Interview with Thierry Maincent, chairman of Japan Experience

February 1, 2023

We've all heard the news: Japan has finally reopened its borders to the world. In the wake of this announcement, how does the tourism situation look in Japan and what should we expect for 2023?

After more than two and a half years, we've finally returned to pre-pandemic travel conditions. It's time to get back to Japan!

I'm glad to notice that people's love for Japan hasn't disappeared during the pandemic. On the contrary, the wait has made them long for the country even more. Air travel is very costly, yet demand has been significant. It still hasn't reached 2019 levels, since these kinds of trips are usually planned well in advance. But the number of visitors will most likely increase over the year, with peaks for the cherry blossom and autumn leaf seasons. I have high hopes for 2024.

Thierry Maincent, the chairman of Japan Experience.

Thierry Maincent, the chairman of Japan Experience. © Japan Experience

What is your favorite time for traveling to Japan?

The second half of May, definitely. Beyond the pleasant weather, you arrive right after the rush of tourists coming for cherry blossom viewing. And because the days are at their longest, you get to enjoy your time in the country even more.

Of course, the other three seasons each have their charm, as well. Exploring the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido's national parks is a treat during the summer. Autumn features beautiful red-and-gold leaves blanketing parks, temples and shrines throughout the country. And despite the snow, winter is very pleasant: the air is dry, the sun shines brightly, and the variety of festivals and celebrations warm the heart!

I recommend you avoid traveling during Japan's national holidays, however. During Shogatsu (the Japanese New Year), Obon (in mid-August or mid-July, depending on the area), and Golden Week (between April 29 and May 5), the Japanese travel a lot, and the major sightseeing spots are very crowded.

If a tourist does decide to travel at these moments, are there any hidden gems you can recommend?

Japan's smaller islands are very much underrated. Those in the Inland sea are especially interesting, as they were left mostly untouched by humans. Along the same lines, the island of Yakushima, south of Kyushu, houses Japan's most beautiful primary forest. Keep in mind that visits are strictly supervised, so as to preserve the natural beauty of the place.

Experienced hikers will appreciate climbing to the temple of Ikumo, in Ishikawa Prefecture. Those who manage to reach this well-hidden location will find themselves warmly welcomed by the monks coming here to meditate. There are only 2 to 3 rooms, so you'll have the 360° panoramic view of the sea and Hakusan Mountain all to yourself.

Finally, if you want to admire the cherry blossoms, the banks of the Kamo river are a classic. They're lined with pink cherry trees, creating an almost magical spectacle. If you'd rather avoid the crowds, I suggest you come here on a weekday in the morning.

Many people are already planning their trip. Are there any cultural differences they should be aware of before traveling?

Japanese culture advocates courtesy and avoiding conflict. As such, there are many customs to navigate, and it can be difficult to know when you've broken these unspoken rules. The rule of thumb is to observe the Japanese and act like they do. You should be able to avoid making social mistakes this way, but here are a few more specific recommendations.

The Japanese are known for being very clean and tidy. But as there aren't many trash cans on the streets, I recommend you to bring a small bag for your trash during the day. On the same grounds, eating while walking is frowned upon. This principle of politeness extends to public transportation as well - you'll hardly ever find the Japanese talking or making a phone call on board trains. They will also always allow passengers to disembark from the train before boarding it themselves.

If you find yourself barred entry from a shop, it's best not to insist. Usually, it'll be because the owner doesn't consider themselves fluent enough in English to properly serve you. For onsen or sento (Japanese public baths), it can also be because of visible tattoos, since they are associated with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia). And on the topic of shops, Japan does not have a tipping culture - if anything, the Japanese are more likely to be offended by a tip! Last but not least, laws are strictly followed in Japan. For instance, you're expected to respect pedestrian signals even with no cars in sight, and smoke only in the designated areas. Note that this applies even in open spaces!

What about travel requirements?

With most of the COVID-19 restrictions that were put in place relaxed, the main requirement for travelers is to be vaccinated at least three times. Should this not be the case, you'll have to present a negative PCR result for a test taken less than 72 hours before arriving in Japan. You'll also need to apply for a tourist visa, unless you are from a country that benefits from visa waivers (such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and EU countries). In any case, the government also recommends that you pre-register on the Visit Japan Web service prior to departure. Finally, you are strongly advised to apply for health insurance that covers medical expenses and hospitalization, if your credit card does not provide one.

Do you have any good deals for travelers on a budget?

For a more authentic and homely experience, I recommend renting a house instead of booking a hotel room, especially if you're visiting areas such as Tokyo or traveling in a group of more than 3 people. Hotels can quickly get expensive!

When it comes to transportation, the train is the quickest and most efficient way to travel - Japan's railway network is very developed, especially the Shinkansen bullet trains. If you're traveling to more remote locations, regular trains can get you there, while giving you pleasant panoramic views of Japan's landscapes.

If you plan on making regular use of the trains, the Japan Rail Pass is a very good deal. It'll cover the cost of your train journeys for up to 3 weeks. Regional Rail Passes are also excellent if you'll mostly be staying in one specific region - some, such as the Hakone Free Pass, even give you discounts on tourist attractions. As a bonus, traveling with a Rail Pass is very convenient, saving you a trip to the Ticket Office.

Japan Experience is the first European tour operator to specialize exclusively in Japan. Can you tell us more about your activities?

For more than 40 years, we have dedicated ourselves to promoting Japan and its cultural richness to everyone wishing to travel there or simply wishing to learn more about this country. Above all, we are a team of enthusiasts who live and breathe Japan. We are continuously exploring new, unique activities to share with our community of travelers, and new ways to enjoy Japan.

Whether you want to plan your trip yourself, or let us handle all the details, you will find everything you need among our large selection of products. If you are seeking personalized advice, don't hesitate to contact us or to visit one of our local offices in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, or Tokyo.

After all, for us, Japan is more than just a destination - it's our passion.

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