TOKYO - FOREIGN tourists are no longer just visiting well-known tourist spots in Japan such as Kyoto, hot-spring baths and Mount Fuji.
These days, they are also checking out new offbeat ways to experience Japan such as ninja classes, geeky pop culture in Tokyo's Akihabara gadget district and animation museums displaying manga.
And they are coming in record numbers - many of them from elsewhere in Asia.
Last year, an all-time high 8.34 million foreign tourists came to visit Japan, up 14 per cent from the previous year.
Japan - traditionally considered an expensive destination - has become cheaper for many visitors because of the recent surges in the euro, Australian dollar and other Asian currencies against the yen, said Mr Junsuke Imai, a government bureaucrat in charge of promoting the 25 trillion yen (S$327 billion) a year tourism industry.
The government has set a goal of raising that to 30 trillion yen by 2010, Mr Imai said.
Even Americans, whose dollar has weakened against the yen, are visiting Japan at about the same numbers at 815,900 people last year, unchanged from the previous year.
Visitors from France rose 17 per cent to a record 137,700 last year.
Tourists at a 15,000 yen ninja class said that they had seen ninjas in samurai movies, manga and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons and movies and wanted to try it out.
'It didn't seem quite like the normal touristy showy sort of thing,' a thrilled Michael Studte from Perth said yesterday, a little breathless after pushing down a mock opponent during a ninja class for foreign tourists.
The 40-year-old IT engineer had wrapped his head in cloth and was wearing black head-to-toe. He also got to throw darts, turn somersaults and twirl lassos.
The travel agency that set up the 21/2 hour ninja class, H.I.S. Experience Japan Co, also offers make-your-own-sushi workshops, 'taiko' drumming classes, a visit with sumo wrestlers and sake-tasting.
Ninja master Masayuki Waki, 49, who was teaching newcomers the art of fleeing grabs and choke-holds, said that foreigners were more interested in spirituality and other things Japanese than most Japanese are.
'They are so dedicated,' he said. 'People abroad are far more drawn to the sensibilities of survival than are Japanese, who tend to take comforts for granted.'
Mr Jason Chan, 28, an IT business analyst from London, who has also visited Spain, Germany and Hong Kong, said he had fun playing ninja.
'I watched the movies, and ninjas are always the ones that get away,' he said.
'Generally it's a misconception that travelling in Japan is really expensive. I actually find it pretty reasonable compared to everywhere else.'
Eager to accommodate the droves of foreign tourists, Tokyo department stores now also employ clerks who speak Korean, put up signs in English and French, and accept Chinese-style debit cards, which were previously rejected.
Visitors from neighbouring Asian nations are also happy to travel to Japan to buy European designer items rather than go all the way to Europe, said Mr Tatsuya Momose, spokesman for the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo.
'We are so grateful for this,' he said of the flood of Asian shoppers.
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