In new habit, Japan's Buddhist temples seek slice of foreign tourism boom

Wed Dec 30, 2015 1:17am EST
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By Junko Fujita

EIHEIJI, Japan (Reuters) - Deep in a forest near Japan's western shore, a 13th century Buddhist temple where Steve Jobs once dreamed of becoming a Zen monk has teamed up with a Tokyo skyscraper builder to seek the commercial enlightenment of foreign tourist dollars.

As a weak yen fuels record tourism, Eiheiji temple, local authorities and Mori Building Co [MRBLD.UL], behind some of Tokyo's glitziest retail palaces, plan to redevelop the site including an $11 million hotel nearby. From there, a new path will be built leading visitors to the spartan site that intrigued the Apple Inc guru.

Japan's temples have long been business and tech-savvy, offering lucrative services like funerals while courting domestic tourists - a recent Eiheiji exhibition featured video from a drone operated by a monk. But compared to other parts of the world, religious sites outside centres like Kyoto have been slow to target mass foreign tourism.

What's changed is a shrinking population using temples less, crimping revenue just as annual overseas tourist numbers surge toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of 20 million well ahead of a target date of 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. Japan's farther-flung regions, long suffering a rural exodus, now want a piece of an influx led by visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan that is bolstering big-city economies.

"Eiheiji is a monastery that has been isolated from the rest of the world," said the Rev Shodo Kobayashi, a deputy administrator at the temple. "But we cannot be divorced from our community forever. We need to respond to the needs of local governments to increase tourists."

Eiheiji needs money to support monks in the kind of intensive Zen retreat training that once appealed to Steve Jobs. But visitor numbers have skidded to less than half a million a year, nearly two-thirds below a late-1980s peak when groups tours organized by Japanese companies and neighborhood associations were at the height of their popularity.

For the temple and local authorities, a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with neighboring Kanazawa offers a lifeline. The picturesque castle town just over 50 miles away is seeing a surge in foreign tourists whisked from Tokyo in just over 2 and a half hours. The temple aims to spend 1.3 billion yen to build a two-storey hotel offering modern comforts - including alcohol - to 80 guests in the adjacent Eiheiji town, while the surrounding Fukui prefecture's authorities will redevelop the path leading to the temple in a project to be completed by 2020.

"With a place to stay the night, tourists will spend more time and money," said Shouji Kawakami, an Eiheiji town official. Local officials hope to double the number of visitors to the temple by 2025.   Continued...

Sanmon gate (R), or the main gate, and Shorodo, which contains a large bronze bell, are pictured at the Eiheiji temple in Eiheiji town, Fukui prefecture, October 14, 2015. REUTERS/Junko Fujita