The spirit of adventure

Hiroshi Kawaguchi, general manager of adventure tour operator Oku Japan, reflects on how adventure tourism can transform tourism in Japan and why

What changes have you seen in Japan’s adventure travel landscape
We’ve been working in the adventure travel space in Japan since 2005. In those early days, adventure travel was less well understood and considered niche. Now, the potential of adventure travel to bring beneficial changes to the inbound travel landscape has become so substantial that it is a pillar for the Japan National Tourism Organization’s promotions.

Why is adventure travel important for Japan?
Globally, national and local governments are battling the struggle against overtourism by renewing their focus on adventure travel, which typically takes guests into the regions. Japan is recognising the role adventure travel can play in filtering tourists out of areas at risk of overtourism and introducing areas that can benefit from greater attention. With natural capacity caps created by the available accommodations, the integrity of these regions is maintained.

Moreover, adventure travellers leave more of their travel yen in Japan and with local suppliers. They also have a higher per capita spend than other kinds of inbound travellers.

What is Oku Japan’s approach?
We combine activity with community and tourism that tells a story about Japan. Our tours on the pilgrimage routes of the Kumano Kodo and the Shikoku 88 Temples, for example, are not only great hikes but also provide insights into Japan’s spirituality. The Michinoku Coastal Trail, which stretches the east coast of Tohoku from Fukushima Prefecture to Aomori Prefecture, tells the story of reconstruction and resilience following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Guided tour groups tend to have more opportunities to interact with local people due to their bilingual guide. This is an important aspect of travel for many people so we introduced fureai (interactions) on some of our self-guided tours. These interactions provide moments of connection between the visitors and members of the local community. Sometimes the group may sit over a cup of coffee and learn about life in the area or go and see where fields are being restored and farmed.

Why is that approach important?
We have a strong commitment to the communities where we operate. All of our self-guided hiking tours and many of our small group guided tours, feature hiking in rural areas of Japan. Many of these hikes are linear hikes, taking walkers from village to village or shrine to shrine, allowing our visitors to stay in locally owned and operated accommodations, and dine at local establishments along the way. We also support local traditions, such as shamisen (traditional stringed instrument) practice, by incorporating performances and workshops into our small group guided tours.

Oku Japan also participates in trail clean-ups and local festivals in the areas we operate, and has branch offices on both the Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo trails, to help us pass on our success to the local communities that we work with.

What demand is Oku Japan seeing?
There is extremely high pent-up demand for adventure travel in the country. This year, accommodations on our most popular walking routes filled up many months earlier than they normally do, and we are already seeing issues with availability for spring 2024 as people book ahead so as not to miss out. Smart travellers are booking now for next summer or autumn.

How do you envision the future of adventure tourism in Japan and why?
I think adventure tourism will grow in Japan as more travellers are aware of the opportunity to integrate adventure into their visit to Japan. Already we are seeing that the government views adventure tourism as a means to distribute the benefits of tourism more evenly around the country. Visitors to Japan, meanwhile, are realising they can engage in adventurous pursuits while also having a cultural experience.

Adventure travel can mean many different things: active pursuits, cultural activities or experiential travel. Japan is in a unique position when it comes to inbound visitors because it has such an incredibly long and rich history that is oftentimes completely intertwined with the “adventure” elements of adventure travel. For example, guests can hike along historic trails and pilgrimage routes or in geoparks that tell a story of Japan and its people, in addition to offering a great hiking experience.

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