A surprising holiday destination: why Izakayas are popular with Chinese tourists
3, 26. 2015
Japanese Izakayas are currently proving popular with Chinese tourists.
Chinese tourists enjoying themselves in Izakayas. (the photograph is of Isomaru Suisan)
Izakayas are Japanese-style drinking establishments where you can stop by casually after work, and eat and drink for reasonable prices. From small, privately owned establishments to big corporate chains, you're almost sure to find a few near any station, and on busy streets. They are nothing special for locals, but for some reason, tourists are now flocking to them.
Low alcohol consumption, but huge popularity of shellfish hamayaki
In recent months, the weak yen has made Japan a more affordable destination for foreign visitors. The combination of this circumstance and the recently boosted range of tax-exempt goods, the relaxation of visa requirements, and the increasing number of airlines and large cruise ships calling at Japan, has meant that international visitors to Japan in February 2015 exceeded 1 million yet again.
There has been a particular increase in the number of Chinese visitors, owing in part to the Chinese New Year. There were 359,100 Chinese tourists to Japan, 2.6 times as many as the same month the previous year. This means that roughly one in four international visitors to Japan was Chinese.
Tour buses carrying Chinese tourists on shopping holidays - a phenomenon known as bakugai, 'explosive shopping' - could be seen at department stores, electronics stores and duty-free stores in areas such as Tokyo, Ginza and Akihabara. There were many Chinese tourists on JR and Tokyu Metro trains too.
Apparently, there are also many Chinese tourists at Izakayas.
Isomaru Suisan, an izakaya chain owned by SFP Dining, is a particular hit with the Chinese. They own over 90 branches, mainly based in Tokyo but scattered around the capital region and Kansai, which are open 24 hours. The stores are decorated in bright red and orange, reminiscent of the banners hoisted by fishermen after a large haul, and traditional lanterns and lamps, similar to those on squid-fishing boats, are hung on the walls.
Their hit menu is the Isomaru-yaki, where customers are served fresh seafood such as prawns, scallops and squid, and grill it themselves on the stoves provided. Isomaru Suisan's selling points are such hamayaki-style menus (hamayaki is freshly caught seafood, broiled and served by fishermen on the beach), and the energetic customer service.
The company has commented on the increase of Chinese customers: "We've had an almost 50% increase from last year. Lower tensions in Japan-China relations have led to a larger number of Chinese tourists, on top of the increase in international visitors in general."
Many visitors order the hamayaki, in particular shellfish. Most customers order a large quantity in one go, eat, then leave without spending too much time. Alcohol consumption is said to be fairly low.