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Business Trends

Sumo wrestlers' new job -- tour guide

Restaurant crawls, 'izakaya' hopping and origami-making also on Japan to-do list

Some foreigners coming to Japan are booking sumo-wrestler-led tours around old Tokyo neighborhoods, while others are taking sushi- or origami-making classes.    © AP

TOKYO -- Experience-based tourism is booming in Japan, where more visitors are participating in tea ceremonies and absorbing other traditions.

Activities that used to be offered as options to package tour-goers are turning into main attractions.

Travel agencies and excursion-matching services are riding the boom by offering a range of only-in-Japan activities.

Foreign arrivals hit a record 28 million last year. But spending per tourist has been down for two straight years, falling to 153,921 yen ($1,375) in 2017. This is largely due to the petering out of binge buying -- feverish shopping sprees by Chinese tourists that made them highly sought after by department stores and discount stores alike.

Today's tourists don't seem as interested in filling their suitcases as they are in creating memories or doing something they can tell their friends about.

Or maybe share on Instagram.

No surprise, then, that the popularity of lessons in traditional Japanese craft-making, arts and cooking has remained stable.

Participating in a Japanese tea ceremony costs around 2,500 yen per person. To take origami- or sushi-making lessons, or to give other activities a go, can run anywhere from 2,000 yen to 5,000 yen. For private lessons, the rate could jump to 50,000 yen.

But old traditions aren't for everybody, and some tourists simply want to experience what life might feel like if one were to wake up in Japan every day.

More tourists to Japan are paying locals to take them on "izakaya" crawls.

On the northern main island of Hokkaido, Nippon Travel Agency in July began arranging unique opportunities that foreign tourists might otherwise miss, like going on a tabearuki restaurant crawl down an out-of-the-way alley. For 5,000 yen, tourists can spend a night hopping from one eatery to the next in their host's neighborhood.

Tabearuki literally means eat and walk.

During the day, pairs of visitors can tour a disaster preparedness center and factory for 10,000 yen per person.

Once, Nippon Travel arranged a tour of a Japanese office for an overseas visitor who fancied a look around.

But travel agencies are generally too busy to handle specific-experience requests. So Nippon Travel has launched a website that lists unique activities by other agencies, like being guided around the old Tokyo neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ryogoku by a former sumo wrestler (interpreter included).

Meanwhile, mobile telecom operator NTT Docomo last year launched an online marketplace with help from system developer Gaiax. But on this platform, the hosts are everyday people who have hobbies they are especially skilled at -- cooking, karate, maybe taiko drumming.

"We want to offer opportunities to learn something from ordinary locals rather than professional craftsman or shop staff," Ayumi Fujita, an NTT Docomo representative, said.

Wow Japan Experience+ offers activities that fall under five categories -- nature, farm to table, culture and crafts, cooking, and city tours -- that can be booked for certain dates and in particular regions. Among the activities on offer are izakaya crawls with locals and lessons on making fresh soba.

Hosts set prices after consulting Gaiax. Most activities range from 5,000 yen to 15,000 yen per person. NTT Docomo says it receives about 100 bookings a month. Tourists from the U.S. account for about half of the total, perhaps because Western people tend to take longer holidays and stay longer in a country than those from Asia.

The platform can also provide language support if a communications barrier pops up.

Airbnb and Voyagin, a travel arrangement service under e-commerce player Rakuten, run similar resident-to-tourist matching services.

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