Lonely Planet Writer

Is infra-tourism the next big thing? Japan seems to think so

Most countries try to attract visitors with ancient cities, historic traditions, and landscapes untouched by time.

Kurobe Dam, Japan
Kurobe Dam, Japan Image by Satoru Fujiwara / CC BY 2.0

However, some are trying to tap into much more modern attractions in the less apparent beauty of ambitious present-day engineering projects. Japan is spearheading this “infra-tourism” to bring in visitors who, instead of shrines and ancient temples, have their hearts set on visiting bridges, dams, motorways, and power plants.

The country, already in the midst of a tourism boom, is hoping that it can add hundreds of thousands more visitors by promoting itself to people whose interests are more futuristic than traditional. Earlier this year, Japan’s tourism ministry put together a list of 270 of the best “infra-tours” where visitors can be wowed by modern constructions. The Kurobe Dam was one of the first of Japan’s big mega-projects to tap into increasing visitor tastes for engineering. The tallest dam in Japan at 186 metres, it offers bus tours and between late June and mid-October has timed water releases so that sightseers can catch the massive surges.

Other popular spots are the spectacular trans-Shiretoko mountain road, which is closed for half of the year and must be dug out from deep snow every year, and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. This two-and-a-half-mile bridge has the longest central span of any suspension bridge in the world and connects Kobe on mainland Honshu to Awaji Island.

Last but not least is the Metropolitan Outer Underground Discharge Tunnel, which despite its unwieldy name has quickly become a major tourist draw. The extraordinary underground project in Kasukabe is designed to draw vast quantities of water away from the city and into its storage tanks in the event of a flood. However, it has become better known for its monumental temple-like design and draws thousands of visitors to its daily tours.