Making the most of the Chinese Tourist Boom (Part 1)
At 20 years of age Lu Dong had already studied on exchange in Japan, worked for the Private banking Department at Goldman Sachs, and completed an MBA course at Stanford University. In 2004, he returned to China and launched two start-ups. He relocated to Japan in 2014. Now, he is about to release the beta version of his new app “Nihon Bishoku” (Japan Foodie) in April 2016. (Part 1)
So tell us about your new app “Japan Foodie.” What’s so unique about this app?Lu Dong: We are making this app to introduce tourists to restaurants and diners in Japan. The number of first-time visitors to Japan, especially from China, Korea and Taiwan, has grown rapidly to around 20 million people. Although the Japanese market is benefiting greatly from the influx of demand, restaurant businesses in Japan are too slow to take advantage of this opportunity, and lack expertise in 3 main areas. What kind of areas are they lacking expertise in?Lu: One of the biggest issues is communication. In public institutions and on maps, you can find signs and descriptions in foreign languages. However, many restaurants only have menus and signs in Japanese. Tourists have trouble finding particular restaurants and ordering meals.Secondly, foreign tourists don’t know how to find good restaurants because there are so many restaurants to choose from. The number of restaurants in Tokyo is the greatest in the world. Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants as well. There are plenty of applications and media for local Japanese that recommend restaurants, but there are none aimed tourists at the moment.Visiting Japan for the first time is a very special occasion for most tourists. They want to go to a fabulous restaurant that they will remember for the rest of their life instead of going to a ‘normal’ restaurants with ‘normal’ service and ‘normal’ food. Having said that, it is almost impossible to find a memorable restaurant from the sixteen thousand different choices in Tokyo.Lastly, many restaurants in Japan don’t offer alternative payment methods, often only accepting cash, and occasionally credit cards, even though services like mobile payments have thrived in the rest of the world. For example, you can take a cab and pay with a mobile phone in Beijing, without having to bring your wallet out. That has become normal for many Chinese people. When Chinese people come to Japan, they often find it quite inconvenient to pay with their wallet because they are so used to the mobile payment system.It is certain that Japan will host more an increasing number of tourists around the time the Olympics happen in 2020. Our mission is to solve these main problems: to facilitate effective communication, to help tourists discover the best restaurants, to offer alternative payment methods, and provide additional added value. That is a wonderful idea. How did you come up with Nihon Bishoku?Lu: My wife became pregnant in 2014, and we decided we wanted a better environment to raise the child in, so we moved to Tokyo from Beijing. Once we moved, we had many friends from China visit us in Japan. I was often asked to be their tour guide. After the baby was born, I got so busy that I couldn’t show them around anymore. Instead, I sent a list of recommended restaurants and sightseeing spots in PPT. It turned out to be very popular! This made me think that other tourists might also appreciate having this kind of useful information on hand in the form of an app. When I looked further into this idea, I realized that there is no app like this in Japan or China.In fact, local Japanese and overseas tourists don’t even share the same thought process when searching for restaurants. With a Japanese app, you would usually enter the name of a train station in the area you would like to dine out. Tourists don’t know any local stations so they cannot even search for the restaurants. Those kinds of apps are targeted at local Japanese though so you cannot expect otherwise.In my 20s, I studied at a local university and then stayed and worked in Japan for 10 years. With my understanding of Japanese and Chinese culture, I thought that I could provide a service connects these two cultures and people.