JQ Magazine: JNTO “Meet Japan 2011” Familiarization Trip

By Gil Cardon (Hiroshima-ken, 2001-04), for JQ magazine. Gil is the convention manager at theJapan National Tourism Organization in New York. He is the primary contact for promoting Japan MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, and Exhibitions) within North America.

Every year at about the same time, the Japan National Tourism Organization hosts the “Meet Japan” familiarization trip. This year, ten guests from six different countries (U.K., France, Italy, Greece, Israel, and the U.S.) participated in the trip.

The guests are representatives of international organizations and professional associations that are planning to hold a conference in Japan in the near future. Through the course of the Meet Japan trip, the representatives visit convention centers and hotels in various cities throughout Japan, as part of a study tour to learn about the many amenities that the venues have to offer. Participants also have the chance to visit “unique venues” for holding their conferences, such as traditional Japanese ryokans, historic castles, museums, and Noh theaters.

As a representative of the Japan Convention Bureau from the New York office, I had the fortunate opportunity to join the Chiba-Nagoya tour of the 2011 Meet Japan trip, from February 25–March 1, 2011. I had never been to Nagoya before, so I was looking forward to checking it out. I had been to Chiba once before, but I was sure that I would learn something new on this trip.

CHIBA

Being that Tokyo Disney and Tokyo Disney Sea are located in Chiba, the atmosphere of the city seems to revolve around these theme parks. When we first arrived at the Theatre Tokyo guided by representatives of the Chiba Convention Bureau and International Center, we received a very big welcome, like we were rock stars. As we entered the theatre, which hosts the Cirque du Soleil show Zed, there were representatives from various hotels and convention bureaus clapping and cheering as we walked down the corridor. This was a great start to the tour–everyone was impressed by the Japanese hospitality. After we entered the theater, the representatives from the convention bureaus and hotels gave presentations over the hotels, event venues, and conference sites we would visit. For this segment, a lot of information was delivered at one time, and we took in an overview of what types of facilities and attractions the cities had to offer for hosting international meetings. One presentation was given by a girl who wore a traditional Japanese kimono, instead of a business suit. Later when we actually visited her at the Tokyo Bay Maihama Hotel Club Resort, she was still wearing the kimono as she gave us a tour. This made for a very memorable experience, especially when she helped with the Tea Ceremony presentation during our visit.

Also, when we visited the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel, we were greeted with live music by a band from Indonesia. I’m not sure what kind of music it was, but everyone liked it.  Especially when they served us drinks while we listened to the performance. Another warm welcome!

After finishing our drinks and checking in at the Sheraton, we went on to visit some hotels around the Tokyo Disney Resort area. Generally, the overall impression of the Disney-themed hotels such as theDisney Ambassador Hotel, and some select rooms at the Hilton Tokyo Bay was that they were very family-oriented. There were paintings on the walls and ceilings with scenery and various animation characters. Some of the rooms had interactive paraphernalia, with magic mirrors on the wall, and giant keys in the room that revealed more surprises.

Moving on from the Disneyland resort area, we hopped on a helicopter for a private tour of Tokyo city, courtesy of Excel Air Service. It was totally awesome. Now I understand why this is Donald Trump’s preferred method of getting around New York City. We got a bird’s-eye view of the entire city, including Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Dome–home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball franchise.

We touched down safely, and went on to visit the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. This was another great historical and cultural experience. It was a very large temple, with a lot of stairs, and a lot of area to cover on foot. I think I should have trained by running a few marathons before I attempted walking around Naritasan, but somehow I made it through to the end of the tour. Also, we were able to witness an ancient Buddhist rite where the priests conducted a ceremony with fire. Several times a day, wooden amulets are ceremonially burned in “Goma” rituals. The Goma rite is a mysterious temple service with prayers to Fudomyoo, the main deity of Naritasan Temple, for the fulfillment of wishes. A chief priest burns Goma sticks (which symbolize our earthly passions) with fire (which is a symbol of the wisdom of Fudomyoo). It is believed that this brings us to a higher state of mind, and also wins the virtues and favors of Fudomyoo. Also, guests in attendance are allowed to walk up to the altar to capture some of the smoke from the ceremonial fire by waving their personal items (bags, wallets, clothes, etc.) around the smoke.

For some history and culture mixed with food, we were able to eat lunch at “Kikuya,” a popular restaurant located up just up the mountain from Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. This was a big treat for everyone to eat the world-famous eel and tempura dishes. Everyone was impressed when the owner, the daughter of the many generations of family members who owned the restaurant, gave a speech in English at the end of the lunch. These types of personal touches are very much appreciated by everyone.

NAGOYA

We were greeted by representatives of the Nagoya Convention & Visitors Bureau at the train station, and we went on together to the ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Grand Court Nagoya. We had a great view of Nagoya City from the top of the hotel during lunch, and we were served traditional Nagoya beef and kisshi-men noodles with a miso gravy. It was a dish that was sort of similar to a beef stroganoff, but with a lot more flavor. Highly recommended next time you visit Nagoya!

After lunch, we took a bus to the Nagoya Congress Center, which was very interesting, especially with the giant Leonardo da Vinci-inspired Sforza Monument statue in the courtyard area. The reconstruction of the “phantom statue” is the only one of its kind in the world, brought into existence at last by Japanese research and technology. I think everyone was impressed by the modern design and architecture, both outside and inside the Nagoya Congress Center.

We went on to visit the Nagoya Noh Theatre, which is definitely a unique venue. It could be used for either holding meetings or even hosting small receptions. If an organization does consider holding an event at a Noh Theater, they would just have to keep in mind the ongoing efforts to maintain the pristine condition of the wood on the stage. The delegates would not be able to wear their shoes on the stage, or they would have to wear the special white Japanese socks to avoid damaging the floors.

YOKOHAMA

The Pan Pacific Yokohama Bay Hotel Tokyu, where all the participants stayed for the Yokohama extension tour, was great. There was a lot to offer in the immediate area, including the Pacifico Yokohama convention complex, which made it an attractive destination to host any conference.

Dinner at the Sankei-en Garden was another unique cultural experience. There were tables of food filled with just about every type of traditional Japanese cuisine you could ask for, plus live music performed by professional Koto players. I do believe that the major surprise highlight of the evening was the Paper-Cutting Artist. The participants were lining up to have paper art created of their favorite characters, silhouettes of their faces, or even gifts made for their families back home.

Finally, to wrap it all up, there was a big Farewell Dinner at the end of the Meet Japan familiarization tour. The farewell dinner was held at the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse. It was a nice touch to hold it at this venue, and a good ending to the program. It was a good blend of Japanese culture (with a performance from taiko drumming group “KOSUI”) and Western culture (with the atmosphere of the warehouse-turned-restaurant dining hall). I think the highlight for everyone was the opportunity for some of the Meet Japan participants to play taiko drums with “KOSUI” at the end of the dinner.

TOKYO

It had been many years since I visited Tokyo, so it was cool to be back to see what was new. After the Meet Japan familiarization trip, I went on an individual extension tour through Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, from March 2–March 5, 2011. As we all may know, vending machines run rampant throughout the country in Japan, because they provide quick and efficient access to refreshments. I was very happy to finally come across the new touchscreen vending machines that I had heard of recently. It is yet another great innovation by Japanese technology–it was like interacting with a giant iTouch or iPad to order a bottle of water. I heard that some new vending machines have sensors that read a customer’s face, and make recommendations based on their age, or according to being a man or woman. Other machines may refuse vending cigarettes to customers who are not yet of legal age. This is only stuff that I heard, so if anybody can confirm these points, please let us know!

For my visit through Tokyo, a representative from the Tokyo Convention & Visitor’s Bureau escorted me on a tour of the Tokyo International Forum, the Imperial Hotel, and the Shangri-La Hotel. The Tokyo International Forum was really cool, because it allowed passersby who were shopping to look through the windows and see live conventions as they were happening. This openness and transparency is a great marketing tool for conventions.  The Imperial Hotel was interesting because of its long history, and also for its location near to the park. The Imperial Hotel is also home to the very first “Viking Buffet” restaurant in Japan.  The Shangri-La hotel had some great restaurants, and amazing views of the city.

KYOTO

After Tokyo, I climbed aboard the bullet train, and headed west for Kyoto. Upon arrival, I checked in almost immediately at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto. The location, directly adjacent to the bullet train station, was a key element for convenience. Overall, the sleeping rooms, the facilities, the service, and the meeting rooms were top rate.

For my half-day tour through Kyoto, I was guided by representatives from the Kyoto Convention Bureau. We visited the Kodaiji Temple, The Garden Oriental Kyoto, WAK Japan, Toei Uzumasa Movie Studios, Ninnaji Temple, the Grand Prince Hotel, and the International Convention Center (ICC) in Kyoto.

The Garden Oriental Kyoto was a good setting for smaller groups who would like to engage in traditional Japanese culture by participating in a tea ceremony. WAK Japan is a great organization, which offers useful resources for connecting visitors to Japan with many types of activities, including martial arts and Japanese crafts.

The Toei Uzumasa Movie Studios reminded me of Universal Studios in the United States. Even though this venue can be very appealing for children, it may also be interesting to adults. Especially when during a tour of the studios, a ninja would pop out from nowhere and take a visitor hostage. They would be returned to the group later, of course, but it was a cool interactive activity for an event, I thought. Those kinds of group participation activities are exciting for visitors.

For me, personally, the visit to Toei studios was very significant. At one point during the tour we visited a museum that was filled with many Toei animation characters. The one that caught my attention, however, was the giant robot statue that looked like a replica of Voltron. The Voltron animation series was brought to the United States by Toei Animation, and a U.S company named World Events Productions. I was reminded that my first introduction to Japanese animation (and culture) began when I was nine years old—watching the Voltron cartoon. And now, I just found out that it’s coming back to U.S. television in June 2011, so check it out!

Afterwards, we went on to visit Ninnaji Temple, which was a very historical and unique venue.  I think it’s great that they would allow conference delegates or reception attendees to walk through the rock garden during their visit. The Kyoto International Conference Center (ICC) was huge—almost a small city by itself. It had a lot to offer, including a large auditorium, and a large space for exhibitions and trade shows. The Kyoto ICC also offers sleeping rooms for delegates, at a considerably lower rate than nearby hotels.

OSAKA

For my visit to Osaka, I was escorted by a representative from the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau.  I went on tours through the Osaka International Convention Center, the Rihga Royal Hotel Osaka, the Hilton Hotel, and the ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka.

The Osaka International Convention Center was a very modern complex. The conference rooms were well-designed, and they were very flexible for accommodating meetings of different sizes. The Rihga Royal Hotel has been conducting some renovations, and they had a lot to offer including sleeping rooms with mini tatami areas. The Rihga Royal Hotel also had a small waterfall in an outdoor garden, with the water flowing in a stream through a lounge area inside the hotel. The Hilton Osaka had also been doing some renovations, and many rooms offered large flatscreen TVs embedded in the walls, which could be pulled out for viewing from any angle in the room. The ANA Crowne Plaza had a lot of history, and it also had some great views of Osaka City. We visited large suites in the ANA Crowne Plaza where many famous musicians and celebrities had stayed. For my last night in Japan I was hosted by the Swissôtel Nankai Osaka, which had modern rooms, great dining, and impressive views of the city.

COME TO JAPAN!

My thoughts and prayers go out to all of our friends, family, and colleagues who were affected by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeastern area of Japan on March 11, 2011. I returned to the U.S. from this visit to Japan on March 5, just less than a week before the natural disaster hit. It has been a challenging time of recovery since then, but the Japanese people are resilient, and have resolved to come back even stronger than before. To visit Japan now is even more significant, as it can be a way for the global community to offer both financial and moral support to the people of Japan. Outside of the affected area near the Fukushima nuclear power plant (which is a 50-mile radius around the plant at the time of this writing), the nation continues to go about its business as usual. The people of Japan are waiting to welcome visitors from around the world to experience all of the culture, history, and warm hospitality that the nation has to offer. So pack your bags and catch the next flight to Japan!

Visit JNTO online at www.jnto.go.jp/eng.