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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Heidi draws pilgrims from Japan
The Matterhorn
In summer a sixth of Zermatt's population is Japanese
By Emma Jane Kirby in Zermatt

It is a funny feeling to be sitting in a train carriage in the middle of the Swiss Alps, surrounded by elderly Japanese women eating rice balls and sushi.

As the train begins to climb the mountains towards Gornergrat, a voice comes over the tannoy to warn that the next stop is imminent - once in German, once in English, once in French - and then once again in Japanese.

St Bernard's dogs
The St Bernard's dogs are always popular
My companions gather up their cameras and put on their hoods to prepare themselves for the freezing temperatures outside - and I realise with some shock that I am the only non-Japanese tourist on the train.

Outside at the station, however, the tour guide, Paulo, registers no surprise as some 40 Japanese people, mainly senior citizens, race towards him yelling, "Mountains! Mountains! Alpine flowers!"

This region of the Swiss Alps is no stranger to the Japanese - last year Zermatt alone welcomed 156,672 Japanese tourists, many of them making a pilgrimage to mountains they know from the children's classic, Heidi, by author Johanna Spyri.

They sell you the golden image of Switzerland everywhere you go

Junko Yamada
In fact, the Matterhorn has become such a pilgrimage spot for the Japanese that during the summer, its now estimated that about one sixth of Zermatt`s population is Japanese.

According to tour leader Junko Yamada, from the Japanese tourist office in Zermatt, Switzerland is marketed hard in Japan.

"On the TV, they show you the Sound of Music and documentaries about the clean Swiss air.

"Travel agents windows are full of pictures of mountains and edelweiss, you even get brochures pushed through your door reminding you that the Japanese crown prince came to Switzerland to buy his fiancée genuine Swiss chocolates."

New footpaths

Paulo is trying to calm the Japanese tourists who are now shouting "Joseph! Joseph!" as they make a beeline for his three St Bernard dogs.

They get very excited when they see the lake and want to head straight for it

Junko Yamada

"There's a cartoon about Heidi in Japan, in which Heidi and her friend Peter have a St Bernard dog called Joseph. I don`t think there is a Joseph in the actual Johanna Spyri story but there is in the Japanese version," Paulo explains.

"They all want to be photographed with Joseph - in the summer I get 40 groups a day up here, with maybe 15 or 20 people in each. That's a lot of Joseph photographs."

The Japanese tourists are now being herded towards the mountain path for a short climb towards the lake.

"It's very difficult to get them to stick to the mountain footpath," says Junko.

"They get very excited when they see the lake and want to head straight for it - this means there is a whole set of unofficial footpaths across the mountains we call 'Japanese paths'."

Past the lake, we come to a restaurant where we pile in for coffee.

Curry and rosti

The head chef Marcus comes out to greet his guests and points out the dishes of the day - noodles, and Japanese curry and rice.

Emma Jane Kirby with Japanese tourists
Emma Jane (left) listens to a heavily accented rendition of Edelweiss
"You can still get traditional Swiss food like fondue and rosti here," he insists.

"It's just that 90% of our customers are now Japanese. I had to go to cookery classes to learn how to cook a few Japanese dishes - they're very popular."

As we head back down to Zermatt again, there is an audible buzz of contentment from the Japanese tourists - soon followed by a heavily accented rendition of the song, Edelweiss, from the film the Sound of Music.

Junko looks at them bemusedly. "They've had a nice traditional day in the Swiss Alps," she says.

"And tonight, their package tour has reserved tables for them at the Japanese restaurant in the town."

See also:

07 Jul 01 | Europe
Swiss celebrate Heidi centenary
18 Aug 98 | Europe
Peace moves in Heidi wars
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