Friday, May 26, 2017
Tourism & Culture | Asia-Pacific | Japan

Navigating Japan’s culinary landscape

The simplest way to navigate the most exquisite cuisine in Japan


3 months ago

Mr. Hisao Taki, Chairman of Gurunavi
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Mr. Hisao Taki

Chairman of Gurunavi

With over 200 restaurants holding at least 1 Michelin star, Tokyo, the culinary capital of the world, offers a broad variety of tastes to satisfy all foodies’ palates. Gurunavi offers the perfect guide, available in 4 languages, for tourists to research and enjoy the most exciting dishes all across Japan

From your point of view, what are the main challenges that the Japanese economy is facing up to 2020?

The decrease in the Japanese population and the ageing of it are probably the main challenges that we are facing right now. Reforming on healthcare insurance and “My Number” are critical to enhance the efficiency of the healthcare expenditure of this nation. To make sure that the healthcare system venture takes off in any serious manner in this country we need to make sure that the “My Number” system takes hold.

Regarding the manufacturing sector, we have a strength in our workers, as they strongly promote solidarity among them in every factory. That is one of the reasons why Japan succeeded in industrialization and achieved high economic growth. And then Japan created a real estate bubble.  After the aggressive investments into the real estate market in this country the bubble burst, and eventually we suffered those two lost decades in this country. The collapse of bubble caused a huge loss.  Many Japanese citizens are now rather pessimistic about their future.

Coming back to the successful industrialization, I would say that, at the back of it, this country`s agriculture, although with significant potentials, had to be sacrificed during the process of industrialization. In fact, we have been sacrificing the agriculture for 60 years, but it is time to change this. We should use this momentum towards 2020. We are now seeing signs of the Japanese agricultural sector revitalization. If we can combine the potential of the Japanese agriculture with the industries of our country, together with the tourism sector, the economic growth shall  be multiplied. It is true that there is a need for major regulatory overhaul to revitalize the Japanese agriculture but if we can do this earlier, the better.

Coming back to the healthcare sector, there is a main difference between Japan and the United States: here in Japan, once you fall ill, the National Health Insurance system will mostly cover your medical expenses. This system has actually begun to become a burden in the Japanese economy, which is absorbing an enormous cost  now. According to government´s data, the expense would increase in the coming years. We have to admit that this has weighed significantly on the Japanese economic condition so we need to bring efficiency into the system of health insurance. And there again, I believe in the importance of making sure My Number system takes place in the society. Once you have a unique identification number assigned to each and every one we can enhance the efficiency of the health insurance system of this country. Taiwan introduced something very similar to the My Numbers system. As a result, they were able to bring out a highly efficient national health insurance system.

So, in order for us to see the revitalization of the Japanese economy, agriculture, healthcare and tourism will definitely need to see progress in regulatory reforms. Having said that, in Gurunavi, we are closely linked with two of these sectors: agriculture, by helping producers  in Japan to develop attractive products and in tourism as well.

 

Tourism will be one of the drivers of the Japanese economy in the following years. Japan has seen an incredible growth of the tourism sector with total visitors last year  already breaking the 20 million barrier initially set to be achieved by 2020. The government targets ¥8 trillion in spending by overseas visitors by 2020 — more than double last year’s record ¥3.48 trillion. How is Gurunavi working to capitalize these numbers?

At Gurunavi, we are focused in the business of dining out and the food industry. Japanese people are delicate when it comes to their tastes. Our sense of taste has evolved during a long history. This is why Japan has a high-quality food culture. There are very good chefs in Japan and very good restaurants to satisfy foodies` taste. Dining out is one of the most frequent non-daily special activity.  Also, tourists are following this trend, making food and restaurants one of the main reasons to visit Japan.

As typical Japanese, I have to admit that we are a very shy nation. When we meet with foreigners we are usually shy and we do not feel entirely comfortable to speak. Well, Gurunavi is here to overcome this shyness of the Japanese people as we do not want our national shyness to be a drawback obstacle in promoting tourism. In order for us to overcome our shyness, we renewed Gurunavi multi-language version in January 2015 where you can search for restaurants in Japan using many languages. Restaurants can convert them to 4 languages (English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese and Korean) by just selecting menus and ingredients in Japanese to provide inbound tourists a detailed menu of the dishes that they will get at the different restaurants in Japan. We expect that this tool will make choosing restaurants in Japan easier for tourists.

We are using what we call the Gurunavi dictionary to translate the menu and the ingredients.  This key detailed information was demanded by inbound tourists. We have 9 million menus been built for twenty years. Inside this service using the multilingual translation system, we examined and consolidated into a simple menu easy to understand by inbound tourists, succeeded in incorporating 2800 menu genres, about 1000 ingredients, about 400 seasonings, 40 cooking methods into this multilingual conversion system which has resulted in tremendous success. This is one of the very good examples of our innovations.

We started a tourist information website called LIVE JAPAN in April, 2016. It is a one-stop service that transmits necessary information for tourist spots such as sightseeing spots, experience plans, dining, shopping, route search, etc. to realize a convenient and affluent stay for visitors to Japan. We are sending accurate information, detailed information, and real time information.

LIVE JAPAN is not just about Gurunavi. We have cooperated with other leading Japanese companies including railway and airline companies.

 

Gurunavi is not alone in the market. Tabelog, HotPepper and other global companies like Yelp or Lonely Planet are also active in the sector.  However, Gurunavi seems to be taking the lead of the restaurant search in Japan. What do you consider that makes Gurunavi services different from those of your competition?

It is true that we have competitors but we consider that Gurunavi is not simply a restaurant search tool. We created mechanism under the consideration of it is the media source to transmit the accurate, detailed latest information of the restaurants and bars. They want to sell what makes them unique. But they have no way to reach their potential customers by their own. There are about 500,000 of restaurants and bars in Japan and all of them are very small. They need to continually cultivate their new customers otherwise they will no longer be viable. Gurunavi is the only player that acts as the media outlet for restaurants and bars in this country. We are able to provide this service through using the maximum potential of ICT while minimizing the cost for them. By paying between 50,000 to 100,000 yen, these restaurants and bars can communicate what they are doing or what makes them different.  This creates the new lifestyle. Now people can decide which restaurant or bar to visit before they actually step in. While we are leading the new lifestyle, for the restaurants and bars, Gurunavi is their lifeline. We are the one and only media outlet for small bars and restaurants, and this cannot be emulated by anybody else in the market. That is the reason why renamed companies as TripAdvisor and Michelin have chosen Gurunavi as their partner in Japan. 

 

And now that you are mentioning your recent agreements with Michelin and TripAdvisor, what synergies and transfer of know-how do you expect that will appear between Gurunavi and your partners? How do you see yourselves as an example of the advantages of putting foreign and Japanese expertise and branding power together?

Let me tell you about partnership with TripAdvisor. With the increasing numbers of tourists  worldwide, TripAdvisor is becoming one of the main information tools. This company has the most unbiased system regarding travelling opinions. Of course, for visitors, food is one of the main reasons to travel and in Japan, as we mentioned before, this is a key aspect of our touristic offer. However, the barrier of the language makes inbound tourists to face a challenge when they have to choose the restaurants they want to try during their stay in Japan. We chose TripAdvisor as our partner in our efforts to close this communication gap and make easier for inbound tourist to choose the right restaurant.

The policy we are trying to achieve in our partnership with Michelin is a little bit different. Michelin is the authority in selecting high-quality restaurants worldwide. Taking into account that both Michelin and Gurunavi share several common values, we found out that what is valuable to us is also valuable to them. We are helping Michelin to make their service more user-friendly by utilizing ICT. Gurunavi launched `Club Michelin` which is the official website of the Michelin book and operates and provides services including concierge service and more. That is why Michelin has recently launched what they call Club Michelin, which is also composed of connoisseurs’ service. This is a natural and good match for both of us. It is uncommon in the world to work with other companies in the Michelin Guide.

 

With 40 million people coming to Japan by 2020, there are some initiatives to increase the presence of robots in the streets to fulfil these visitors´ information needs. How are you going to innovate for the next four years to make sure that you attract as many users as possible? And what value are you going to bring to these tourists to make them trust your app as a one-stop shop?

We want our contents to be more sophisticated. We are hoping that Japan will become more pervasive. Live Japan is the primary focus to attract tourists towards 2020.  We have launched also some boutiques in key touristic areas. For instance, we have opened tourism information services in Osaka Grand Front and Ueno station where we also offer experience-oriented programs for inbound tourists to experience sushi-making or going out to fish in small boats. Experience-oriented programs will increase their role of attracting tourists going forward.

Another of our initiatives to enhance the leverage of the database is to use the community of 25,000 chefs we have and have them regularly demonstrate in our events to promote their business and at the same time support what we are doing.

We also have a community of more than 33,000 corporate secretaries.  Once a year we organize a dinner party  for 400 corporate secretaries on `Day of the secretary` on Wednesday of the last week of April which was set up by the association called `National Secretaries Association` of the United States.. Through the year, Gurunavi invites corporate secretaries to good restaurants for preliminary inspection too. Why? Because corporate secretaries book huge amount of  dining occasions for their bosses every day. They have such a significant influence over their bosses that, whenever we invite these corporate secretaries for dinner, the restaurants make sure they have an amazing experience and are well looked after. Plus, we are using the insights of these 33,000 corporate secretaries to disseminate excellent handout souvenir information across Japan.  There is a Japanese culture to give a handout souvenir such as high class sweets and fine products to the business partner. This information is useful when secretaries would recommend to their bosses little souvenirs or tokens to give to their business partners. With this information, we have elaborated a book of souvenirs from different parts of Japan chosen by the community of corporate secretaries.  This book is published by Nikkei, a publisher that deals with books read by many Japanese corporate executives. In Amazon this is one of the most popular books. They frequently run out of copies. In fact, we have reprinted it six times already.

To sum up, we are sure to have the chefs and the corporate secretaries on our side. We have a very strong team in our side to protect and nourish Japanese food culture. These are the two main communities that make Gurunavi stronger.

 

Going back to Live Japan, how many users have you had until today and what kind of potential you see on the next number of potential users for the next five years?

We have already 14.8 million Gurunavi members (as of 1st November 2016 ). For 2020 we want to make sure that at least half of the inbound tourists use LIVE JAPAN. Eating is always fun but if you add to it a cultural experience, it becomes even more fun. We try to link the food experience with some of the different events we are organizing. We also operate the No.1 event information website “Let’s Enjoy Tokyo”.  For example, you can find out where are the best beer gardens to go in summer time in Tokyo. We go even deeper by informing about the different school festivals that universities and colleges in Tokyo are organizing. The history of the university’s school festival is old and has been held as a unique festival culture of Japan for more than 100 years and it is said that now the number of visitors to the school festivals in Tokyo is about two million in the two months between October to November.  By utilizing the know-how of event planning and proposal cultivated by the “Let’s Enjoy Tokyo” website, we aim to convey such a great Japanese culture through LIVE JAPAN.

 

You have been Gurunavi’s Chairman since June 2001. What is the legacy that you would like to leave behind upon departure?

Making contributions is something essential to all human beings and I personally take it very seriously. As a philosopher, I have published a philosophy book called `Homo-Contribuens` advocating that the contribution heart is instinct.  I also love art. I have and initiative to promote art works in different public spaces such as stations and airports around Japan. Though this is not a part of Gurunavi’s business, more than 500 works have been established nationwide. Amazing works of world famous manga artists are also at Sendai airport and Akita airport and overseas visitors come all the way to see those works.  Giving viewers pleasure and enrichment, I am doing this because of my desire to create society in which art exists in the ordinary life of people.

 

Last but not least, what is your favourite Japanese restaurant in the country?

There are so many! Of course, you cannot go wrong with one of the Japanese restaurants with 3 Michelin stars. However, I must say that a good choice will also be one of the French restaurants in Japan with Michelin stars.  


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