TOKYO -- As the sun set over Tokyo's lively Shibuya district at around 6 p.m. on a recent evening, a group of four European men gathered at the Hachiko statue for a two-hour stroll around the area's more interesting spots.
Located just outside Shibuya station, the statue, which commemorates perhaps the world's most loyal dog, is also one of the city's most popular meeting spots. Tonight, the group has assembled for a tour led by local guide Shogo Nomura. Such tours start at 3,000 yen ($28) for two hours, with various options on offer.
Stopping first for a photo at the famous scramble crossing in front of the station, Nomura then takes the group up an escalator to the fourth floor of Shibuya Mark City, a commercial complex next to the station, to give them an overview of the area.
The group then heads over to Maruyamacho, an area of neon lights, dance clubs and restaurants. After stopping at a sake bar, the tourists carry on to an area of "love hotels," a place many foreign visitors know about from guidebooks but are hesitant to visit on their own.
Tourists love it, Nomura says, adding that aspects of Japanese life that Tokyoites take for granted are often surprising -- and an attraction -- to visitors.
With Japan aiming to become a premier tourist destination and welcome 40 million foreign visitors per year by 2020, the nighttime economy of its capital and largest city, Tokyo, has tremendous potential to play a role.
Encouraging spending on after-hours activities has largely been neglected so far but could help the government reach its goal of increasing the outlay by foreign tourists to 8 trillion yen a year by 2020.
It could also create new business opportunities. In one part of the city, for example, nighttime river kayaking tours have taken off.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, 28.69 million people visited the country in 2017, spending a total of 4.41 trillion yen, the highest figures ever. Spending on pleasure activities accounted for about 3%, but spending per person fell 1.3% from a year before to about 154,000 yen.
"Japan can offer special night experiences such as hanami (flower viewing) and fireworks that cannot be experienced elsewhere," said Junichi Kumada, chief research officer at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting.
He said Tokyo city needs a broad discussion on how best to maximize its attractions, but one of the easiest features to take advantage of is its spectacular rooftop night views. He also recommends that regulations be eased to allow outside tables to be set up on public roadsides.
In 2016, the Shibuya City Tourism Association named its first "night ambassador," following the example of European cities that have appointed "night mayors." The night ambassador's job is to promote Shibuya's nighttime culture, such as its dance clubs and bars. On April 1, the association launched a tour of lesser-known, but high-quality restaurants in the area.
The association's spokesperson, Kyoko Hori, said many foreign tourists visit Shibuya for a fun night out, but don't know where to go or what to do. Despite their growing numbers, foreign visitors do not contribute much to the local economy. To change this, the association has created an English map to the area's nightlife, and hopes night tour participants will spread the word on social media. It also wants to cooperate with museums and other public facilities to have them extend their opening hours and organize collaborative events.
But can a city like Tokyo, which has a culture and customs that are very different from big western cities like London and New York, really become a major draw of the same magnitude for international tourism? Among the challenges it faces are a shortage of nighttime labor, a growing preference for morning activities due to an aging population, and concerns about noise and security in some districts.
Yet there is much to recommend the city as well.
On the Kyunakagawa river in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, foreign visitors are enthusiastically signing up for nighttime kayaking tours run by an outdoor company. Paddling the Tokyo waterways at night shows a different side of the city, with its night views reflected on the river surface. The participation of foreign tourists really took off after the tour was registered on a website run by Airbnb, the popular home-sharing service.
The tour costs 7,000 yen per person, and more foreign tourists than locals are now taking part. As foreign visitors discover the full range of nighttime activities that Tokyo has to offer, the nightlife for locals might just improve as well.