Different, distinctive, unique: a few of the words you hear in conversations about Japan. The culture, food and hospitality may all be described this way. Whether it’s a banquet in a feudal fortress, a workshop on taiko drumming or a team-building session re-enacting a historic Japanese dance festival, unique can also be applied to the way Japan holds business meetings and events.

From Hokkaido in the far north to the sunny southern Okinawan islands, Japan’s meetings and events industry has all the top-tier facilities and infrastructure you might expect given Japan’s cutting-edge reputation. However, what might surprise organisers is how varied the options are when it comes to cities capable of delivering special venues and activities.

What makes meetings and events in Japan unique? - Okinawan

Experience snorkelling in the turquoise waters of Okinawa

For starters, there’s Sapporo, a compact city surrounded by nature which boasts a strong track record of hosting major events, including the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It’s also within easy reach of Niseko, one of Japan’s top winter resorts.

Kanazawa – sometimes referred to as a little Kyoto – has a mix of traditional venues such as Kenroku-en Garden and sleek event spaces such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The city of Takamatsu in Shikoku affords easy access to the art islands of the Seto Inland Sea – there’s nowhere else in the world like them.

Geraint Holt, managing director of Japan-based destination management company the J Team, says these cities are just the tip of the iceberg.

“There is a huge keenness to expand [business events] outside of Kyoto and Tokyo, and more and more venues are becoming available,” Holt says. “Hiroshima, for example, last year put up seven new venues, and one that definitely works is Orizuru Tower, which has an open-air wood-decked rooftop [overlooking Hiroshima’s landmark H-Bomb Dome]. We’ve done a couple of events there with European clients.”

What makes meetings and events in Japan unique? - Hiroshima

Enjoy wonderful views of Hiroshima from a cruise along the Hiroshima River

The J Team also organised an event in Nagasaki in March as part of a charter cruise for well-travelled clients, who with limited time wanted something to both excite and reflect local culture.

“We used Glover Garden, the former home of Thomas Blake Glover, a Scot who helped found the shipbuilding company that later became Mitsubishi,” Holt says. “It’s somewhere almost everyone who goes to Nagasaki visits, but we used it differently. We chartered two of the buildings at Glover Garden, had the participants making kaleidoscopes with Nagasaki glass in one, and created the option for them to stop for Nagasaki castella cake and coffee in the other as they toured the garden. At venues around Japan, you can take a regular tour and quite simply make it into an experience for the client that is something normal visitors couldn’t do.”

For Yuji Andreas Wendler, managing director of Cologne-based teamtravel international, authentic is a key word when discussing Japan. His company has run bespoke incentive tours and events in Japan that have ranged from meet-and-greet programs with German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski, now playing in Japan for Vissel Kobe, to an interactive scavenger hunt in Tokyo that won an award for Best Creative Planning at the JAPAN Best Incentive Travel Awards, sponsored by Japan Convention Bureau.

“Providing guests with authentic experiences is very important,” Wendler says. “For example, lunches in standing bars which are hardly visited by foreigners and where the meals are prepared on the spot can create memorable and unique moments.”

Looking at other examples that tick the only-in-Japan box, the JNTO’s website gives ideas for team-building activities centred on uniquely Japanese experiences. You could head to Tokushima and learn routines for the Awa-Odori, a dance festival that traces its roots back about 400 years, and then actually perform them during the event. You could go caving in the Gangala Valley in sub-tropical Okinawa or cook up steaming hotpots in the chilly autumn air of northern Japan at the Imoni festival.

What makes meetings and events in Japan unique? - Awa-Odori

Dancers performing the Awa-Odori

For Wendler, however, it isn’t only these unique experiences and locations that make Japan standout as a host for meetings and events, it’s also the top-level standards one finds across Japan in terms of safety, friendliness, cleanliness, punctuality, respect and hospitality. There’s a word for the latter: omotenashi.

“Omotenashi represents the spirit of Japanese hospitality which strives to offer the best service without an expectation of a reward,” he says. “You will be able to experience that customer needs have been anticipated and solutions offered – often before the customer even realises the need.”

One example Wendler cites is how taxi doors open and close automatically without the customer having to touch the door handle, or even think about it. To that you could add how the oshibori wet towels offered to guests at restaurants aren’t just immaculately white, they often come chilled on hot days and warmed in winter. The list goes on, with all the little things adding up to great, intuitive service.

It might surprise some, but these days customer needs aren’t lost in translation either. Not only do meetings and events run smoothly in multiple languages in Japan, but even beyond Tokyo good English is increasingly common at hotels, stations, in restaurants, and in business.

Holt adds efficiency to the long list of things at which Japan excels. He calls Japan “unmatched” anywhere else in the world for how things run – most famously the rarely late trains that make getting around the country a relatively stress-free affair – but also meetings and events.

“What’s really special about Japan is that things work,” he says. “They function exactly as they’re supposed to, something much more difficult than it sounds, which allows DMCs and meeting planners to optimise time-use to the minute with confidence. It’s something that’s very difficult to appreciate until you’ve experienced it.”

And until you’ve experienced meetings and events in Japan yourself, you won’t know just how different, distinctive and unique they can be.


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