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Startup Story

Mass tourism is now more sustainable with ikura

Couple of woman and a man sitting together

This Japanese AI for travel platform uses Google AI to take tourists off the beaten path

If it seems like Japan is suddenly the world’s hottest travel destination, there’s a good reason: “After COVID, the Japanese government is trying to make tourism its primary export industry—with a target of tripling it by 2050,” we learn from ikura founder Eiko Nakazawa.

ikura was founded in response to this strategy, and the dramatic surge in tourism to Japan that has followed. A tech-driven platform that enhances travel in Japan by making local, authentic experiences more accessible to tourists, ikura’s goal is also to ensure that tourism is distributed equitably across the economy. Eiko explains that, while more tourism will undoubtedly boost Japanese GDP, it also poses challenges to local businesses who aren’t equipped with the resources to reach international customers.

ikura’s AI platform, Salmon, is built on vertex AI “because it's a good accumulation system”, says Eiko. Salmon’s AI takes a human-centric approach and uses machine learning to analyze user preferences, historical data, and real-time Google Map data to provide personalized recommendations and itinerary building. The platform’s chat functionality removes cultural, logistical, and linguistic barriers that travelers currently face, and connects them directly with a chat assist system that also provides booking and navigation support.

Another gap ikura fills for travelers is knowledge: “We believe that cultural experiences and understanding of the culture when it comes to travel is really important for local sustainability,” explains Eiko, “so we create content and encourage passionate travelers and locals to share those authentic stories and really treasure those, rather than ‘washing’ it to meet mass production tourism.” ikura also places great emphasis on distributed tourism, or alleviating the over-tourism to specific hubs which have a detrimental impact on both the environment and communities. By highlighting local experiences outside of core tourist areas, the platform redistributes tourist traffic to support both infrastructure and communities.

Despite trying to provide a solution for mass tourism, Eiko and her team encountered pushback from a wary local market. “When I talk to small businesses, we get mixed reactions. The first one is, ‘We don't want any more tourists.’” Eiko attributes this resistance to a cultural clash between locals and foreigners who don’t understand their customs; ikura’s pitch to businesses addresses this, by explaining that the platform provides visitors with information that equips them to engage respectfully with the local culture. ikura also bridges the culture and communication gap by providing businesses with access to visitors they don’t have the resources to attract: “The opposite side of the spectrum is small businesses really wanting travelers to come to them, but who are too resource-constrained to hire the right people who understand the culture and also appreciate the business.” By delivering visitors to businesses who welcome them, ikura relieves friction and overheads across the board.

In February 2024, ikura was selected for the Google for Startups Women Founders Fund. As well as mentorship and developmental support, the $100,000 equity-free capital enabled ikura to start up. “For early startups like us, it's really difficult to secure funding. So we were so excited to be able to access that funding for us to get our business started.” The ikura team worked with Google mentors to utilize real-time Google map data for accurate trip planning, and leverage Vertex AI to power the AI that generates ikura’s personalized itinerary and spot recommendations. The platform’s backend services are provided by Firebase, while data is stored using Cloud SQL, and BigQuery’s analysis tools improves its algorithms. Eiko says, “basically everything that we use is Google Cloud, so the Women Founders Fund ’s technical mentorship made complete sense for us.”

Eiko with fellow Google for Startups: Women Founders Fund recipients at Demo Day.

Eiko with fellow Google for Startups Women Founders Fund recipients at Demo Day.

For Eiko and her team, being a part of the program (including Demo Day) was “truly empowering. I gained tangible tools for leadership and fundraising and also developed greater confidence.” The mentorship “has been crucial for our growth. We're grateful for their guidance in privacy, AI, and leadership, as well as for fostering a vibrant community of women founders, all of which have contributed to our progress.” The program also included a residency at Google’s Shibuya space, and the Japan team supported ikura’s local community-building efforts. Eiko says of the team, “When GFS team members say, ‘ask us anything,’ they really mean it. We were connected to key decision-makers and mentors within Google who can help our product immensely.” ikura also received support in the form of new business, when Google became one of the company’s first customers—“boosting our credibility and opening up new opportunities,” says Eiko.

The startup journey can be lonely, filled with rejection, friction, and the challenge of disrupting the existing landscape. Being part of a community of founders made me feel less alone.

Ultimately, ikura’s goal is to make sustainable travel a global reality. Eiko tells us, “By connecting visitors with local businesses across Japan, ikura ensures that the benefits of tourism are shared inclusively. Moreover, our goal goes beyond showcasing Japan: we strive to foster connections and build a global community centered around more meaningful, authentic, and sustainable travel.”

Learn more about ikura