Few would think of launching a travel business today, right in the midst of a prolonged pandemic and tourism crisis, but former architect and business entrepreneur Michiyo Kawabe sees promise in heading that way.
With other partners, Kawabe officially registered Michi & Co with the Singapore Tourism Board in June, setting the company on the path of offering curated tours around Japan’s lesser known regions, with the promise of connecting travellers with local communities.
According to Kawabe, the ultimate goal of Michi & Co is to offer travellers a “learning journey” that gives them a deeper look into the local way of life and which will support the local people and their livelihood.
For a start, Michi & Co offers two- and four-night itineraries each to Hayama and Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture and Hakuba and Togakushi in Nagano prefecture. The programmes are built around private, luxury villas that Kawabe built, designed and owns herself.
The Hayama villa, built a century ago, stands next to the Hayama Imperial Villa. Kawabe has preserved its original structure while bringing in modern luxuries and amenities, such as a balcony Jacuzzi with garden and ocean views, and a Western dining room and kitchen. The villa can take four guests in bed, and four more on futons.
Over at Hakuba, the villa is a classic ski cabin that is within easy reach of major ski resorts. The three-bedroom villa is good for up to six guests, but larger families can take a second villa of a similar size on the same site.
Kawabe will tap into the network of staycation.jp, an online portal of vacation rental villas all over Japan that she set up years ago, to offer other accommodation options.
Itineraries play up the Japanese countryside, and offer uniquely Japanese experiences, such as unwinding around a takibi – bonfire – with a master who will speak about the art of making a bonfire, interacting with a local fisherman, visiting farmer’s markets, dining at restaurants that are hidden gems, participating in meditation rituals and pottery crafting, and more.
As the company continues to build up its product line, Kawabe said programmes would carry on the promise of taking travellers off the beaten track to appreciate more of Japan.
Salamat Khamisah, a recognised Japan destination expert in Singapore, joins the company as tours and operations manager. She believes that Michi & Co’s direction to “have our guests learn about the local culture in less congested parts of Japan through curated journeys fits with the post-pandemic expectation that people will favour private tours instead of the usual group tours, and for destinations away from the big cities”.
“It may seem strange to start a travel agency now, especially one that focuses on Japan when there are still inbound travel restrictions, but I think this gives us time to prepare. Demand will rebound very quickly and we should not wait till borders are reopened to begin planning and marketing. By then, there will be a huge rush of travel agent activities,” reflected Khamisah.
Khamisah will be leveraging her expertise in Halal tourism to support Michi & Co’s development in this growing tourism segment. “We are able to provide Halal or Muslim-friendly F&B catering and accommodation, and I have a reliable network of Japanese suppliers who are familiar with serving Muslim travellers,” she shared, adding that the plan is to support Muslim travellers from anywhere in the world, not just those from Singapore.
To establish the Michi & Co branding and engage potential travellers, the team has been conducting Japanese tea ceremonies that give customers a taste of the destination to whet their travel appetite.
“It is encouraging to know that many who have attended our sessions have expressed interest to holiday in Japan once the borders reopen. They are all bidding their time, waiting for Japan to welcome again foreign visitors,” said Khamisah.
Besides Japanese tea ceremonies, Kawabe is looking to offer meditation or online interactions with other Japanese masters. In addition, guests will soon be able to purchase products that allow them to bring uniquely Japanese experiences home.
“We have started selling green tea products, which are a nice match with our tea ceremonies. I think handicraft make interesting products to sell as well, as there are many stories of the artisan and Japanese culture embedded within. Our introductory sessions and products will allow our guests to experience a part of Japan before their visit in the near future,” said Kawabe, adding that “a successful travel agent is one that can tell a good story of the destination and the value of local culture”.