For those who don’t know Ryotaro Sakurai, you’re missing out. The adventurous life of the Japanese tourist promoter led him to start his own company, Lifebridge, which aims to promote tourism in his native territory of Tohoku. However, it is thanks to his magnetic personality and numerous collaborations with YouTubers across the country that Sakurai managed to amass over 140,000 subscribers in just two years, becoming an international YouTuber. This has allowed her to give back to her local community and country in unexpected ways.
Born in Sendai, the always eccentric and open-minded Sakurai was captivated by the idea of going abroad, largely inspired by American films and dreams of going to the ball. Wanting to live abroad, her parents finally relented and allowed her to attend high school in the United States. Followed by stints at the University of Richmond in London, working in IT companies in Dusseldorf and Sydney, his travels spanned over 30 countries over 10 years.
Sakurai eventually decided to return to Japan and start working in international banking to put his computer and English skills to good use. “Every month I had an extra Monday off. I used to take the shinkansen to my hometown. I had a car there and drove around experiencing all the seasons. It made me realize how beautiful Tohoku is.
This was a pivotal moment in Sakurai’s life and launched the birth of Lifebridge in 2006. The vision was to spread knowledge about Tohoku’s beauty while focusing on improving the inbound tourism experience and training locals on how to interact with foreign guests in hotels. , restaurants, airports and theme parks. Everything was going well until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
There was a poll asking where people would like to go after the pandemic is over. Among all the Asian countries, people answered that Japan was their first destination. In the world, it ranked second after the United States
“Incoming tourists have plummeted,” says Sakurai. “There was no need for our training programs or our services.” However, the pandemic came with an unexpected silver lining. Sakurai now had more free time, which turned into his YouTube channel, Ryotaro’s Japan. Those who couldn’t come to Japan swallowed the contents; they could experience the country vicariously online.
“The world has not forgotten Japan. There was a poll asking where people would like to go after the pandemic is over. Among all the Asian countries, people answered that Japan was their first destination. In the world, it ranked second after the United States. The pandemic has even been used as a marketing tool to promote more remote locations around Tohoku. “Come to the countryside,” Sakurai jokes. “You can’t catch COVID-19 because there’s no one there!”
“I want to address social issues through tourism,” says Sakurai, looking to the future. “My goal is to connect primary industry workers with tourists through social media, and also help export their products overseas. I want to make their business regenerative in a country where the population is declining. Whatever either the production of local farmers, domestic consumption decreases.
Sakurai meets many local farmers at the annual Tohoku leadership conference. His idea is to create a multilingual platform that Tohoku producers can use to directly sell their products overseas. “I don’t want tourists to just consume their products, but to become fans of them,” he says of the group he calls the “associated population”. The idea is to get people to connect their memories and interests with Japan through the local people – more than the places they visit – which in turn keeps these small businesses and towns alive.
Sakao is a 12th generation farmer but was previously a DJ, a style he has pursued throughout his farming career. His afro haircut inspired the name “afro cabbage” for his products.
A tour created by Sakurai was for Hidehiko Sakao, a cabbage farmer in Chiba. Sakao is a 12th generation farmer but was previously a DJ, a style he has pursued throughout his farming career. His afro haircut inspired the name “afro cabbage” for his products.
“On this tour, Sakao will meet you at Choshi Station and take the train with you to his farm. He will give you an afro wig and you can harvest his cabbages together,” Sakurai says eagerly. “After harvesting , you can visit his nearby Airbnb and make cabbage gyoza.” It may be a playful gimmick, but it turned out to be a successful tour that let people get to know Sakao personally, become a fan of his products and, more importantly, to support his farm.
In addition to helping local producers, Sakurai has helped promote small regions struggling with inbound tourism. Using the natural landscape of Tohoku, he creates experiences to attract people from all over the world.
“One of my favorite tours is the sunset snow monster tour“, explains Sakurai. “More than 30% of international tourists who come to Tohoku are Taiwanese, most of whom have never skied before. I was asked to help develop a tour that allowed these people to enjoy the snow.Mount Zao, a popular place for ski resorts, is home to thousands of snow-covered trees, known as snow monsters.When visiting, people climb the mountain in a snow buggy and wait for the golden hour in -15°C (4°F) weather.
“As the sun begins to set, the thousands of snow monsters sparkle and reflect in the last rays of the sun, without a sound on the mountain. It’s so peaceful and absolutely beautiful. It’s a moment that cannot be replaced,” Sakurai describes.
While Japan may be known for its historic cyberpunk-like streets or shrines, Sakurai tries to change the mold and emphasize what makes Japan so unique – its nature and its people. This is where you’ll find out why people like Sakurai continue to fight the odds in order to preserve Tohoku.