Few countries deliver the blend of heritage and modernity quite the way Japan does.
Kimono-clad women, clutching their mobile phones, pass without a second glance from fellow commuters as they clatter on their geta sandals through the Tokyo Metro, while in the major cities ancient temples stand among office towers on neon-drenched streets.
The combination of futuristic development alongside time-honoured traditions is one of Japan’s great fascinations for visitors and corporate event organisers will find a host of heritage options to integrate into their programmes.
Yet outdated perceptions of Japan sometimes still prove a barrier to the full development of meetings and incentives sector in Japan.
Many foreign organisers still feel intimidated by the thought of holding an event in Japan, perhaps fearing an insurmountable language barrier.
However, the truth is that Japan is not only warm and welcoming to foreign visitors but it is also gradually becoming a more cosmopolitan society, at least in the big cities.
For example, Mamoru Kobori, executive director of the Japan Convention Bureau, points out that there are now around 40,000 Indian nationals living in Japan, many of them IT specialists working for Japanese computing firms.
English-language signage is more common and negotiating Tokyo’s labyrinthine transport network is relatively easy. It is true, however, that foreign languages aside from English are still not as widely spoken or understood as they are elsewhere in Asia.
Much of the outsiders’ initial knowledge of Japan comes from the big screen.
Tom Cruise’s movie Last Samurai and the 1980s TV miniseries Shogun – based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel – showed the continuing fascination with the warlords of pre-modern Japan even if their Hollywood presentation was somewhat romanticised.
It’s not surprising then that one favourite tour for incentive groups is the Kyoto Studio Park (www.eigamura30.com). This is a working studio with a realistic set constructed to look like a district from Japan’s Edo period (from the 17th to mid-19th centuries). Your group can be entertained by sword-play from trained stuntmen and also get the chance to don the clothing of samurai warriors and geishas of the period.
Senzo Kuriyama, executive officer, inbound travel at destination management company KNT, believes it’s best to get locations, size of group and dates set out clearly when beginning to plan a programme or itinerary.
“When it comes to heritage, it is important to remember that Tokyo only has a 400-year history, whereas Kyoto has 2,000 years’ worth. Kyoto has a number of traditional temples and gardens that can be lit up for evening events.
“The size of the group also determines exclusivity. You may have a group of VIPs, who can be catered for in an elite restaurant much better than just choosing a hotel dining spot.
“Staying in a high-end ryokan is a highlight for those who experience it, but it can be hard to arrange for big groups as the capacity is limited,” Kuriyama says.
Recognising that currently Japan is not only the Land of the Rising Sun but also the Land of the Rising Yen, the JCB’s Kobori notes that currency fluctuations have knocked 50 percent off the value of the Korean won compared with the Japanese yen, a blow to one of Japan’s strongest markets.
However, the KNT’s Kuriyama maintains that organisers should remember that Japanese organisers would never compromise on quality.
“Customers will pay a little more than in other destinations but they do so with the knowledge, that in Japan, things will be done in the right way. So pick the best.”
Although the KCB’s Kobori reels of a list of major events from companies such as Amway Korean, Chinese pharmaceutical companies and the like which bring in several thousand people at a time, some believe small and medium-sized events are what Japan can do best.
Kayoko Inoue, manager of international meetings specialist HelmsBriscoe’s new Japan office believes that large-scale events present substantial difficulties for Japan.
“We do not have many convention centres. For example, in and around Tokyo, there are only three – Tokyo Big Sight, Tokyo Forum and Makuhari Messe, and the price is very, very expensive. In addition, the Makuhari Messe is quite far from the centre of Tokyo.
“While good venues for meetings do exist within Tokyo, the optimum number for meetings should be around 200, based on my experience.
“In Japan, some of the museums have just started to open up for events hire and shrines and temples are now open for the concerts. These can provide unique venues for the events.”
But it is every bit of experience, as much as the venues, that determine the success of events.
Kuriyama also believes that taste is a sense that should not be forgotten.
“Take a group to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market to see and learn about the dishes that they will eat later as sushi or sashimi. Or arrange for a tasting of highly expensive Kobe beef, where an expert can be on hand to explain the different cuts of meat, how to judge what will be the tastiest when cooked and so on. You can also visit sake distilleries and have a sake sommelier lead you through some not-for-export sakes, talking about the varying flavours and so on.”
Aside from geishas and samurai, there is one other towering figure of Japanese culture that immediately sparks recognition – the sumo wrestler.
Sumo became a mass spectator sport in the 1600s but its origins may be 2,000 years old. Six main sumo tournaments are held each year in Japan, each lasting for 15 days. In Tokyo, the tournaments are held in January, May, and September.
Since sumo tournaments are held every other month, groups can either watch a live sumo match depending on the time of their visit or, if they arrive in an off-season month, they can visit a sumo stable. Groups can not only mix with the wrestlers, they can have breakfast with them and enjoy the traditional chanko stews, used to bulk up the wrestlers. For the more calorie-minded, there’s also the opportunity to tour the Sumo Museum at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Sumida, Tokyo and see its 30,000-sumo-related items, some dating back to the 1600s. (www.sumo.or.jp)
Tokyo isn’t just a mass of metro stations and bullet trains and it is possible to enjoy many of the districts by foot or even on two wheels. The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo’s general manager Ricco DeBlank has put together Bicycle Built for Tour, which is described as a way to “discover the riches of Tokyo that only a bike tour can uncover”. DeBlank can take small groups on an eco-friendly two-hour tour of his favourite sights and hot spots and lunch is included.
Most hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental, will put together high-end cultural programmes for small groups and the other internationally branded hotels, such as the Conrad Tokyo, Hilton, Four Seasons, Peninsula, and Sheraton can comfortably cater for groups of varying sizes and programmes. More international brands plan to enter the market, Starwood currently operates five Westin hotels in Japan, as well as seven Sheraton properties. The company plans to introduce new W, Westin, St Regis and Sheraton hotels in Japan over the next several years. A Shangri-La property is due to open in 2009.
At the Grand Hyatt Tokyo on Roppongi Hills, director of marketing Kaori Yamaguchi believes the property’s one-stop shop approach gives it an edge over its city rivals, as does its size, being the biggest international five-star hotel in Tokyo with 389 rooms and 13 functions spaces and 10 food and beverage outlets.
“One particular advantage is our straightforward billing procedure for meeting and conference packages, many Japanese hotels have a very confusing and complex system that is difficult for the organisers to understand. We also offer meeting dividends for our Hyatt Gold Passport loyalty cardholders.”
Yoshi Ohkuma, general manager – business development in JTB Global Marketing and Travel, recommends that overseas event organisers choose their groundhandling partners carefully.
“Local contacts are extremely important in Japan for their knowledge of local culture and for finding venues that may not necessarily be for hire normally”
JTB Global Marketing and Travel has organised Matsuri-themed evenings in the style of the many local harvest festivals that Japan is famous for, where the CEO or other company VIP ceremoniously smashes open a sake barrel, symbolising prosperity and good luck.
But fun events can be done on a smaller scale. Okhuma mentions that the small Gonpachi chain of restaurants, for example, combines the feel of a traditional Japanese restaurant with a younger, funkier presentation.
For a stylish ‘“in-the-know” event for a small group, you might consider the services of Bespoke Tokyo, a concierge company run by former journalists Nicole Fall and Charlie Spreckley. Firmly tapped into the hottest city trends, they organise city “safaris” for individuals or groups looking to get beyond the tourist sites.
“To get a real taste of Tokyo, all you need is one spare evening. I’d recommend taking an Urban Safari of Shibuya. One of the marvels of this city is how it can simultaneously be so overcrowded but so safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in front of Shibuya station, where thousands of pedestrians intersect from all corners of the city, creating a sea of humanity hemmed in by buildings, roads and railways, and bombarded by TV screens, billboards and sound trucks. This is Tokyo. Once you have taken it all in, find a cheapizakaya (pub) for a beer and a bite to eat along Center Gai, then duck into Nombeiyokocho (Drunkard’s Alley) for a drink in a tiny little bar. Legato at the top of Dogenzaka has a more sophisticated bar with a view over the roofs and neon billboards.”
But despite its name, Bespoke Tokyo also offer adventures far beyond the city’s bright neon lights.
“We have helped organise market insight conferences during which delegates did brainstorms on the bullet train, explored the city to see consumer trends in action, followed by idea-generation workshops in a Shinto shrine.”
“Recently, we have been encouraging more people, especially return visitors, to travel to some of the amazing museums around the country.” Charles continues: “A short flight from Tokyo, Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art on the Sea of Japan coast is stunning. Naoshima is an ‘art island’ in western Japan, and the Miho Museum is home to an array of artefacts from around the world, housed in a stunning structure built into a mountain designed by IM Pei.”
Additional reporting by Kate Graham
Global Marketing and Travel (JTB)
HANKYU EXPRESS INTERNATIONAL
JAPAN GRAY LINE
Japan is connected to all the major global business centres with the main international airport of Narita, near Tokyo. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport also has some regional flights. Osaka Kansai airport also has dozens of international connections.
The weather is generally mild and humid with considerable variation from north to south, and between the Pacific Ocean side to the east of the central mountain ranges and the Japan Sea side to the west. The average temperature is 25°Celsius in summer and, 5° Celsius in winter.
Holders of passports from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Brunei and most Western countries do not need visas for stays of 30 days or less. Citizens of other countries should enquire with their local Japanese embassy.
English is still not widely spoken but the language barrier is not a problem in major hotels and airports.
Ritz-Carlton Tokyo – ESPA
Pamper and relax your top achievers in one of the city’s most tranquil spots, the ESPA. Aside from a range of premium spa treatments, the ESPA space includes a sauna, steam room, relaxation suite and a swimming pool.
Tokyo abounds in fantastic eating places but the Tapas Molecular Bar in the hotel’s Oriental Lounge is somewhat unique, specialising in molecular cooking, where the science lab meets the kitchen. Seating is for seven only, with two evening sittings, so this will be a very exclusive treat for your group. The chefs will not only serve the food directly to you but explain how each miniature course, there are approximately 25, is created.
The Grand Hyatt offers meeting planners a wide choice with its portfolio of 13 different function rooms and additional private dining areas. But its sophisticated software matches its hardware, with a special four-person conference and events team that offers event organisers a one-stop contact for their programme.
Hilton Odawara Resort and Spa
This former government civil servants’ retreat just outside the capital possesses sprawling grounds by the standards of most Japanese hotels. Just half an hour from central Tokyo by the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), the resort focuses on golfing and spa activities, ideal for teambuilding and escaping the urban jungle.
The Conrad Tokyo’s Kazanami Hamarikyu ballrooms can hold 500 and 160 people in a theatre style set-up, with plenty of breakout rooms to go round. Both offer natural daylight and a view over the neighbouring Japanese gardens.
Take your group outside the Japanese capital for a view of authentic old Japan. Kate Graham writes
Without Japanese-language skills and a great deal of planning, organising free time away from the conference room can be tricky. But there are many experts who can readily help you make the most of your Japan experience.
Kyoto is the perfect place to have a genuine Japanese experience. Most visitors are lucky to get a glimpse of the kimono-clad geisha who live and work in the ancient city. But delegates can get close access to the “flower and willow world” through “Kyoto Night and Sights”, founded by Peter MacIntosh. Born in Nova Scotia, he has lived and worked in the city since 1993, gaining unprecedented insight into the normally closed world of the geisha. He offers a range of services, from walking tours and sake tasting to geisha parties and private engagements. As well as shopping tours that help with the purchase of kimono, decorations and antiques, they can also organise gourmet tours for those wishing to learn more about the delicious range of Japanese cuisine in Kyoto.
Kyoto is filled with shrines and temples, but few know that private events can be arranged within their walls. WAK Japan can plan for activities to take place in Unesco world heritage sites. Twenty temples of various sizes are available, from the most intimate of numbers to the largest of gatherings. Once inside the temple walls, guests can take part in a wide range of activities including tea ceremony classes, ikebana (flower arranging) and origami (paper folding).
While Kyoto’s big hotels certainly cater for conferences, smaller groups can take advantage of the latest accommodation trend. Machiya, traditional wooden townhouses, have long been overlooked in a city of grand temples and shrines. But in recent years, these historical buildings have been re-appraised, and some of the finest subsequently renovated throughout the city. One company called Iori, run by Japan expert Alex Kerr, now has nine properties throughout the city. They have been carefully restored to combine the beauty of the past with modern conveniences.
Guests can either reserve just one machiya (which sleep up to 14 people) or the entire set (allowing 55 to stay). They are all centrally located, each within 15 minutes’ walk of the centre.
As well as the experience of living like a local within Kyoto, Iori also run the “Origin Arts Programme”, which offers a hands-on experience of traditional Japanese arts.
“This programme is at the heart of Irori,” says Iori’s Bhodi Fishman, “a group can take part in either a half-day or full-day programme which includes Noh drama dance, martial arts and Zen meditation.” Activities all take place in the Sujiya-cho Kyoto machiya.
The old warehouse behind the machiya has been converted into an arts practice dojo, complete with practice Noh stage, and it is the only one of its kind in Kyoto.
The company has a great deal of experience planning events for conference delegates. “We have had a huge range of clients, and with the facilities we offer, the response has been tremendous. As well as the programme, we can also arrange private events in a Zen temple, a lecture from Alex or even from a monk.”
If events within traditional lodgings appeals, the company also offers the chance to travel to the rural centre of Shikoku, the fourth largest island in Japan. Deep within the lush green mountainous Lya Valley, dubbed the “Tibet of Japan” is Chiiori, a 1720 farmhouse rescued by Kerr in 1971.
“This is a great location for offsites,” says Bhodi, “we take over one of the hotsprings nearby and organise activities at the farmhouse itself. We have had executives stay for three days, study the local crafts, hike and cut and gather hatch for the re-roofing. Guests can also pick soba and learn how to make noodles. It makes a wonderful retreat.”
For conference delegates who are often city-bound, the contrast is amazing. “A lot of the groups I have worked with have not been out of Tokyo and into the traditional Japanese environment. You really get an insight into rural Japan here, it is both an educational and a bonding experience.”
One of the finest ways to tap into traditional Japanese culture (and relax after a busy week) is to spend a night or two at a ryokan, one of the inns that have been popular here for centuries. Ranging in size from the tiny and rustic to the large and modern, they are scattered throughout both city and rural locations. All have the same features – tatami matt floors, futon beds and the chance to enjoy a delicious ‘kaiseki’ feast.
The best also offer onsen, baths filled with piping hot mineral waters that bubble underground, a result of Japan’s volcanic activities. Nirvana Concierge, founded as a consulting, concierge, and travel resource in Japan, can arrange for groups to stay at onsen ryokan in Ito prefecture, a rural haven just 90 minutes from Tokyo. Each property in the company’s portfolio is carefully selected and includes Asaba, a Ryokan whose water garden features a private Noh stage, and Arai, a famous inn with over 300 years of history. Best of all they ensure that non-Japanese speakers are well catered for, explaining etiquette and planning around any dietary requirements.
Beyond the ryokan’s sliding doors Nirvana can also arrange unique tours throughout the country. These include taking delegates to one of Japan’s famous matsuri (festivals), or whisking them down to Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture to learn about and sample the country’s famous wagyu beef. From private jet to corporate car, all travel is taken care of.
One step beyond the ryokan is the temples themselves. Few know that on Mount Koya in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, guests can stay, pray and eat with monks. Reached by either train or winding road, the mountain top is set high above sea level – a real retreat from the world below. Accommodation within the spectacular temples is simple, guests sleep on futons in rooms offering views of beautiful gardens. Food is shojin ryori, a vegetarian diet eaten by the monks.
Nights are early and so are the mornings, rising to join the monks at their daily service before sightseeing in the town. Highlights include the Okunoin wooded cemetery, a winding path surrounded by cedar trees that leads to the lantern-lit mausoleum of Kukai.
For the chance to experience something a little more active, Inside Japan can help.
“From Osaka, busy businessmen can try some tate-do sword fighting to channel their stress,” explains James Mundy. “This is a great chance to learn some of the secrets of how to fight with a sword. Tate is a well-known form of sword fighting used in samurai television dramas and movies. The course lasts for about 90 minutes and participants learn some basic sword moves and stances. The course takes place in central Osaka and costs around £45 (US$67) per person including photography.
“Alternatively, you can take part in a beginner aikido class at the same location. You’ll learn basic moves from instructors who teach the Japanese movie stars how to look good using self defence.”
Inside Japan also offers hot-spring resort trips. “From Osaka, there is a perfect getaway in the form of Kinosaki Onsen town. This is a traditional onsen town in every way – unspoilt by huge hotel resorts, situated just inland from the Japan Sea coast and near the Sanin Kaigan National Park. A simple two-hour-50-minute express journey from Osaka, it’s renown for its hot springs. There are seven main bathhouses of different quality and characteristics.”
A trip here means accessing so much more than the bubbling hot waters.
“The small town has many small vendors selling food, drink, gifts and old fashioned games and are open until late in the evening. People stroll around town in their yukata (light summer kimono) and geta (wooden clogs) from bath to bath perhaps sipping a cold beer en route.”
For those who want to take full advantage of the atmosphere, you can also spend the night in a local inn. “There are a number of small ryokan that sit on the river that flows through the town. One of those is the Yutouya ryokan, which has a number of traditional guestrooms as well as indoor and outdoor hot-spring baths. The ryokan also provides some amazing traditional dinners to give you the full traditional Japanese hospitality. Kinosaki is a real slice of Japan and the onsen is a very Japanese experience that anyone can appreciate.”
Finally, for a range of activities, contact HIS Experience Japan. From calligraphy lessons to learning how to play a Japanese harp, they offer exciting opportunities. The wildly popular Ninja day includes lessons on warrior code, using weapons and learning their secret techniques.
Kyoto Nights and Sights