Japanese lovebirds flock to marry in Swiss Alps

GRINDELWALD, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - Facing an Alpine cow with a bell round its neck , Arisa Chi gripped her bouquet a little tighter, adjusted the cream-colored ruffles of her dress and smiled for the camera.

Japanese bridal couple Arisa Chi (L) and her new husband Kenji Yoshida stand behind a cow after their wedding ceremony on the foggy Mount First (2168m/7113ft) in the Swiss Alpine resort of Grindelwald August 6, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

“We wanted to come because he loves the nature,” she said, pointing to her new husband Kenji Yoshida, standing at her side.

Japanese are among the most numerous overseas tourists in Switzerland, and their presence has given rise to businesses catering to their tastes -- including weddings like Chi’s.

In Grindelwald, the small town below the gray crag of the Eiger North Face, shop signs bear Kanji characters, the train station’s main platform is bustling with Japanese tourists, and a chalet is even called Nagano, the Japanese region that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998.

“It was my hope to come here for 30 years,” said Katsuhiko Naito, a government employee in Tokyo who first visited Switzerland as a student and was about to embark on a hike up the mountain First.

“In Japan, Grindelwald is a very famous place,” he said. “More famous even than Zurich.”

Switzerland’s efficient public transport and low crime rate also appeal to tourists from Japan, where people are often concerned about safety.

“We can’t see anything like this in Japan,” said Noriko Setoguchi, who works in marketing in Tokyo and on her honeymoon with her husband, a scientist.

“People are very lovely and there are more cows,” her husband said, surveying a deep-green meadow dotted with several dozen light brown and white cattle, each with a bell clanking around its neck.

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In the jeweler shop, which peddles expensive Swiss watches, and the store selling postcards and tourist mementos, the employees are also Japanese.

The privately run Japanese tourism center, at a main crossroad, offers helicopter flights, cheese-making classes and trips up to the Jungfraujoch, a UNESCO World Heritage site nearby.

“It’s like Heidi,” Yuri Ichikawa, who works in a local business, said of why Japanese were so keen to visit. “Many people watch the movie -- it’s popular in Japan.”

Johanna Spyri’s 19th-century tale about a young girl is actually set in the canton of Graubuenden, in the east of the country. Grindelwald is in the canton of Berne.

The town, the second-most visited place among Japanese last year after Zermatt, is at the foot of some of Switzerland’s most scenic mountains, whose summits are capped with snow even on stifling summer days in the valleys and whose slopes are lined with dark firs.

Grindelwald also made an appearance in the 1969 James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” in which the martini-sipping British spy visited its ice rink.

Fewer tourists from the euro zone are expected this summer, thanks to the Swiss franc’s sharp rally against the euro in the first half of the year, according to the consultancy BAK Basel, but an appreciation of the yen versus the franc could help those from Japan.

Japanese tourists are among the biggest foreign spenders, just behind visitors from the Gulf, and shell out on average 340 Swiss francs ($327.20) a day, according to statistics from Swiss tourism authorities for 2007, the most recent available.

For someone like bride Arisa Chi, a ceremony on a scenic cliff officiated by a man in traditional dress followed by a luncheon can cost 2,000 francs, said the concierge of the luxury Regina hotel, which organizes the events.

This year six weddings have been performed in Grindelwald, the Japanese tourist office said.

Nobuhiro Yoshimura, a factory manager now working in the Czech Republic, said Japanese tourists to Switzerland would probably each only come once, given the long flight and expense.

“It’s expensive, but still acceptable, as long as it’s not a long stay,” he said.