The Japanese and their Swiss mountains
Upon arriving in the mountain resort of Grindelwald, you can’t help noticing all the Japanese signs.
The most prominent of these is for the Japanese Information Bureau, which has been welcoming tourists for 20 years.
Lying just up from the railway station, it was set up by Ichiro Ando and his wife Yasuyo, who continue to run the centre today.
And who better to help us with our task of finding out what kind of image Japanese tourists have of Switzerland, and whether it meets their expectations.
Our assignment is to produce a multimedia report in English and Japanese to coincide with Expo 2005 now underway in Aichi, Japan. swissinfo is a partner of the Swiss pavilion, "The Mountain".
Ichiro’s answer to our main question is short and to the point. The Japanese want to see the alpine landscape made famous in the story of Heidi and as portrayed in the Japanese animation film of the same name.
And yes, Switzerland does lives up to their expectations. But what about Ichiro and Yasuyo’s story?
Hundreds of thousands of foreigners visit Grindelwald each year but few decide to stay. So what compelled the Andos to settle on the other side of the world and live in a culture far removed from their own?
We proceed to their home, set up our video camera and continue the interview.
Speaking in halting but thoughtful English, Ichiro tells us he grew up in Osaka and was not exposed to Japan’s mountain ranges.
At 19, he backpacked through Europe and passed through Switzerland, stopping in Grindelwald.
Seeing high mountains, such as the Eiger, up close came as a "shock" to him, and he resolved to return.
A few years later he was back in Switzerland to stay, this time with his bride, Yasuyo. They opened a small Japanese travel agency making hotel and train reservations, organising ski passes and providing translation services.
Today, the business is doing very well, sharing a modern office building with a Swiss bank on Grindelwald’s main street.
Yasuyo says the first thing many Japanese entering the office want is advice on where they have to go to see the Eiger. "We tell them they just have to look up," she says.
It is a view Ichiro never tires of. The north face of the Eiger was the first thing he saw when he came to Switzerland more than 20 years ago, and is the first thing he sees every day when he looks out his living room window.
In Ichiro’s world, the mountains are everything and everywhere, with paintings and photographs of peaks climbing the walls of his home.
His job is to sell alpine dreams to tourists and he scales mountain summits in his spare time.
But the Andos say they are not the only Japanese to have fallen in love with the Swiss Alps.
Whereas ten years ago, tourists from Japan would only spend two or three days in Switzerland as part of a European tour, they are now returning to spend a week to ten days in the country, or just in Grindelwald.
A typical tour of Switzerland lasts seven days, and the highlights are sold to the Japanese with superlatives, increasing their esteem.
It takes in Zermatt, home of Switzerland’s most famous mountain, the Matterhorn, includes a ride on the Glacier Express, one of the world’s great train journeys, and Grindelwald, the starting point for a trip to the Jungfraujoch – billed as the highest railway station in Europe.
Over a cup of green tea, the Andos explain that returning Japanese are no longer part of large tour groups, but individuals interested in getting off this beaten track to get a better understanding of Swiss customs and traditions.
In the summer, many Japanese sign up for an introductory cheesemaking course, which involves a visit to an alpine dairy where they are shown how to make their own Swiss cheese.
A couple of months later when the cheese is ready, it is packaged and shipped to their homes in Japan.
Yasuyo says many Japanese find the scenery around Grindelwald is much as they had imagined it to be from Heidi – green pastures, chalets and snowy mountains – even though the story was set at the other end of the country.
The large number of Japanese who are now spending their entire holiday in Grindelwald has increased demand for holiday apartments and chalets. To meet the need, Ichiro is compiling a guidebook on this type of accommodation.
Before we go, we ask Ichiro about the one picture of Japan’s most famous mountain hanging on the wall. "Have you ever climbed Mount Fuji or do you think you ever will?"
"No" is the short answer. He is quite content with his Swiss mountains.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Grindelwald
Grindelwald is located in the Bernese Oberland, at 1,050 metres above sea level.
Ringed by some of the highest mountains in the Alps, with glaciers that once reached down to the village, it was already a popular tourist destination in the first half of the 19th century.
Japanese tourists began coming to Grindelwald in significant numbers in the 1970s.
The Swiss pavilion at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan is called "The Mountain".
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