Cities in Japan Turn to Local Tourism

Courtesy of Mitsui Fudosan Co.
Hisaya-odori Park is seen in Nagoya.

This is the third and final installment of a series looking at how people are responding to the ongoing changes to cities brought about by the novel coronavirus.

“Here’s a hidden, scenic spot.”

Tour guide Daisuke Ando led participants across a bridge in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 7. The JR Yamanote Line’s railway tracks run straight underneath the bridge, with tall buildings standing alongside it. There is a faint view of Tokyo Skytree.

“I thought of doing something fun closer to home because I’m afraid of getting infected with the coronavirus,” said a 51-year-old company employee who signed up for the tour with his two other family members from Chiba Prefecture. “It’s interesting knowing there is a place like this in Tokyo.”

OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka, a hotel run by Hoshino Resorts, has been running the tour for the past two years. Participants spend about an hour walking around areas within 500 steps of the hotel. They visit scenic spots, a local Japanese confectionery shop and others under the theme of “discovering the attractive neighborhood.”

This year, the tour took a hit from the pandemic at first, but the hotel currently receives reservations every week by those who want to avoid traveling too far away. The tour is seen as a good example of “microtourism,” a trip to nearby areas, which has become popular during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Many people have realized there are interesting locations in their neighborhood after staying at home,” said Ryoko Isokawa, the hotel’s general manager. “The term ‘attractive neighborhood’ will become key for urban cities in the future.”

A typical example of people seeing an area in a new light is a park. Children affected by school closures, as well as adults working from home and looking to play or relax, are seen at parks nowadays. The number of park-goers in Tokyo rose 1.9 times a day on weekdays and 1.4 times on weekends and holidays, according to a Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry survey in March.

However, parks soon became crowded. Urban cities in Japan are said to have few parks, with the park space allocated per resident being 4.3 square meters in Tokyo’s 23 wards, far less than London’s 26.9 square meters or New York’s 18.6 square meters.

“It is crucial we increase and use public spaces, such as parks, to make a city resistant to infectious diseases,” a senior ministry official said.

One park satisfied both keywords of “attractive neighborhood” and “using public spaces.”

Nagoya municipal Hisaya-odori Park — which has about 35 restaurants, clothing and bookstores — opened in September in a vast space of 54,000 square meters. Families set up tents on the grass and telecommuters work while sitting at cafes in the park.

Mitsui Fudosan Co. developed the park using the Park-PFI (Private Finance Initiative) system, which was designed to introduce private-sector vitality into municipal parks. It allows selected private companies to build various facilities in the park and maintain it with profits. The system was introduced when the Urban Parks Law was revised in 2017, and it has been used in 48 parks nationwide as of July this year.

The Nagoya municipal government, which manages Hisaya-odori Park, has received many inquiries from other local governments about the park.

“It is an open leisure space in the neighborhood that can be safely used for fun and work,” said Mitsui’s employee in charge. “It meets the demands of the coronavirus era.”

Meanwhile, restaurants are using public roads to set up terrace seats as a measure to prevent infection. In June, the transport ministry announced measures to ease road usage standards, allowing about 240 restaurants to set up terrace seats on roads as of September.

Urban cities have made various attempts to look at what happens after the coronavirus.

“It is true the pandemic is changing the flow of people alongside what can be a city’s charms and what values people hold,” said Meiji University Prof. Emeritus Hiroo Ichikawa, who specializes in urban policy. Experts in “each field must rack their brains to come up with strategies for urban development that can coexist with infectious diseases.”