In new habit, Japan's Buddhist temples seek slice of foreign tourism boom

by Reuters
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 06:01 GMT

* 13th century Eiheiji temple joins Mori to build new hotel

* Domestic business down as population drops, customs change

* Record foreign tourist numbers offer new revenue target

* Luring non-Japanese visitors to rural sites 'a challenge'

By Junko Fujita

EIHEIJI, Japan Dec 30 (Reuters) - Deep in a forest near Japan's western shore, a 13th century Buddhist temple where Steve Jobs once dreamed of becoming a Zen monk has teamed up with a Tokyo skyscraper builder to seek the commercial enlightenment of foreign tourist dollars.

As a weak yen fuels record tourism, Eiheiji temple, local authorities and Mori Building Co, behind some of Tokyo's glitziest retail palaces, plan to redevelop the site including an $11 million hotel nearby. From there, a new path will be built leading visitors to the spartan site that intrigued the Apple Inc guru.

Japan's temples have long been business and tech-savvy, offering lucrative services like funerals while courting domestic tourists - a recent Eiheiji exhibition featured video from a drone operated by a monk. But compared to other parts of the world, religious sites outside centres like Kyoto have been slow to target mass foreign tourism.

What's changed is a shrinking population using temples less, crimping revenue just as annual overseas tourist numbers surge toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of 20 million well ahead of a target date of 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. Japan's farther-flung regions, long suffering a rural exodus, now want a piece of an influx led by visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan that is bolstering big-city economies.

"Eiheiji is a monastery that has been isolated from the rest of the world," said the Rev Shodo Kobayashi, a deputy administrator at the temple. "But we cannot be divorced from our community forever. We need to respond to the needs of local governments to increase tourists."

Eiheiji needs money to support monks in the kind of intensive Zen retreat training that once appealed to Steve Jobs. But visitor numbers have skidded to less than half a million a year, nearly two-thirds below a late-1980s peak when groups tours organised by Japanese companies and neighbourhood associations were at the height of their popularity.

For the temple and local authorities, a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with neighbouring Kanazawa offers a lifeline. The picturesque castle town just over 50 miles away is seeing a surge in foreign tourists whisked from Tokyo in just over 2 and a half hours.

The temple aims to spend 1.3 billion yen to build a two-storey hotel offering modern comforts - including alcohol - to 80 guests in the adjacent Eiheiji town, while the surrounding Fukui prefecture's authorities will redevelop the path leading to the temple in a project to be completed by 2020.

"With a place to stay the night, tourists will spend more time and money," said Shouji Kawakami, an Eiheiji town official. Local officials hope to double the number of visitors to the temple by 2025.

'VERY CHALLENGING'

For Yasuo Sasaki, head of the promotions department at Fukui prefecture, the stakes go beyond tourism itself. "We need to strengthen our brand power to attract more tourists," Sasaki said, "then we could revive our economy and people in Fukui will regain pride and confidence."

It's an ambition shares by many of Japan's less-travelled cities and towns, largely left behind while the Tokyo metropolis continues to grow in economic power.

But while these places invest in new facilities, for Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist at Japan Research Institute, it will remain difficult for locations that have fallen out of favour with domestic tourists to see a return.

"In order for them to attract foreign tourists, they need to have something very unique," said Motani. "It is very challenging for places that were deserted by Japanese people to attract foreign tourists."

Still, some say foreign tourists can, and will come.

At Chusonji temple, a Unesco World Heritage site in the northeastern prefecture of Iwate that traces its roots back nearly 1,200 years, promotions aimed at attracting visitors from Taiwan and Thailand are paying off, and will be stepped up, said senior temple priest Kaisyun Chiba. A broad central government push to encourage visitors to Japan is also helping, he said.

"We have been making efforts to attract tourists but we haven't done enough," said Chiba. "How hard we try to attract them would be a key for the future."

Back at Eiheiji, shaven-headed monks in black robes will continue to go about centuries-old rituals. But those interested in joining their austere training regime may be discouraged by Steve Jobs' conclusion after consulting his spiritual advisor, an Eiheiji-trained monk who also performed his marriage service.

"He said there is nothing over there that isn't here, and he was correct," the former Apple leader told writer Walter Isaacson in his authorised biography, "Steve Jobs". "I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door."

($1 = 120.9200 yen)

(Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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In new habit, Japan's Buddhist temples seek slice of foreign tourism boom

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