Travel & Tourism

Chiba rolls out the prayer mat for Muslim workers, students, tourists

Nazeer Ahmed leaves the prayer room created at the Aeon Mall Makuhari New City. (Takaharu Yagi)

Nazeer Ahmed leaves the prayer room created at the Aeon Mall Makuhari New City. (Takaharu Yagi)

On a recent weekday a little after noon, Nazeer Ahmed came to the prayer room at the Aeon Mall at Makuhari New City in Chiba.

A specially installed ablution area allowed him to wash his hands and feet. A sign on the ceiling pointed toward Mecca. He prayed quietly for about 20 minutes, even though public service announcements could be heard coming from the mall.

“Muslims are required to pray five times a day and it serves as a psychological support, so I am grateful (for the room),” said Ahmed, 47.

As host to an international airport, a major convention center and a university of international studies, Chiba Prefecture is witnessing a rapid spread of services aimed at accommodating Muslim workers, students and tourists.

The recent relaxing of conditions for tourist visas has led to a sharp increase in visitors from Southeast Asia, which has a large Muslim population.

To meet the religious needs of such visitors, special prayer rooms for Muslims have been set up at Narita Airport and the Aeon Mall at Makuhari New City.

The prayer room at the Aeon Mall was created toward the end of 2013. It is located on the fourth floor of the massive shopping complex that is located near the Makuhari Messe convention center.

The room attracts Muslims such as Ahmed, who commutes to his company in Chiba city from Yashio, Saitama Prefecture.

In the past, he could only pray at night after he returned home. Now, the Aeon Mall provides him access to the prayer room. Even on his days off, he will bring his family to the mall for shopping and prayer.

Aeon Mall officials said the prayer room was the first for any Aeon retail outlet in Japan. Between 50 and 60 people use it every month.

Makuhari New City is located about 30 minutes by car from both Narita Airport and Tokyo Station. With the Makuhari Messe convention center as the core facility, Makuhari New City was developed by the Chiba prefectural government in the hopes of attracting more foreign companies and workers.

Another institution in the area is the Kanda University of International Studies. In April, a new cafeteria opened that provides meals cooked according to strict Halal standards. No pork or alcohol is included. The cafeteria has received Halal certification from the Nippon Asia Halal Association (NAHA), which has its headquarters nearby.

“I am free from worry here because I do not have to inquire in detail about the ingredients when I am ordering,” said Cahyani Ariya Wiji, 21, a student from Indonesia.

The Hotel Springs Makuhari has also been providing Halal-certified meals at a restaurant since last summer.

NAHA moved its office from Tokyo to Chiba city in September 2013.

“We placed emphasis on the fact that Chiba is a step ahead of Tokyo in accepting Muslims,” said Saeed Akhtar, who heads NAHA.

Meanwhile, Narita Airport opened two more Muslim prayer rooms in July for a total of four such rooms. The airport provides service to about 100 cities around the world, meaning many Muslims travel through it.

In June, an “udon” noodle restaurant and tempura eatery opened in the airport offering Halal certification for all items on their menus.

In comparison, Haneda Airport in Tokyo has only one prayer room, probably because most of the 26 cities it serves overseas are centered in Europe. Haneda also has no restaurant with Halal certification.

The moves in Chiba Prefecture reflect the relaxation on tourist visa restrictions for travelers from Southeast Asia that was implemented from the summer of 2013.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, a total of 37,400 visitors arrived in Japan in May from Malaysia and Indonesia, which both have large Muslim populations. That represented a 50 percent increase over May 2013.

In line with the relaxation of visa conditions, the Chiba prefectural government began implementing measures to promote tourism. One measure was the development of Halal dishes using produce grown in Chiba that was begun in September 2013.

The Chiba city government established a deliberative council in November involving representatives of companies and associations to discuss ways to increase the number of Muslim visitors.

“If such efforts should spread, it would not only heighten expectations for fostering industry and creating jobs, but would also lead to more favorable views toward Japan and could contribute to the securing of peace without depending on military power,” said Osamu Miyata, who heads the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan.

Source: The Asahi Shimbun

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