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Muslim Prayer Facilities Debut on Japan’s Tomei Expressway

SHIZUOKA – Islamic Prayer facilities have been set up  at expressway service areas in Japan along popular routes to cater to Muslim visitors ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Asahi Shimbun reported on March 27.

“Last year, we received inquiries from Muslim tourists about a washing space, but we couldn’t respond to their needs. By promoting the facilities for their use, we hope to attract new visitors who want to stop by,” said Tomoyuki Fujita, a service area manager of Kintetsu Retailing Corp., the restaurant’s Osaka-based operator.

The 6- to 15m2 facilities, equipped with mats and marks showing the direction of Qiblah, are located in restaurants and access ways of commercial complexes on the expressways.

In a first in Japan, prayer areas opened yesterday at Hamanako service area and on the outbound side of Ashigara service area along Tomei Expressway in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Moreover today, another prayer facility was set up in Suwako service area’s outbound side on Chuo Expressway in Nagano Prefecture.

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The area sees a growing number of foreign tourists including Muslims, especially those coming to ski.

Golden Tourism

The Central Nippon Exis Co., based in Nagoya, which manages and operates these service areas dub Hamanako and Ashigara service areas as the “golden route” for tourism connecting Tokyo and Osaka as many foreign visitors including Muslims stop by them.

Hamanako service area is accessible on both the inbound and outbound sides. Facilities differ according to the service area, such as the style of the private rooms and the times they are available for use.

Ablution spaces are available at the Hamanako and Suwako service areas but not at Ashigara. Restaurants and food courts at all three service areas have started offering halal food for Muslim visitors.

“We will consider whether to expand services to other locations after observing customer demand at the three service areas,” said a Central Nippon Exis official.

The history of Islam in Japan is relatively brief in relation to the religion’s longstanding presence in other nearby countries. There were isolated occasions of Muslims in Japan before the 19th century.

Today, Muslims are made up of largely immigrant communities, as well as smaller ethnic Japanese community. The Pew Research Center estimated that there were 185,000 Muslims in Japan in 2010.

Japan is a new but sharply growing halal market as the country’s producers are seeking fresh opportunity in the halal sector and striving to seek new local and international markets, especially now that Japan is the officially designated venue for the 2020 Olympics, attracting Muslim athletes and tourists from all around the world.

Catering to the rising number of Muslim tourists, suppliers and travel agents in Japan have been obtaining halal certification and converting their restrooms into prayer rooms.