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    Chinese tourists flock to Japan for fresh air

    A flag-toting guide led a group of Chinese tourists in rental kimonos in Kyoto, Japan.
    Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg News
    A flag-toting guide led a group of Chinese tourists in rental kimonos in Kyoto, Japan.

    SAPPORO, Japan — Chinese tourists come to Japan for the sushi and for the shopping. But increasingly, they are also coming for one thing that money can’t buy: fresh air.

    ‘‘The blue sky and the clean air are great. They’re something we don’t have at home,’’ said Xu Jun, an agent for a steel trading company from Guangzhou, a huge manufacturing city in southern China that is blighted by pollution, during a recent visit to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

    During the previous two weeks, the Xu family had been to several outdoor hot springs, taken an ice-breaker ship along the frozen coast, and spotted some of the island’s famous wild red-crowned cranes.


    They, like several million other Chinese, are beating a path to Japan.

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    The number of tourists coming to Japan from China went up 83 percent last year compared with the year before. That put China in third place, behind only Taiwan and South Korea, as a source of visitors.

    This is despite the political tensions between the two countries about disputed territories and an official Japanese attempt to play down its wartime aggression against neighboring countries, including China.

    Tokyo is perennially popular, with its glitzy shopping districts and Disneyland resort, but in winter, about half the Chinese tourists visiting Japan come here to Hokkaido, a sparsely populated island renowned for its wide open spaces and top-notch — and safe — seafood.

    Visitor numbers have skyrocketed since the 2008 release of the Chinese movie ‘‘If You Are the One,’’ which showcased Hokkaido’s natural beauty.


    ‘‘The first thing Chinese people do after they land is to breathe deeply,’’ said He Wenfan, of the Japan Tourism Board’s Chinese language website. ‘‘People say, ‘I can finally breathe!’ ’’

    Recently they came to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, in droves for the city’s snow festival, where Japan’s underemployed soldiers had built massive sculptures — think Star Wars and cartoon characters — out of blocks of ice. At seemingly every sculpture and at every food stall selling steaming bowls of ramen noodle soup, Chinese could be heard.

    Connie Tsoi and her husband came to Sapporo specifically to see the snow festival. Asked if she had ever been to China’s own well-known festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Tsoi screwed up her face and waved around the cheese tart she was eating. ‘‘No! Never!’’ she said. ‘‘It’s so dirty. Japan is so much cleaner, and the people here are so nice.’’

    Hokkaido’s ski resorts of Rusutsu and Niseko enjoyed another influx last month during the Chinese New Year holidays.

    One of the draws for Chinese tourists is the decline in value of the Japanese yen, which once made the country prohibitively expensive. ‘‘The taxis and the food are a little bit more expensive than China — maybe 20 percent more expensive — but everything else is about the same,’’ said Yuan Xiang of Shanghai, who was spending all of his first visit to Japan in Hokkaido, most of it skiing.


    Of all the visitors, the Japan Tourism Agency estimates that Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders. They shelled out about a quarter of the $17 billion that foreign tourists spent in Japan last year — or about $2,000 each.

    The 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami had an impact on tourism, but political issues are just as seismic. Flare-ups about a string of disputed islands, and politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which China and Korea see as honoring Japan’s war criminals, take their toll on tourism.

    ‘‘We suffer a noticeable drop every time, so we are nervous every summer,’’ said He, of the tourism board, referring to the period in August marking the end of World War II, a traditional time for politicians to visit Yasukuni. (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit the shrine last year, instead sending an offering with an aide.)

    Shopping at a multistory electronics store, Xu certainly wasn’t letting the political tensions cramp his vacation style.

    ‘‘It doesn’t bother me,’’ he said, while perusing $800 cameras in the store, which accepts Chinese debit cards and is staffed with Chinese-speaking clerks, and was packed with Chinese tourists buying everything from rice cookers to beauty products.

    In a country still struggling to emerge from two decades of on-again, off-again recession, this foreign money is welcome. But it is often accepted through gritted teeth. Japan is a nation famous for its culture of exacting politeness and adherence to rules encompassing everything from elevator etiquette to buffet behavior. And Chinese tourists, well, seldom let such rules constrain them.