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Friday, April 10, 2009

Japan Web site a life-time labor of love


Staff writer

When Stefan Schauwecker first launched japan-guide.com in 1996 while still a student in Canada, the Web site only featured an A to Z section on Japanese culture — "just a basic intro to Japan, a guide to look up cultural stuff and a little bit of history," the Swiss native recalled.

News photo
Web master: Stefan Schauwecker, founder of japan-guide.com, speaks to The Japan Times in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district on March 19. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But his hobby turned into an occupation when he moved to Japan seven years ago and the Web site began generating enough advertising income for him to concentrate on it full time.

Now, with an extensive travel section, living guide, questions forum and numerous other contents, as well as links to various services, japan-guide.com has morphed into possibly one of the largest English-language Web sites dedicated to informing people about Japan and how to get around the country.

Incorporated in 2007, the Web site is currently operated by Schauwecker, his Japanese wife and two other employees hired as full-time writers. Schauwecker was even appointed by the tourism ministry as a Yokoso! Japan (Welcome to Japan) ambassador in 2008, as part of the government campaign to boost foreign tourism.

The Web site now attracts an estimated 1 million visitors each month.

Born in Zurich, Schauwecker said he never really came in contact with Japanese people before he left his home country, and only had a stereotypical image of them, "in groups with cameras, going to the sightseeing spots in a week through Europe."

This perception changed, however, when he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to study English, and formed close relations with his Japanese classmates. It was in Vancouver that he met his current wife, whom he married in 1998.

"It was the kindness of the people," Schauwecker recalled. "I'm not the most outgoing person, but I felt comfortable among my Japanese classmates."

After spending eight years in Canada, where he graduated from the University of British Columbia and worked for a year at a software company, Schauwecker and his wife moved to Gunma Prefecture in 2002, and have lived there ever since.

Besides updating the Web site every day, Schauwecker said he spends a quarter of his time traveling to various destinations across Japan, either on his own or with his wife or writers, to report on what he calls the "ugly details" — information on names of stations, ticket prices, special services provided at tourist sights, etc. — that are often underreported in travel guides.

"It's indeed a pleasurable part of the job," he said of his time on the road, but added that it was also quite tiring.

"Since we try to fit in as much reporting in as short a time as possible, which means running from museum to museum, it's very hard. Two, three days and you want to go home," he said.

Schauwecker said that besides the Web site's 13-year history, which gives it a host of links that translate into prominent search engine positions, he believes the up-to-date, high quality contents are another reason japan-guide.com remains popular.

"If you go to the night trains page, for example, there were a few that retired a couple of days back," he said, speaking on March 19.

"And it is things like that I want to reflect on my Web site as soon as possible, which I think is rare," he said. "There are so many out-of-date Web sites."

Schauwecker said the travel section covers about 100 destinations. All the major sights, except a few medium-interest tourist destinations, including the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, are featured, and those still missing from the Web site should be covered in the next one or two years, he said.

The demographics of japan-guide.com visitors reveal that a third access the Web site from the United States. This is followed by 5 percent to 10 percent from other English-speaking countries, including Canada, Australia and the U.K.

Sales come only from ads, with many of the roughly 100 clients being travel-related. Domestic ads are handled by global Internet marketing company Export Japan Inc., while Schauwecker handles all overseas sales himself.

In the future, Schauwecker said he wants to enable users to access the Web site's contents through cell phones. Besides that, he said japan-guide.com began creating Korean and Chinese versions of the Web site in cooperation with Export Japan Inc., "since three-fourths of the tourists coming to Japan are not English-speaking but Korean- or Chinese-speaking."

He said he was still surprised by the many regions of Japan and the seasonal variations.

"I find it fascinating that you can see the jungle river that reminds you of the Amazon at one end of the country, and then you have the ice-covered ocean of the Okhotsk," he said.

"Sometimes I think I could easily spend my life introducing Tokyo alone," Schauwecker said, "which means introducing the whole of Japan is a task that will certainly take the rest of my life."



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