The Yomiuri Shimbun “Japan’s nightlife is boring.” It’s a common refrain from overseas tourists, who are arriving in increasing numbers ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, Tokyo’s tourism industry is working to harness the untapped potential of the “nighttime economy” — a buzzword first used to describe efforts to revitalize regional economies through late-night tourism.
On the evening of May 31, three foreign tourists from the United States and Britain weaved their way past about 40 bars, izakaya pubs and yakitori restaurants in the narrow backstreet known as Nonbei Yokocho near Shibuya Station.
“Very Japanese!” one said as they peered into an establishment.
“Customers sit so close together,” added another.
They were taking part in a guided nighttime tour launched by the Shibuya City Tourism Association in April last year. The group spent about 90 minutes walking around 10 or so tourists spots in the area, including a popular ramen restaurant and the famous Shibuya scramble crossing that’s often featured in foreign movies.
“I’m glad I could visit places only locals know. It’s a bit scary going out at night, but I felt safe because it was a tour,” said a 29-year-old woman from Britain.
“Shibuya at night has a plenty of attractive spots. I hope the tour inspires tourists to go out and spend some money,” said Kyoko Hori of the association.
A total of 1,269 foreign tourists signed up for the tour in fiscal 2018, and that popularity shows no sign of abating in the current fiscal year.
Rickshaws and Rainbow Bridges
Similar night tours are being held throughout Tokyo. A nighttime rickshaw tour of the Marunouchi district of Chiyoda Ward held from last November to mid-February took in illuminated spots near JR Tokyo Station. It was organized by the Japan National Tourism Organization’s Tourist Information Center, a facility aimed at foreigners located in the Shin-Tokyo Building in the district.
“The tour allowed participants to experience Japanese culture. It was popular not only with overseas tourists but also Japanese people,” said an official of Mitsubishi Estate Co., one of the tour’s operators. The event is set to take place again this year.
Meanwhile, Hinomaru Jidousha Kogyo Corp. in Bunkyo Ward has been conducting an Odaiba nighttime bus tour since August 2009. The approximately two-hour course offers views of Tokyo Tower, Ginza and the Rainbow Bridge from atop the company’s Sky Bus Tokyo double-decker sightseeing buses. The tour is apparently popular with both foreigners and Japanese alike, with audio guides also available in English, Chinese and Korean.
Bringing back ‘bakugai’
More businesses are looking to expand into nighttime tourism due to the reality that consumption per foreign tourist has reached a plateau.
According to a survey by the Tokyo metropolitan government, a record 14.24 million foreign tourists visited Tokyo in 2018, up 3.4 percent from the previous year. They spent a record ¥1.197 trillion, up 5.4 percent from the year before.
Still, consumption per foreign tourist in 2017 amounted to about ¥130,000, almost ¥20,000 less than in 2015, when the “bakugai” shopping sprees of Chinese tourists were making headlines.
In response, the metropolitan government decided to offer subsidies of up to ¥100 million to groups that conduct activities like organizing nighttime tours or creating sightseeing brochures for foreigners. Applications for the subsidy have been open since June 3.
“We’d like to support the energetic activities of the private sector,” said a metropolitan government official.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Japanese guide, left, talks to a group of tourists visiting Nonbei Yokocho street in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on May 31.
Courtesy of Mitsubishi Estate Co.