Festive Japan

2009 is the year to send your clients to Japan. This is a land full of dreamlike, culture-infused festivals and, oddly enough, seemingly “off-the-beaten-track” for U.S. travelers.

Gazing out a window at the 525-room New Otani Hotel in Osaka in the spring when the mythical cherry blossoms—or “sakura,” as they’re known in these parts—paint the entire country in pinks, reds and whites, the symbolism that the brief season has for the Japanese is understandable. The sky glimmers in the afterglow of day while floodlights illuminate a magnificent castle atop a nearby hill. Below, in a park by the banks of a river, food booths lighted by paper lanterns thrive with customers, and there is music in the air.

The New Otani Hotel—a member of The Leading Hotels of the World—is a first-rate hotel favored by the many tour groups that make Osaka their final stop, perfect to unwind after a few hectic days traveling in the country. It’s incidentally the ideal perch from where to see a jaw-dropping spectacle: riverbanks lined with trees blooming in brilliant, surreal colors.

Cherry blossom season is a festive time when every corner of Japan is gripped by blossom fever, one of myriad celebrations in this festival-crazed country.

The delicate flowers normally bloom only for about 10 days. The delicate petals flutter to the ground in even the slightest breeze or lightest rain. Ironically, the flowers are at their most glorious during this, their final stage. For many Japanese, the flowers symbolize the transience and nobility of human life. For most Westerners, the sakura in full bloom is like walking into a life-sized Impressionist painting.

Festivals abound during the spring and early summer when Japan becomes one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.

Witnessing the sakura at its peak, however, is a tricky business. First, it’s difficult to determine the exact date when the blooms will mature, a date taken so seriously that the chief of the Japanese meteorological service has been known to go on national television to extend deep apologies for having misjudged the date by even a single day. Second, most hotels and tourist amenities are booked almost a year in advance and, third, crowds to the most spectacular flower-viewing sites are thick and daunting.

Japan is a country obsessed with flowers and beauty and cleanliness. Its timeless charm is undeniable. Some like to say that this is the most Westernized country in Asia; others claim that it’s the most Asian of all Western countries and a baffling destination.

Yet—there’s always a “yet” when it comes to Japan—this alluring and picturesque country made up of more than 3,000 islands draws relatively few foreign tourists. This is unusual for a land that has it all: exciting cities, sweeping beauty, astonishing culture—and, to boot, is a place that bursts with gastronomical delights at every turn.

Some economists explain the relatively low number of foreign visitors to the reality that Japan, with an export-driven economy, has traditionally invested far less in its tourism infrastructure than other nations.

This may be true. According to statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 7.3 million foreigners visited Japan last year and more than 30 percent came strictly for business. This is a sobering figure, considering that France was host to more than 75 million during the same period, while the U.S. was the destination of choice for approximately 50 million.

The lack of foreign tourism in Japan is made even more baffling by the fact that the yen remains relatively weak against the U.S. dollar—a rarity in these troubled times—making Japan a good travel bargain when compared with European countries.

Still, the number of Americans visiting Japan in the first half of 2007 actually declined 1.8 percent from the previous period—to 403,300. That figure is bound to rise, as the Japan National Tourism organization (jnto) has launched an all-out campaign—dubbed “Yokoso! [Welcome!] Japan”—to promote tourism.

guided voyages Since Japan can often be intimidating due to the absence of English signs in public places and the impenetrable language barrier most foreigners encounter, it’s advisable that travelers who want to avoid the hassle book tours.

Although there are many excellent and reputable tour companies taking Americans to Japan, one of the standouts is General Tours World Traveler, a New Hampshire-based company founded in 1947 with vast experience in Japan. Although General Tours World Traveler offers tours to China, South America, India, Europe, South Africa, Turkey and Egypt, it boasts of some of the best values and outstanding tours to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”