Imabari City Foreign Tourism Project

April 21st, 2009

This month, the Japan Blog Matsuri is being held at What Japan Thinks, and the theme is “Slow Times in Japan.” Now, while I live on a tiny fishing island in rural Japan, I’m a pretty busy guy. I’m frequently scooting from one school to the next, blogging, networking both on and offline, planning classes, planning trips, starting upcoming podcasts (the rumors are true…), and more. Then it occurred to me – this is the perfect opportunity to announce the special project that I’ve been asked to help with. You could say that my city, Imabari, is having a bit of a slow time with tourism lately. It’s my job to help – and I want your input!

Imabari is an interesting place. I’ve lived here for almost 3 years, and it’s become very comfortable and homey to me. But in all honesty, it’s not a place you’d think of as a tourist attraction. Especially if you’re foreign. It’s not a city of shiny skyscrapers, luxury shopping, or hip new subculture. It’s also not a super-quaint historic piece of pristine Japan. Imabari is somewhere in the middle. It’s a place where around 175,000 people live their lives. It’s a transportation bottleneck that people pass through by bus or train on their way to Matsuyama (or deeper into the countryside, for that matter). It’s famous for reasons that appeal (quite naturally) to Japanese people: it is part of Ehime, which is famous for mikan oranges; it has some killer yakitori shops that avoid charcoal in favor of smashing the chicken under hot metal plates; it sells the famous “ichi-roku” tart; it has an interesting history involving lots of pirates; it produces lots of major cargo boats and nearly 60% of all the towels in Japan; and it has Hakata no Shio.

Not much about that screams “you’ve got to visit here!” to foreign folks. The Imabari City Tourism Board has put together a project to try and help us fix this. I’m one of seven foreigners being asked to pitch in. The PR plan goes something like this: make a survey, analyze the survey, do monitor tours. The monitor tours are the interesting bit. [Disclaimer - I am not being paid to do this work, since it is a volunteer operation, but I am reaping the benefits of these free inner city monitor trips. I am being asked to make some presentations when I'm done, and share some of it on my blog - which I would have done anyway. Ha ha.] The tourism board will create the first trip as a single-day bus tour, featuring some sights that they want to show some attention. We’ll be asked to reflect on the tour, offering our foreign perspective.

Next, we’ll be given free reign to create OUR OWN overnight trips. (That’s a trip that lasts 2 days, 1 night, to be taken individually.) I want to open this up for community input. I want to take a trip that other folks might be curious about, too. So I plan to present you with options I’ve researched, etc. I hope you’ll help me out. Will you? If you’ve read this far, I’d love it if you’d answer this quickie no-commitment-necessary poll.

Will you help me make a cool trip?

  • Yeah, sure! Why not? (93%, 26 Votes)
  • No. (I am a big jerk.) (7%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 28

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Most foreign people who come to Imabari are temporary workers, businesspeople, or visiting relatives. It’s rarely makes the cut on a person’s first trip to Japan otherwise. Plus, loads of things aren’t English-friendly or marked well on maps yet. I speak and read Japanese (at JLPT2+ levels, depending on the amount of sleep I get), I’ve got the international association to help me with reconnaissance that I can’t hack alone, and it’s subsidized. We should be able to figure something really cool out with your input. :-)

If this thing goes at all like I think it will, I’ll learn a ton about my city and I’ll be able to share interesting stuff that I learn with you guys. And, you know, we just might be able to make this place a more interesting tourist location for foreigners. The truism that foreigners only travel to places with stations in Japan is unfortunate – and Imabari only has one main station, but there’s much more to it. Imabari is a part of Japan that most people will never see, and it holds some cool secrets. If I can get to those and make them more easily accessible for other foreigners, we could have a really neat experience together. I hope you’ll support me.

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  • Aaron

    Are you looking for trips entirely within Imabari? Because that might be kind of tricky. Imabari's biggest draw for me is the Shimanami Sea Route, which necessarily takes you out of Imabari if you want to do it properly.

    I have the following trip planned for July:
    Day 1: Shinkansen to Onomichi, stay the night
    Day 2: Bike across the Shimanami to central Imabari
    Day 3: Climb Mt. Ishizuchi, stay the night at the top
    Day 4: Climb back down, take the train to Matsuyama, fly home

    I think something like this (perhaps with a less tight schedule) could be a big draw for outdoors/sports-oriented tourists, but of course it's not contained within the city or even the prefecture. But frankly I think Imabari-only tours are going to be extremely limited in appeal—foreigners especially tend to have little sense of geography, not enough regional knowledge to appreciate minor local differences, and are probably not going to be happy to be limited to just one area.

    So, would you be able to, say, do a joint project with Saijō and/or Onomichi?

  • Thomas McBay

    I can think of a lot of things that attract people to certain destinations. Brand being one of the most important. When Japanese people go to the U.S.A. and say the went to New York and bring back a souvenir from New York all of their friends have a clear understanding of where they have been and in turn want to go there too. If a Japanese tourist goes to Decorah Iowa and brings back goodies from their historic Norwegian museum its doubtful that anyone would be very impressed with this discovery of this very beautiful little historic Norwegian town in NorthEast Iowa. Imabari needs to clearly define the brand that they are promoting to the outside world and then market the hell out of it. For New York it's probably Broadway and skyscrapers predominantly.

    For some foreigners such as myself just having a really nice hotel onsen with high speed internet access that I can chill out at for a few days at a reasonable price is enough to attract me. It would be better for local hotel operators to have a slightly higher room charge and just charge for the room than rather by the person when dealing with most foreigners. Separate the room charge from any dining accommodations as well. There are a lot of Vegans and other foreigners on quite restrictive diets these days that do not want to be charged for things that they cannot or will not eat.

    Having an English catch phrase and a little cooler logo for imbari would be useful as well. Chicago is the windy city, New york is the Big Apple, imbari is ………………………………..?

    Well, I could go on an on but the most important of anything for imbari in attracting foreign visitors is to hire you or someone to get their official web-site in English at first with more pictures and maps. I saw that they have “living guides” in several languages but I doubt these would be that attractive or useful for tourists. And later a few other languages with many foreign tourists as well. These improved and updated web-sites should then be marketed extensively throughout the world wide web.

    All that being said it looks like an interesting area that I may well someday visit. Especially if there is lots and lots of info in English. Sometimes less is more but in this case more is definitely better

  • Thomas McBay

    p.s. to previous post. I did notice that in the imbari official homepage that they had scanned various foreign language sightseeing guides and posted them in their home-page. It's better than nothing but they take way to long to load. And once they are loaded it's so small that nothing can be really read let alone viewed. If I hadn't been specifically looking I don't believe any foreigner would do more when coming across this home-page other than just clicking on down the road to another Japanese destination. It actually does look like a really nice place to visit, though.

    Good luck I wish imbari the best success and I'm looking forward to a future visit.

  • Deas

    Aaron – that sounds like a great trip! And you're right, I can see it appealing to other folks who like outdoorsy stuff. Unfortunately, the tourism board has asked that we stay within the city limits. They're willing to let us go out to the Sekizen area and the islands where I live, but no further along the Shimanami Kaido. (I actually got the impression that the islands are doing better than the mainland city thanks to the Shimanami Kaido.) The challenge is to find something in the city that could be broadly appealing. And while they do support regional tourism, I don't think they want us to use nearby sights as crutches…ha ha. I'm pretty much in full agreement with you, though. I guess that's why they started this project, huh?

  • Deas

    Wow – I lucked out and got two great commenters right off the bat! Thanks for having your say, Thomas. I think a lot like you about this problem. In fact, at the first meeting between the volunteer monitors, the international association, and the tourism board, all of the foreigners were explaining that Imabari has no brand (that appeals to a foreign person, anyway), and is really inaccessible. One huge step they could take to opening up tourism would be to improve the availability of English information.

    The way you're talking about an onsen set-up is intriguing. I am wondering if (because of the nature of the city, and its sprawl) offering a sort of set menu of onsen possibilities would be doable. I'll pitch it. We've got some great onsens here, after all. :-)

  • Deas

    Very true on this part, as well. We'll see if they're actually willing to revamp things, though. I think they should create a separate site for their campaign to get foreign tourists. Again, thanks for the feedback.

    (I should make it known, though, that I'm hoping the community will help me choose which trip to take and where to go on it – not just give me great overall advice to pass along. There will be more polls, probably, to gauge interest.)

  • Aaron

    Thomas, I think you've hit on an important issue here. For foreigners, if you have no web presence then you might as well not exist. And a crappy web presence is just as bad (or maybe worse) than no web presence at all.

    I think a professional(-looking) website with lots of easily-accessible information *in English* is a must. Tie it in to social media as well.

  • Hiro

    Wow. I had NO idea something like this existed… Haha.
    I guess because Kyoto isn't that needy in increased tourism…

  • Deas

    Do you mean you had no idea that special projects to boost foreign tourism
    existed? I'm a little confused. But you're right – Kyoto needs no help in
    appealing to foreigners. Imabari, though… Do you live in Kyoto?

  • Hiro

    On online personal blogs like these, or festivals like what you are talking about.

    And no- I don't live in Kyoto. I'm from Kyoto. :)

  • Deas

    なるほど。Welcome to my blog, by the way. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  • Hiro

    どうも。 ^^

  • Jonadab

    I suspect the city's greatest asset, for the purpose of attracting foreign tourists, is probably its location on the Seto Inland Sea. You should attempt to make something out of this. If you make your trip a boat trip, you could explore some possibilities there. Are you into sport fishing at all? ISTR something about scuba diving…

    Looking at things from a marketing perspective, Imabari is strategically located on a peninsula between the central part of the sea (to the east) and the end that's open to the ocean (to the west). And of course you have the islands. Tourists love waterfront property, especially islands, so you ought to be able to do something with that as well. Tourists love islands, if you pitch them right.

    Does Imabari have any interesting structures that could be featured on souvenir postcards? A lighthouse? A cool-looking bridge? A harbor with lighted fishing boats at night?

    For inspiration, look at what Hilton Head does.

  • Deas

    The first image is of the Kurushima Straits Bridge. That's the big bridge
    that marks the start (or end) of the Shimanami Kaido, a highway and cycling
    road that hops from island to island all the way from Imabari (Ehime
    Prefecture) to Onomichi (Hiroshima Prefecture). Unfortunately, as Aaron
    pointed out, it necessarily takes you out of Imabari if you want to do it
    right. So…yeah. The other landmark is the International Hotel (Kokusai
    Hotel), which is honestly kind of a joke. Diving is popular in the
    neighboring prefecture Kochi, so that's not really an Imabari City draw. And
    at the meeting I was met with astonished resistance because I spoke so
    favorably of the islands. (Perhaps it's important to note that they only
    recently became part of Imabari via annexation, and there's some confusion
    over what is and what isn't Imabari culture, etc.) They were psyched that I
    knew so much about where I lived, but urged us not to forget the mainland
    portion of the city, too. Ha ha.

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  • Chris (

    I'd pay good money to be a pirate for a day :-)

    Seriously, though, next time I am down your way I will make an effort to take a look at Imabari. I love out-of-the-way Japan, I don't think I've ever failed to have a good time off the beaten track. So please count your marketing as successful for this traveler, at least!

  • David

    Best. Poll. Ever.

  • Deas

    Why thank you, sir. :-P

  • Deas

    I'd pay a little bit of money to encourage you to be a pirate for the day…ha ha ha. I hope you make it to Imabari sometime. If you do, give me a shout, and I'll do my best to meet up with you and buy you a beer (or other beverage of your choice).

  • Jonadab

    I see. Well, I suppose that leaves the sport fishing angle, but if the city doesn't have an existing charter-fishing-boat industry, building one up from scratch would be a significant undertaking.

  • Deas

    Yup. Oh – a semi-related thing I thought was cool though: you can take a
    ride with a local fisherman (and I don't mean a fake one who is actually a
    tour guide, I mean a real, gritty local fisherman), catch your lunch, and
    cook it right on the boat. That kinda sounded fun to me. Get some nice sea
    bream and rice. Cold beer since I'm not the driver of the boat. Could be a
    sweet outing!

  • Liam

    Hey Deas,

    There's a few things I would suggest about Imabari to improve in the tourism field.

    First of all, at least when I was there, there were some good music nights on in the town. In typical 'small town, nothing going on' fashion, when something does go on, there tends to be a rather good turnout for it. Fiesta was the big one when I was there, and I hear from my friend Takeuchi he's started organising another night as of late called 'Love is Like a Heat Wave' over at Jam Sounds… In fact, if you want I can try to put you in contact with him (if you don't know him already), he's a great guy, really into his music, and seems to be able to mobilise half of the young people in Imabari for a music event. I think there's potential there outside of the sporty or relaxing suggestions made above in this kind of area (Odagahama beach concerts anyone?).

    There's loads of hidden/unknown gems in Imabari too that you just wouldn't know without a guide/knowing someone there. There was a great onsen on the outskirts of town surrounded by bamboo thickets that I would never have known existed without a local showing me… Simply having a tour guide armed with extensive knowledge of all these hidden gems would do Imabari a lot of favours I think.

    I did an Udon and camping tour once in Kagawa, dropping in in about 5 Udon restaurants, with an onsen in between them and finishing at a campsite… Perhaps a similar Yakitori trip could be arranged? Stopping in all the famous Yakitori restaurants in the area?

    Anyway, just a few ideas thrown into the mix there :)

  • Liam Conroy

    Kiyomasa no yu… That was the name of the onsen in the above post

  • Liam Conroy

    Kiyomasa no yu… That was the name of the onsen in the above post