TOKYO -- Himeji Castle, widely considered the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture, is about to get a little more friendly to guests from overseas. Management of the UNESCO World Heritage site and Japanese national treasure in Hyogo Prefecture will be handed over to travel agency Kinki Nippon Tourist, a company that knows a thing or two about what tourists want.
KNT Kansai, which handles the company's travel business in Japan's western region, landed a three-year contract to manage the historic castle starting in March. Measures will be taken to enhance the castle's appeal to foreign visitors, including deploying about 50 foreign-language-speaking staff members.
The centuries-old castle will also get a website.
Visits to Himeji Castle will feature more prominently in KNT's package tours.
The city of Himeji, which is home to the castle, has expanded the scope of the companies and organizations that it entrusts with managing the government-designated national treasure.
At present, Tokyo-based interior design company Nomura is performing that role.
According to KNT Kansai, it is rare for a major travel agency to be entrusted with the management of a castle.
The city expects the company to make full use of the know-how it has acquired through the travel business to extend hospitality to visitors and establish measures to attract them.
The current castle keep was built in 1609, during the early Edo period (1603-1867).
In 1993, the castle was registered as Japan's first world cultural heritage site by UNESCO, along with Horyuji temple in Nara Prefecture.
In March 2015, the castle reopened after five and a half years of major repair work. It is known as "white heron castle" because of its white exterior walls, but after the repair work turned the walls even more vivid white, it earned the moniker of "too white castle."
The number of visitors in fiscal 2015, immediately after the work was completed, tripled from the previous fiscal year to 2.86 million -- the largest number recorded that year at castles in Japan, having surpassed Osaka Castle's 2.33 million and Shurijo Castle's 1.87 million.
Attendance dropped to about 2.11 million in fiscal 2016, but the number of foreign visitors increased 19% to 365,000, a record.
The increase is partly attributable to the availability of brochures in 19 languages and the castle's status as "one of the world's famous castles that you must visit before you die" on travel information site TripAdvisor.
As a first step, KNT Kansai aims to "enhance visitor services by having about 50 staff members who are proficient in foreign languages inside the castle."