Prayer facilities have been set up in expressway service areas along popular routes to cater to Muslim visitors ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
In a first in Japan, prayer areas opened March 26 at the Hamanako service area and on the outbound side of the Ashigara service area along the Tomei Expressway in Shizuoka Prefecture. On March 27, a prayer facility was set up in the Suwako service area's outbound side on the Chuo Expressway in Nagano Prefecture.
The Hamanako and Ashigara service areas are located on the so-called "golden route" for tourism connecting Tokyo and Osaka, and many foreign visitors stop by them, according to Central Nippon Exis Co., based in Nagoya, which manages and operates service areas.
The Suwako service area also sees a growing number of foreign tourists, especially those coming to ski.
The 6- to 15-square meter facilities, equipped with mats and marks showing the direction of Mecca, are located in restaurants and access ways of commercial complexes on the expressways.
The Hamanako service area’s prayer facility is on the second floor of a restaurant used for group visitors. There are two prayer rooms divided by partitions. A space for washing hands and feet before praying has also been prepared.
"Last year, we received inquiries from Muslim tourists about a washing space, but we couldn’t respond to their needs," said Tomoyuki Fujita, a service area manager of Kintetsu Retailing Corp., the restaurant's Osaka-based operator.
"By promoting the facilities for their use, we hope to attract new visitors who want to stop by."
The 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.
Washing 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.