Green tourism: where town and country meet

by Stephanie Gartelman

Ajimu in Oita Prefecture isn’t exactly a major tourist destination. Yes, it has luxuriant fields and picturesque farmhouses boasting unusual basque-relief paintings called kote-e, but most visitors spend a half-day at most in Ajimu, perusing its stone Buddhist carvings or the African Safari nature park, before heading to any of the fashionable hot-spring towns nearby. Although it has been dubbed the “Tibet of Oita Prefecture” for its remote location, there is nothing particularly exotic about this sleepy town.

So what’s the draw? Green tourism for harried city slickers, that’s what. Ajimu’s citizens clued into the fact that they did indeed have something to offer and since the early ’90s, Ajimu has actively promoted its natural assets.

Green tourism is, admittedly, a rather fuzzy term. It has its roots in European agri-tourism, but more comprehensively integrates agricultural, nature-oriented and relaxation activities in rural areas. Different again from eco-tourism, which is a blend of wilderness and adventure, green tourism is more suited to the cultivated, arable land of the Japanese countryside. One thing is clear, though: Green tourism has become a proven income-earner for rural towns with diminishing populations and productivity.

Large credit for Ajimu’s success can be given to the initiative of grape-grower Seiichi Miyata. According to Miyata, the idea of exploring the business opportunities in agri-tourism sprang out of the realization that Ajimu could no longer survive simply “by growing stuff and selling it.”

After putting together a local study group, Miyata has done much research of his own through regular visits to a village near Freiburg in southwest Germany, whose vineyard retreats have flourished since the ’60s. There, Miyata discovered that, contrary to agri-tourism’s objectives, not all visitors were enthusiastic about tilling, harvesting and other sweaty farm activities. Most were there to relax.

“Green tourism was starting to appear in Japan around that time,” recalls Miyata. “The concept and timing were perfect.”

With 300 members today, the green tourism group has been meeting bimonthly since 1996 to establish the activities and goals needed to make Ajimu one of Japan’s most-committed green tourism towns.

Beside accommodation and meals, fabric-dyeing, harvesting, charcoal-making and other activities are offered at 30 households in Ajimu, as part of the green tourism movement. Ten of these offer year-round services, while others have seasonal limitations. The annual number of overnight guests staying at the pensions rose from 100 in 1996 to 1,000 last year.

For Yokohama native, Yoko Sato, it was the cozy bed-and-breakfast inns that she encountered on a trip to rural Ireland that inspired her to start something similar under the banner of Ajimu’s green tourism movement. When Sato arrived five years ago, with her locally born husband, the town was just beginning to promote its rustic charms. Hopping on the bandwagon, the couple converted their 50-year-old wooden home into a Japanese B&B called Kitchen Garden Sato, where they offer lodging, bird-watching and gardening to city visitors.

Sixty-five-year-old Eiko and Toshihiko Yano, 70, receive city visitors almost every week at Ryusentei, their magnificent 70-year-old home. The Yanos say some guests like helping pick vegetables for dinner; others prefer to doze in the sun-filled tatami rooms. The smiling couple doesn’t mind how their visitors choose to experience green tourism. “We are just happy when our guests leave feeling genuinely refreshed,” says Toshihiko.

The Yanos were initially a little nervous about opening up their home to strangers. But they soon warmed to their new venture. “We love having guests, especially families with small children,” says Eiko. “And our visitors are so interesting — people of all backgrounds, people who have traveled everywhere. We have learned so much from them.” Her comments underline another goal on Ajimu’s green tourism agenda — to improve relations between city and countryside.

According to Nobuo Yofu, editor of the quarterly green tourism magazine Kyushu no Mura (Communities of Kyushu), Japanese city-dwellers have long held a drab image of the country. But there’s much evidence that interest in rural life has surged, says Yofu. He cites the dozens of new magazines that promote country life to urban readers, as well as films and TV shows that romanticize the rural community spirit. “Country people still don’t realize just how keen city people are to experience this lifestyle,” he says.

Yofu’s magazine, which started publication in 1998, introduces dozens of green tourism initiatives in Kyushu. They include agricultural holidays at Nishimera village in Miyazaki and Matama, Oita Prefecture; “rental fields” at Maebaru near Fukuoka city; and tourist farms and ranches throughout Kumamoto, Saga and Kagoshima Prefectures.

Green tourism still has hurdles to overcome, particularly regarding hospitality-industry legislation. “Pensions have to comply with strict laws, which often involve expensive renovation,” says Miyata. These include ryokan (inn) laws stating that at least five guest rooms be provided, each larger than 7-sq.-meters, and that a separate kitchen is available to prepare guests’ meals. This can pose difficulties in towns like Ajimu, where ordinary farmhouses, not ryokan, are offering accommodation as part of the green tourism movement. In Ajimu, however, farmhouses have developed a system to circumvent the ryokan laws — by asking guests to sign their agreement to the conditions.

Also evident is a need to better convey the overall message of the program. “Some guests think this is just another ‘check in, check out’ set-up,” explains Yoichi Kawano of the Green Tourism Section at Ajimu Town Hall. “They’ll arrive late and leave early, often without experiencing what there is to offer.” Kawano says that better communication between guests and pension owners is essential; and more festivals, advertising and other PR activities are a priority.

Despite the difficulties, green tourism has much to offer towns such as Ajimu. “Resort-style tourism tended to ignore local communities, building huge facilities somewhere and not caring whether they caused pollution or not,” says Yofu. “But green tourism’s small scale makes harmony with the local environment and people a matter of course.”

Having worked in Tokyo for 10 years before waking up to the beauty of his home town, coastal Munakata near Fukuoka, and returning there to live, Yofu hopes that green tourism will stimulate concern for nature. “In the past, Shinto taught people to respect nature,” says Yofu, whose family has for centuries served as priests of Munakata Taisha, one of Kyushu’s principal shrines. “Now, green tourism is teaching the same ideals.”