Written by Catherine GERMIER-HAMEL
Last month, an international team undertook a co-creative trip to three Japanese destinations in order to support local communities in their efforts to develop sustainable travel experiences for international visitors.
Do tourists -or I'd rather say "travelers" since the term "tourism" seems to have become a bad word over the past years, especially when it comes with the prefix "over"- really care about the communities living in the destinations they visit? Not really. Or at least, not naturally. In fact, many travel experiences are just a brief and superficial encounter between a visitor and a place, local populations being usually spectators rather than actors. Moreover, only a small portion of the tourism revenues usually go into the pockets of the locals, and we may therefore wonder why they should have any interest in receiving tourists. On the other hand, a little more compassion and genuine interest from both part, combined with enough interpretation and interaction could make any relationship between hosts and guests deeper, more meaningful, and mutually beneficial.
On 14-19 June, 2019, I had a chance to take part in a co-creative trip to Japan as the Founder and CEO of Millennium Destinations, and co-Founder of the Herost project, developed as a global online platform and network for the co-creation, promotion and sharing of sustainable, community-based (CBT) experiences, especially in Northeast and Southeast Asia.
This co-creative trip was organized within the framework of Travel Well, an initiative supported by Japan Airlines and aimed at developing sustainable CBT experiences in four pilot destinations, to be promoted internationally: 1. Kesennuma (Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku Region), 2. Amami-Oshima Island, 3. Tokunoshima Island, and 4. Kikaijima Island in the Amami Archipelago (Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu Region). The trip in June covered the three first destinations.
Other members of the Herost project team included Louis HAAG, co-Founder and Managing Director of Seoul-based GreenBIM Engineering, and Shinobu HAYAMA, Founder and CEO of Tokyo-based Journey for Change, as well as our intern Lucas BASSET. We were also accompanied by Dr. Takahiko Nomura, CEO of Future Sessions, a partner of the Travel Well Project.
Earlier this year, the Travel Well project had carried out a participatory process in consultation with local / regional stakeholders in order to identify different inbound travel market segments and build targeted concepts, contents and experiences to leverage the value of the natural and cultural assets of the destinations. In particular, Amami-Oshima has recently started to receive large-scale cruise ships bringing short-stay visitors, which may create both opportunities and threats in the near future, hence the necessity to rely on a relevant marketing and sustainability strategy.
THEME 1: RESILIENCE / SLOW LIVING
Destination: Kesennuma (気仙沼市 Kesennuma-shi), Miyagi Prefecture (Tohoku Region)
As of 1 October 2018, Kesennuma had an estimated population of 62,124 and a population density of 187 inhabitants per square kilometre. Large sections of the city have been destroyed by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and major fires in March 2011.
How can community-based tourism contribute to heal destinations and locals who survived a disaster?
What does it mean to live together with the ocean, and be sometimes hurt by it?
When you lose everything, including your family members and your home, how do you find the strength and motivation to start over?
Day 1 - Upon arriving in Miyagi, we stopped by Minamisanriku, a town that was hit by the 2011 tsunami at an unprecedented scale, where we visited the new SanSan shopping village. This reconstruction symbol was first built in 2012. It was then closed in 2016 before reopening permanently the year after, in a new location on elevated land. It is located close to the red metal skeleton of Minamisanriku's Crisis Management Center, which has been kept as a symbol of the town and a shrine for the victims of the tsunami.
We then moved to Kesennuma city where we met our local guide Mr. Nishant Annu, who currently works for the local tourism organization Visit Kesennuma.
We took a sunset boat tour around the bay, surrounded by voracious seagulls, then moved to Tsunakan minshuku (inn/guesthouse) run by a local lady who started this business soon after the tsunami, as a place aimed at encouraging guests to visit the area again, and as a way to move forward. During our dinner, we shared stories about courage, resilience and the ability to recover from traumas through action.
Day 2 - After a hearty breakfast, we left our minshuku and drove to Karakuwa area where we visited an oyster and scallop farm. The owner of the farm had initially left Karakuwa for Tokyo where he pursued a busy yet increasingly frustrating career. He therefore decided to go back to his hometown and take over his father's farming business. Soon after he started, the 2011 tsunami destroyed all the facilities. Humbled by the unpredictable power of nature he decided to start again from scratch, and to welcome visitors from overseas to share his story of positive recovery. During our visit, he expressed his deep gratitude for all the support he had received from abroad, and particularly France, after the tsunami.
After a boat tour around the farm, we went to his place where we were offered huge cooked oysters while listening more about his story. He suddenly invited us to stay for lunch (although there was not much room left in our stomachs). Later on, his wife, who had kept off to prepare the lunch with her stepmother, joined us and I felt the urge to ask her if she was happy. "So so", she replied with a faint smile. I promised her we would develop tourism activities that include her as much as possible and we would come back with French recipes to cook for her.
Day 2 - Afternoon
After lunch, we moved to Seiryoin temple in Miyagi Prefecture to practice Zen meditation. This beautiful temple has long represented a vibrant community center for the locals, as most Buddhist temples have in Japan in the past. It then became a rescue and healing shelter in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
Seiryoin also hosts Hamawarasu, an organization helping children build or restore a peaceful and trustful relationship with the sea and nature, through a variety of outdoor activities.
After meditating and (re)learning how to let go, the team was invited to take part in cleaning activities in preparation of an upcoming jazz festival at the temple, before sharing joyful stories over coffee. We were told that the abbot was a music lover and a talented singer.
Day 2 - evening: after leaving the temple, we went to visit Iwaisaki, the southern entry point of Sanriku Geopark, in order to have a better understand of the impact of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on the area. In particular, we stood by a former middle school close to the ocean that was hit by the big wave. Luckily all students could be evacuated on that day but some teachers had to stay in order to rescue valuables. They eventually went to the rooftop. Thinking their last hour had come, some of them started to smoke cigarettes although they knew it was strictly prohibited. But in the end, they all survived.
In the evening, we checked in a newly built guesthouse run by Tsuji-san, with whom we shared stories of how our choices can lead us either to dark places or comfort zones. Tsuji-san's son was one of the students who could be rescued from the middle school. The son had initially planned to become a fisherman but resolved to embrace a career of fireman, fighting fire with water.
Water can kill, water can heal, water is life.
Day 4 (morning) - After a Herost presentation and discussion on sustainable and community-based tourism at breakfast time, we left our minshuku to go to downtown Kesennuma where we visited Otokoyama Honten sake brewery, which was founded in 1912. The store, office and shop were taken away by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Luckily, the brewing facilities remained intact and the owner, Akihiko Sugawara, convinced his team to go back to business the day after the disaster as a pioneer of the recovery of Kennesuma so that sake keeps cheering locals in the trivial and crucial moments of their lives.
Akihiko Sugawara has been promoting Kennesuma as the first Slow City in Japan since 2013.
Before leading a tour of the brewery facilities, he played a video about the aftermath of the tsunami Discovery Channel’s: “Beyond the Tsunami” in which Ken Watanabe visits Kesennuma after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and explained more about sustainable community development in the area.
During this first part of the trip, we were able to know more about the lives and concerns of our hosts, and their daily struggle to keep going on in spite of traumatizing memories and a lingering sense of loss. We made a point to give back to them and to show our appreciation of their hospitality through cheering them up as much as we could, mostly through using humour. This was made possible through very professional interpretation services, although some of our French jokes could hardly been translated.
The people we have encountered have been very sincere in sharing sweet and sour moments of their lives, which gave us the comfortable feeling of being most welcome.
We have been able to provide insights and ideas with our hosts and partners so that local culture is preserved as a strong cement for the local communities and a valuable asset for tourism.
We were also able to appreciate the strong relationship between local community members and their natural environment. This gave us a more acute sense of the place.
In the future this experience could also include some eco-friendly practices such as plogging hikes, discovery of the local flora and fauna.
THEME 2: BALANCE / HARMONY
Destination: Amami-Oshima (Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu Region)
The largest island in the Amami archipelago between Kyūshū and Okinawa, Amami Oshima covers an area of 712.35 km2 and has a population of approximately 73,000 people. Much of this semi-tropical island is within the borders of the Amami Guntō National Park, added to the list of Japan’s 34 national parks in 2017.
The Amami Islands feature stunning landscapes and a rich biodiversity including several rare endemic species such as the Amami black rabbit, often referred to as a living fossil, or the Habu pit viper. The islands are also a popular for whale watching and spotting sea turtles from the shore. The Amami Ōshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, the northern part of Okinawa Island and Iriomote Island, located in Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, have collectively applied to be registered as UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site and are now in the tentative list, with official registration expected in 2020.
How do people connect with each other?
What is true happiness?
What does it mean to live as citizens of the earth?
How can the community-based tourism contribute to the cultural and natural heritages of the islands?
After landing on Amami Oshima, we went to Basyayama-mura resort where we had “Keihan", a local traditional dish made of chicken and rice, and shared ideas and insights on how to best promote the island and its key natural and cultural assets, with "Ken", the owner of the resort, as well as Masayuki Sakae, Regional director of Japan Airlines, Akimi Sogioka, representative of Amami International network, and Tim Shostak, our American guide and interpreter who became a local.
We then checked in at Sango Beach minshuku located in Yamoto-son willage, run by the joyful Ms. Saatchi, with the support of her son Junta.
Day 5 - After another copious breakfast, we experienced tie dye activities using garcinia leaves in a neighboring coffee / workshop, and then we had a stand-up paddling (SUP) session, for the first time in my case. I surprised myself being able to keep my balance and enjoying this relatively relaxing exercise ("sitting-up paddling" in my case). While other Herost team members continued with snorkeling, I stayed on the shore and had a discussion with Akimi Sogioka on ecotourism and sustainable tourism in the area, and the necessity to preserve the fragile local ecosystems of Amami islands from unplanned and uncontrolled tourism development.
We had lunch at the SUP center before going on a bicycle tour around the island. We first managed to spot a sea turtle swimming in a small harbor, before heading to Amami Wildlife Center, founded and run by the Japanese Ministry of Environment. We learnt that small Indian mongooses had been brought to the island in order to kill the venomous Habu pit vipers living in the mountain but it turned out the rodents were more interested in eating rabbits and frogs (a familiar diet for us Frenchies), and they eventually proliferated in such a way that they had to be eradicated, according to the Invasive Alien Species Act. Nowadays, only a few of them remain.
After going back to Sango Beach, we had a walk around Yamoto-son village, guided by Osamu Nakamura, President of local NPO Tamasu, dedicated to promoting the conservation of Amami's natural and cultural heritage. We concluded the tour by a BBQ dinner at the Sango Beach where Osamu introduced Tamasu's activities in the field of environmental protection, highlighting the dilemma of developing tourism in the island without destroying the the natural and cultural assets it depends on. Our discussion was followed by an animated and Shima-Uta (island folksong) performance by senior community members, a good opportunity to enjoy “Kokuto Shochu", the local alcoholic beverage made with brown sugar.
During our stay in Amami Oshima, we had a chance to be guided by an English-speaking local who provided us with extensive information on the local culture and traditions. This really enriched our experience. We also had many opportunities to interact deeply and directly with our local hosts and all in all, our exchanges have been very productive, and offered us many different perspectives on tourism development for Amami Oshima.
Cycling and walking were a great way to explore the island with limited carbon footprint.
Some experiences such as tie dye, SUP and bicycle were not really part of the island cultural heritage but they could surely be promoted as part of the new local culture, under the theme of balance and harmony with nature.
Day 6 - In the morning, we visited Kagoshima Prefecture Amami Park, where we learnt more about the different characteristics and history of Amami island. We visited its Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum displaying works by the late painter, who once lived on the island.
Amami Islands have been successively under the domination of Ryukyu (Okinawa), Satsuma clan (mainland), and the USA (1945-1953). This history of hardship and submission surely contributed to shape their unique culture.
THEME 3 STAMINA / LONGEVITY EXPERIENCES
Destinations: Tokunoshima (Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu Region)
Tokunoshima, one of the Satsunan Islands, has a population of approximately 27,000, and has become famous for the outstanding energy and dynamism of its inhabitants, which could explain its record birth and longevity rates.
Together with the consumption of Kokuto Shoshu?
Families in Tokunoshima are therefore large, and can even include fighting bulls, which are treated as family members and are raised with great care.
Tokunoshima is also popular as a sport venue. Since 1988, the year of the Summer Olympics hosted in Seoul, many athletes have visited the island to participate in the 98 km triathlon competition (swim, bike, and run). Naoko road, named after the Olympic gold medalist is part of the race.
What does it mean to be an island of longevity?
What does it mean to have an extended family including a bull?
What does it mean to be exposed to pristine nature?
Day 6 - Our arrival in Tokunoshima was delayed because of a typhoon, which actually set the tone of our short yet intense stay on the vibrant island. After being warmly welcomed by the Manager of Tokunoshima Tourism organization and his team, we had lunch in a newly open Kanan Blue restaurant where we were served a tasty traditional lunch meal made of local wild boar delicacies.
We then had a guided tour in the area to explore the local flora and fauna, and very quickly we were invited to experience another SUP session ("suffering-up paddling" in my case, as my body was aching all the time). I was not able to observe any coral in the ocean since the only position I felt comfortable was lying on my back and watching the clouds. However, the experience was exhilarating, and in many ways hilarious.
We walked (where did I find the energy to walk, I don't know) to Sankaisou minshuku, run by a local mother where we were offered a fantastic feast for dinner involving fresh lobster, fish and seafood, paired with Japanese beer and the French and American wines (obviously not local but purchased in a local convenience store) that we had brought for our hosts.
The day and evening were far from being over since we were energetically invited to leave the comfort of our minsuhiku to have a night tour to observe endemic and rare species of the island such as hermit crabs. We could see million (or so) of them but at almost midnight, everybody agreed that Amami rabbit, rats, birds, wild boars could wait to be seen.
Day 7 - The last day of our trip started very well for us, since we were exempted from waking up in the middle of the night to watch the sun rise.
On the other hand, we had to get prepared for a last but not least stand-up paddling session ("sleeping up paddling" in my case). I therefore got dressed to go to the beach since that was the plan. To my surprise, and my contentment, we stopped by a place which did not smell the ocean but rather the field. We realized that we would actually have an encounter not with a board but with a bull.
During the domination of mainland Satsuma clan, bullfight was the only leisure for the locals. Today, many visitors, including Koreans who are familiar with this tradition, come to Tokunoshima to watch bullfight competitions, which are traditionally hosted three times a year.
Since my bull did not seem to be in a fighting mood, I volunteered to brush him, oblivious of the fact he could either crush me like an homeless hermit crab or simply stain my white short. Then our group, composed of our team, our hosts, the bull and his human family members went to the beach for a training session. As soon as the bull smelled the odor left by his fellow fighters on a palm tree, he became slightly mad and almost unearthed the tree with his horns. He then came back to normal after a few steps on the beach. The bull and his two carers, a young couple who were to get married on the same day, formed an extraordinary scene on the beach, a mix of elegance, placid strength, love and trust.
We visited a few other places such as caves and observation towers, before having another healthy lunch prepared with great care and tasty local ingredients by a local community café where we shared more insights and ideas with local destination managers and project partners, on sustainable , community-based travel development in Tokunoshima, with a focus on different travelers profiles such as young adventurers and silver tourists seeking rejuvenation / anti-ageing activities.
The last part of our program was as epic as busy as it has started and allowed us to feel the island landscape, nature and culture through several site visits, including a co-working space run by the Manager of the tourism organization.
During the visit of Tokunoshima, many people helped us for interpretation and we had the chance to interact with the local tourism stakeholders and project partners in a deep way.
We believe the bull-sumo culture should be better explained in order to avoid potential controversies, especially from Western tourists. While bull-sumo (or even human-sumo) may be difficult to understand and accept for some people, we learnt how it was crucial and sacred for the community. In some ways, bullfights seem to impersonate the powerful energy running through the veins of its inhabitants, as well as through its fauna, flora and event inanimate things.
It would also be interesting to create "sugar cane route" to explain how it is strongly influencing the local culture (same for Amami Oshima).
The extraordinary longevity and birthrates could be highlighted through longevity / well-being experiences and events such as festivals.
We provided some insights and recommandations on how to preserve and better the local nature, and suggested that the bike sharing system is better promoted. Even if cars and trucks seem to be the most convenient way of circulating, green transportation could be more encouraged.
Finally, some beaches could be cleaned by groups of locals and foreign visitors. We have identified garbage from many different countries such as China and Korea but not only.
How can a destination achieve popularity without losing its identity, integrity and dignity?
Are we careful enough what we wish for when it comes to tourism development and marketing strategies? Don't we create monsters through the dictatorship of likes and filtered pics?
The path towards sustainability is not an easy one and is often paved with a myriad of good intentions, and illusions leading to ill-informed and irrational choices.
Instead of selling dreams and utopias, why don't we focus on the divine essence of hospitality?
We are convinced that tourism, as an increasingly universal element of people's lives and lifestyles, has the capacity and the responsibility to stand as a reference and a model for sustainable consumption and production.
Travel Well is an initiative aimed at developing sustainable inbound tourism experiences in Japan through creating journeys contributing to regional revitalization and generating net positive social, environmental and economic impacts.
HEROST is a global online platform and network for co-creating, sharing, and promoting life-changing sustainable, community-based travel experiences.