KUWAIT: Whether it was the soothing pink hue of the Sakura (cherry blossom) trees in spring, the grandiose presence of Mount Fuji, or the hustle and bustle of major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, Japan had become a much-sought destination for tourists from across the globe including ones hailing from Kuwait. In recent years, Kuwaitis have been fixated on getting answers to questions regarding travel to Japan. Most of the questions revolved around the availability of halal food, the cost of hotels and flight tickets, finding ways to overcome the language barrier, and other related issues.
In interactions with staff from the Japanese embassy, a Kuwaiti social media Japan expert, and a traveler with several trips to Japan under his belt, Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) would attempt to demystify Japan as a travel destination in hopes of clearing the picture and providing answers to most concerns. Japanese pop culture Though Japanese pop culture—anime (animation), manga (Japanese comic books), and J-POP (Japanese pop music) – had played a role in shaping interest in Japan, traditional Japanese culture also offers deep fascinating experiences, said Arata Tatsumi, Second Secretary at the Embassy of Japan in Kuwait, during a KUNA interview.
He affirmed that the rich variety found in Japanese culture could accommodate foreigners with different interests whether learning about the inner workings of the tea ceremony (Sado), the art of calligraphy (Shodo), or soothing the senses when practicing the flower arrangement art of (Ikebana). “We know many Kuwaiti Japan lovers; some of them have really deep knowledge of Japanese traditional culture … Others love Japanese animation and manga,” stated Tatsumi He added that nature in Japan was one of the main attractions for Kuwaitis, stating, “Now is the season of cherry blossom … many Kuwaiti people love to see the cherry blossom bloom in Japan and actually the embassy receives many visa applications from the beginning of March till the middle of April.”
Tatsumi said that the changing of seasons in Japan has much to offer, pointing out for instance that during the autumn season, leaves change in mesmerizing colors that enticed tourists and made them want to come back for more. In regards to visa applications, Tatsumi revealed that they were on the rise since last October, after two and half years of suspension caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing the number of issued visas in January 2020 to the same period in 2023, there was an increase of more than 20 percent, he indicated. Tatsumi pointed out that the embassy would receive around 20 visa applications daily with the number reaching sometimes around 30 to 40 requests.
On the embassy’s efforts, Tatsumi said that during participation in cultural events, the staff would gladly answer questions regarding travel to Japan. Halal food/restaurants The embassy distributes Japan tourism brochures during such events, indicated Tatsumi, adding that people usually asked about the price of travel to Japan as well as the availability of halal food/restaurants. On the Japanese government level, the diplomat affirmed that Japan was always eager to receive travelers from Kuwait and the Middle East. Despite the limited population of Muslims in Japan, those involved in Japanese tourism both in the public and private sectors were aware of the needs of Muslim travelers and they were working on ways to respond to their requests, affirmed Tatsumi.
He went on to say that in 2018, the government of Japan had issued an action plan to respond to the needs of Muslim travelers with the scheme involving partners from the private sector and also local governments. In November of 2021, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) opened an office in Dubai, the first of its kind in the Middle East, reflecting the keen interest in having inbound travelers from the region visit Japan, noted the diplomat. The JNTO would be coordinating and networking efforts with travel agencies across the region, especially the GCC countries, to promote visits to Japan, said Tatsumi, stressing that the Japanese embassy would like to assist the organization’s activities in Kuwait.
As the number of Muslim travelers grow in Japan, restaurants, hotels, and tourist facilities took notice and developed favorable environments by offering halal food and setting up prayer rooms with the JNTO gathering information from such establishments and posting them on its “Muslim Travelers’ Guide” website, he added. Several applications are developed for Muslims such as “Halal Navi”, which enables users to find halal restaurants as well as “OKASHI Checker” allowing Muslims to check the ingredients used in snacks sold in Japan. One of the main advocates of Japan travel in Kuwait is Saad Al-Hajri whose Instagram account “Saadjpn” had amassed over 56,000 followers thanks to his deep and detailed knowledge of Japan in addition to his valuable tips and information.
“Those who admire organization and order would find themselves in Japan,” commented Al-Hajri who has been frequenting Japan since 2007 and sometimes travels there three times a year. Al-Hajri indicated that the planning for his first trip began in 2004-05 and he managed to travel eventually alongside a friend who had a previous experience in Japan travel. Around 2012, Al-Hajri decided to create an Instagram account, which was for personal use at the beginning but turned into a blog dedicated mainly to his numerous travels to Japan. “I did not think that the content was interesting to others, but I tried to relate my experiences in my posts about Japan as a hobby … I was shocked that there was a huge feedback and interest in the subject,” he affirmed.
Al-Hajri added that the Instagram account was mainly dedicated to Arabic language speakers because he saw the scarcity of material within this field. Information on how to travel to certain destinations within Japan, especially via train and subway, main spots of interest, and more could be found in the account, said Al-Hajri who affirmed that many benefited from the data found on Saadjpn with the account receiving a tremendous amount of inquires reaching over 90 inbox messages at a time. He revealed that many Japanese citizens found the account useful in terms of finding information about the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Japanese embassy also began to recommend the account to those interested in Japan, asserted Al-Hajri, adding that he had established a good rapport with the embassy.
In 2018, through his strong efforts and ties with the embassy, Al-Hajri became the first Arab Gulf citizen to deliver a lecture at the Japanese embassy’s headquarters attended by 85 people. Al-Hajri hoped that his endeavors and travels to Japan would change people’s perspectives and minds, noting that many people, for instance, had improved their time management skills due to this particular travel experience. On his part, Dr Khaled Al-Bahri—Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Kuwait University (KU) and a Japan travel enthusiast—told KUNA that travel to Japan did not equate spending astronomical amounts of money, underling in this regard the importance of meticulous planning to optimize this particular experience.
Travel experience Dr Al-Bahri’s first Japan travel experience was part of a tour group in 2010. “It was very organized and we were able to see major landmarks in the country,” said Dr Al-Bahri who revealed that the two-week trip was insufficient for one to experience the country’s wonders. The first trip was sort of a blueprint, which provided Dr Al-Bahri with the basic skills to traverse Japan in his subsequent travels. Dr Al-Bahri acknowledged that communication might be an obstacle, but thankfully, he had taken several courses in the Japanese language since 2005. “Japan has a reputation of being an expensive country; however, this is exaggerated,” he pointed out, adding that the prices of hotels and flight tickets varied like any other country.
On daily expenses, Dr Al-Bahri revealed it depended on the needs of the traveler. Personally, he would, for example, carry around JPY 21,000 ( around KD 50), which was more than enough for transportation, food, snacks, and even shopping. Picking the right season to travel to Japan is key to finding optimal prices for hotels and flight tickets, he revealed, saying that the winter season seemed to be the best in his opinion, while spring would be the most expensive. Flight tickets remain stable throughout the year between KD 300 to KD500, but goes sometimes up to KD 700 if one traveled during high season, he revealed.
Dr Al-Bahri said that he was highly appreciative of the Japanese people’s time management skills, which helped the country to become one of the most developed societies in the world. While Dr Al-Bahri had several trips to Japan under his belt, his compatriot Mohammad Al-Mosawi, a bank sector employee, had the dream to travel to Japan but was still on the fence. Anime and video games were the initial motivators, said Al-Mosawi who affirmed that there were plans to travel to Japan in the near future.
“I’ve had many friends traveling to Japan and they had some good feedback about the experience,” indicated Al-Mosawi, but said that he had a personal impression that the country was too expensive and travel was a hassle in terms of flight tickets and duration. He mentioned also that the scarcity of halal food/restaurants and the language barrier were also obstacles to realizing his dream. Al-Mosawi pointed out that he was now aware of several solutions regarding the obstacles preventing him from traveling to Japan, saying that he would be looking into the matter seriously and might plan a trip to Japan by the end of this year. – KUNA