General of Japan in New York.
To ensure that happens, a global-scale, multilingual campaign, "Enjoy My Japan," is underway that takes the focus away from the country's iconic images of Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms, and temples, and centers on the Japanese people, cuisine tradition, nature, relaxation, art, and the outdoors. At every turn, Japan is a country that delights not only your senses but your appreciation of humanity.