Foreign tourists find cherry blossom viewing spots far from central Tokyo

One of Japan's busiest tourist seasons is underway, with cherry blossoms in full bloom in large parts of the country. Visitors from around the world have long flocked to Japan at this time of year. But recent data shows an unexpected development. Places that aren't well known among Japanese residents are becoming increasingly popular with foreign tourists.

NHK used data from the tourism app "Japan Travel by NAVITIME" to analyze the number of visitors at 48 viewing spots in Tokyo during last year's cherry blossom season. The numbers rose most sharply in Kita Ward. Otonashi-Shinsui Park saw a 2.6-fold increase from the year prior, followed by Asukayama Park with a 2.1-times increase.

This map shows the rate at which foreign tourists have increased at various cherry blossom viewing spots in Tokyo.

Kita Ward is in northern Tokyo, far from the busy central areas. It has a down-to-earth feel, with small and medium-sized factories dotting residential districts. There were no major tourist draws, until recently.

Though Asukayama Park has been known among local residents since the 18th century as a prime cherry blossom viewing spot, its name isn't recognized around the country. But when we went recently, we saw lots of overseas visitors.

"I came here because I wanted to view the cherry blossoms away from the crowds," said a woman from Germany.

Asukayama Park has been open to the public since the 18th century and has been popular among local residents for cherry blossom viewing.

One reason behind the sudden surge in popularity is the emergence of guest houses targeting foreign visitors. The number of lodgings in Kita Ward has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Tokyo Guest House Oji Music Lounge is a five minute walk from the park. It was originally a love hotel but it underwent a renovation and opened its doors as a guest house for foreign visitors in August 2017.

It has about 20 rooms, some of which are dorm-style equipped with bunk beds. It has communal bathrooms and showers, and a lounge on the first floor that can host music events. Accommodation starts at 2000 yen per night, far cheaper than what can be found in central Tokyo. The manager say the occupancy rate at this time of year is 97 percent, which makes it nearly impossible to make reservations.

Tokyo Guest House Oji Music Lounge is popular with foreign tourists.

Kazuya Nemoto, editor of the website Hounichi Lab, follows foreign tourist trends. He says over the past few years, Tokyo has seen a sharp rise in guest houses converted from hotels and commercial facilities. He says demand has increased as hotel prices in central Tokyo and other areas have skyrocketed. He adds that Kita is a popular location as it offers easy access to famous attractions.

Kita started a tourism association two years ago to handle the rise in visitors. Its motto is "introducing the town with no pretense". The group has produced brochures, with information on parks and shopping areas popular among local residents. Yusuke Tsubouchi, who works at the association, says Kita is a town for residents and that the local lifestyle itself is an attraction.

Near the park are a number of Izakaya pubs crowded with local residents. A man who runs one of them says until recently most of his customers had been from the area. But now he says he welcomes an increasing number of foreign visitors.

Local residents frequent Izakaya pubs near Asukayama Park.

The woman from Germany who we met earlier at Asukayama Park was enjoying sake and a meal. She told us she had visited all of the popular sights in central Tokyo and had come to the pub to get a "first-hand experience of everyday life in Japan." She said this was her first time trying sake and that she felt she was getting in touch with Japanese culture.

Kita is attracting foreign tourists who not only want a peaceful place to view the cherry blossoms but also a glimpse of ordinary Japanese life and culture. For these visitors, normal Japanese people living normal lives might be the most sought after sight.