Writer Kundo Koyama takes on Japan’s tourism industry
Kundo Koyama has a few ideas about how Japan can reinvigorate its tourism industry.
The writer has made his mark on a range of industries, from entertainment to hotel branding. Many will have enjoyed the cult classic TV program Iron Chef and the Academy Award-winning film Departures.
Beyond scriptwriting, Koyama was also behind the creation of Kumamoto Prefecture’s wildly popular regional mascot character Kumamon and is playing a major role in the production of the 2025 World Expo in Osaka.
The celebrated writer and producer joined Rakuten’s Yoshiyuki Takano for the annual Rakuten Travel Conference in February to chat about creativity, branding on a budget and sparking virtuous cycles in Japan’s rural communities.
What would you do if you were in charge?
Takano began the session by asking Koyama how he dreams up so many creative ideas.
“Whenever I experience something, I think about what I would change about that experience if I were in charge – even when I’m not,” he revealed. “I’ll be in a regular restaurant, for example, and I’ll think: If I were running this restaurant, I’d probably write the menu a little differently. I dream up potential promotion strategies for them, even though no-one’s asked me. A kind of solo imaginary strategy session.”
Koyama finds himself engaging in this solitary strategizing without even realizing it. “I’m always thinking about how to solve problems, how to improve things,” he told Takano. “Once that becomes a habit, it becomes ingrained. You start thinking about it all the time. Every day.”
At the root of all of these strategies, Koyama maintains a highly service-oriented mindset.
“I always say that promotion is service, and service is thoughtfulness. It’s not about how you feel, but how the recipient of your service feels. You need to be able to read their mind, and think from their perspective.”
In order to train this service mindset, Koyama revealed that he puts new employees of his company behind the wheel of the company car.
“What kind of skills do you need for driving?” he posed. “Well, you need to be able to predict what’s coming. Not just look directly ahead, but at the car ahead of you, and the one ahead of it, and ahead of it – what movements are they making? If the car two cars ahead hits the brakes, you’ll need to as well. You always need to have that perspective in mind to predict how they might behave.”
At the same time, drivers must consider how their own driving affects the world around them.
“You also need to be thinking about the car behind you. How will they feel about how you’re driving? And negotiate with the cars beside you, embracing a healthy sense of competition. There are a lot of similarities with driving, so to train those sensibilities, we make new employees drivers to begin with.”
Strategizing on a shoestring at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel
Koyama’s solitary strategizing came in handy during a trip to Nikko – a mountainous resort area north of Tokyo, long popular as a summer retreat. The Nikko Kanaya Hotel has been in business since 1873, hosting countless VIP guests throughout the years.
“About 20 years ago, I stayed at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel. It was a lovely establishment, but I was doing my usual thing of thinking to myself all the ways I could make it better. The director approached me and asked me to tell them if I had any ideas. So I told them what was on my mind, and they offered me an advisory role.”
Koyama took the job, and set about putting his ideas into practice.
“I got the impression that the hotel staff didn’t have a lot of love for their establishment,” he recalled. “They weren’t particularly proud of it – it wasn’t some fancy place in Tokyo, just a dusty old hotel in the sticks. So that’s the first thing I wanted to change.”
But the hotel had little budget to make the kind of sweeping changes that might inspire such pride. That’s when Koyama arrived at the idea to leverage Japan’s powerful business card culture.
“I proposed that we give business cards to all of the staff – even those who don’t usually use them, such as the kitchen staff,” he told Takano. “This would help foster a sense of love for their workplace.”
Koyama asked each staff member to name their favorite spot in the hotel. He brought in a professional photographer to capture those spots, and had staff vote on the 30 best shots, from which they selected their favorite for their new business cards.
“But this is the most important part: We told each guest that every member of staff has one of 30 different business cards. If you collect them all, they form a small picture book of the Kanaya Hotel.”
The idea was a riff on the popular stamp rally – an activity often seen at Japanese tourist spots, in which visitors collect ink stamps from various locations. Hotel guests were encouraged to interact with staff and exchange greetings to collect the cards.
“They would make their way around the different parts of the hotel in search of these business cards,” Koyama explained. “Of course, staff working in the guest areas would choose photos of prominent things that everyone could see. But the kitchen staff, for example, might choose a less popular photo of some kitchen utensil.”
This created an interesting dynamic of collectible rarity, prompting avid collectors to go out of their way to track down those last cards.
“They’d approach someone at the front desk, who’d then go and introduce them to someone in the kitchen who had that final rare card, completing their collection. So it also served as a way to spark communication between staff members.”
“It was an interesting story that attracted the media. Our only costs were the business cards, yet we were able to create this buzz and spark an improvement in service through guest interaction, as well as foster a sense of love among the staff for their hotel.”
Focus on gaining a few hardcore fans
When budgets are tight, Koyama advises to devote everything available to perfecting one thing, rather than spreading resources thinly over a broad area. This is another approach he took during his time with the Nikko Kanaya Hotel.
“The hotel was quite old at that point,” he explained. “It wasn’t possible to renovate the whole building, but I thought we could draw a lot of attention if we just polished one corner of the hotel to perfection.”
Koyama devoted his attention to designing a single perfect room, laid out and fitted exactly to his ideals. He documented every step of the renovation in a magazine, and fans followed the project eagerly.
“With projects like this, I tend to want to renew the entire thing,” he admitted. “But I really do think it’s important to start with just one hardcore thing. This will attract curious people, and they’ll spread the word, and soon the media will come. You can get to the rest after that.”
“So find your hotel’s biggest strength, polish it up as best you can, and then create your brand from there. This process is really important.”
Koyama credits hardcore fans for the explosive popularity of his regional mascot Kumamon, whose cuteness struck so deeply that dozens of fans wrote letters to the character shortly after its creation. Koyama was able to leverage this deep appreciation to appeal to brands for collaborations, boosting Kumamon’s profile even further and igniting a virtuous circle. (Nowadays, Koyama revealed, Kumamon receives tens of thousands of letters each year.)
“It’s better to have just a few really hardcore fans than lots of very casual fans. They become the core of the brand,” he argued. “This is something I believe also applies to the tourism industry. Rather than targeting a broad but shallow customer base, target a few really hardcore fans. Use that to make news and spread the word. That’s how you’ll reach a broader audience of more casual fans.”
A virtuous circle requires collaboration
Koyama believes that such virtuous circles are the key to kicking off revitalization in Japan’s struggling rural communities. He spoke of someone he met in the hot spring town of Unzen in Japan’s west who had moved from Tokyo to grow organic vegetables from native seeds and sell them locally.
“Because they were producing such high-quality vegetables, they started attracting talented chefs to the region – including some who were from the town originally,” he told Takano. “Those chefs opened high quality restaurants and all sorts of tourists started coming in search of those restaurants.”
But the cycle didn’t end there. The vegetable grower wanted to spread their knowledge of organic agriculture, and began taking on young interns. He collaborated with a local hotel to provide free board in exchange for their youth expertise on online branding.
“I just found it so incredible that one single person with a passion for vegetables could get everyone in the town involved like this,” Koyama remarked. “It’s so important to have that key person who can bring the right people together.”
This collaborative philosophy is one that Koyama believes the greater tourism industry must embrace.
“I think it’s crucial that people in the tourism industry don’t try and solve everything among themselves – but rather involve all kinds of people,” he stressed. “Instead of focusing only on typical tourism things, branch out into areas that are more grounded in local lifestyles. Draw on that ambitious passion to get people involved and revitalize these communities.”
After all, collaboration is a major ingredient of creativity: “I think ideas are like chemical reactions – a reaction between the knowledge and experience you possess and what you hear from people you’ve met, or feedback you receive. Those things come together to spark a chemical reaction.”
Tourism is about delivering and receiving joy
“I don’t think tourism is an easy industry to work in,” Koyama conceded. “But it is an incredibly rewarding one, because you aren’t taking money from people for things they don’t want – you’re delivering joy.”
Koyama also values the new perspectives that outsiders can bring to a community.
“People come to your town and discover all the fun it has to offer, all of the local delicacies. And as a local, you gain a renewed appreciation for everything you took for granted,” he reasoned. “You remember just how good you have it living where you live. This chain of events, I think, is the biggest value that tourism provides: letting others experience the charms of your own backyard, and in turn, noticing those charms yourself.”