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G-7 venue preparation shouldn’t deter Mie tourists

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Special To The Japan Times

With world leaders gathering at the G-7 Ise-Shima summit on May 26 and 27, the international spotlight will briefly focus on picturesque Mie Prefecture and its considerable charms. For residents of the prefecture, however, this moment in the spotlight apparently won’t be brief enough; a recent Kyodo poll indicated most of them would rather the G-7 leaders meet somewhere else.

In recent months, residents have seen roadside signs pop up warning of upcoming traffic disruptions, and officials have been conducting emergency drills in the event of a terrorist incident, so it’s understandable that local enthusiasm has been muted.

Despite hopes that the summit will invigorate the local economy and confer a lasting cachet on the area, according to the poll only 3.4 percent of people surveyed said they were “very excited” about the extravaganza, with younger residents particularly underwhelmed.

Hosting world leaders has increasingly become a security nightmare for whatever remote locale is selected. Major urban centers are considered too vulnerable to disruption; thus, shifting the inconvenience to the boonies means fewer potential complaints and places that are more easily policed such as Aylesbury, England (2013), and Krun, Germany (2015).

For the owners of Shima Kanko Hotel, the gargantuan conference venue that will host the visiting delegations, the event is set to be an especially expensive headache. On a visit there in March I saw the frantic pace of preparations firsthand as the site was subject to renovations that ranged from repainting the vibrant vermilion on the surrounding traditional structures to replanting flower beds and refurbishing access roads. It was loud and disruptive.

The hotel itself is a colossal concrete-block eyesore situated on a glorious promontory with commanding views over the waters of nearby Ago Bay; hotel guests have the distinct advantage of splendid views unmarred by the behemoth. However, locals I spoke with worried that the net economic impact might be minimal as many tourists may choose to stay away from the region for much of May to avoid any inconveniences, and so some resent the fact the hotel is hogging all the benefits while everyone else is left with disruptions.

That would be a shame. Less than 30 minutes drive from the summit venue there are some amazing places to stay and explore. The coastal areas are especially inviting, with idyllic backwaters ideal for relaxing, gazing out over the pearl beds toward bays garlanded with rocky islets on which gnarled pines perch precariously.

The recently opened Amanemu in the city of Shima is the first hot spring resort operated by Aman Resorts, a posh brand of boutique hotels. The company started in Thailand and spread across Asia, proving a hit with high-end clientele. There are even “Aman junkies” who flock to as many of these far-flung resorts as possible.

It was inevitable that Aman would come to Japan, but it’s strange that it took so long. The first hotel opened in Tokyo’s Otemachi area last year, an unusual hybrid of chic boutique and office building. A friend who stayed there showed me his room, which featured sweeping views over verdant central Tokyo, but as much as the staff is attentive and the accouterments and lavish lobby a step up from top-end rivals in the city, it seems to lack the “Aman vibe” that even the frantic and smoggy Beijing site is able to muster in its lovely site adjacent to the Summer Palace. Amanemu was eight years in the planning and the developers’ meticulous attention to detail enables it to achieve the vibe.

Shima is somewhat off the golden path for tourists between Kyoto and Tokyo, and when thinking of high-end getaways the region may not be at the top of most travelers’ lists. When Amanemu’s manager gave me a tour of the site’s traditional wooden villas and many outdoor onsen (hot spring) baths, he also noted its proximity to the historically significant Ise Grand Shrine. As an added bonus, he mentioned the optional private tours to local tourist spots that included an excursion to the lovely Kii mountains where World Heritage-recognized sacred sites and pilgrimage route are located.

There has been a massive replanting effort in the area as a former resort operated by Yamaha had previously leveled the forest to make way for chunky concrete bunkers that used to be common and of which, thankfully, there are no remaining signs. The landscape remains somewhat barren despite all the new shrubbery and trees, though.

The restaurant at Amanemu, however, has panoramic views of Ago Bay. A charming Sri Lankan waiter who worked there provided his own beguiling take on omotenashi (hospitality). He and many of the other staff transferred from the Tokyo branch, and he said he was happy they did because Mie is a less harried and hurried place, far better suited to raising families.

Not far away, I stayed at the family-operated Hiogiso, a lovely wooden ryokan (traditional inn) on the water with excellent baths, massive tatami rooms with wraparound sea views and delicious seafood fare. While waiting for my Ise-ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) sashimi to stop twitching, I suddenly realized that our waitress was not Japanese. I learned that she and some of the other staff are Taiwanese on working holidays, an affordable way to see Japan and develop Japanese language skills. Their pleasant interaction with guests was a big plus, showing yet again how the internationalization of omotenashi is benefitting, and indeed essential, to Japan where bucolic ryokan are strapped for labor and foreign language skills are often limited.

Close to Hiogiso is the Ise Grand Shrine, which brings in hordes of pilgrims and tourists every year. However, it’s only every 20 years when the site’s sacred structures are rebuilt, a process known as shikinen sengū, that one can view some of the shrine’s most magnificent architectural glories. At other times access is more restricted, making the experience less enthralling.

“Ise Jingu and the Origins of Japan” is a new and superb English-language photo book that takes the reader inside Ise Grand Shrine’s inner sanctums and restricted zones. It’s the culmination of a decade-long project by Miori Inata, a New York-based photographer who gained rare access to the shrine precincts and surrounding sacred forests, river and rice paddies.

Ise Jingu is often called the soul of Japan, and the glimpses and evocations by Inata of the deities, ceremonies and rituals of endless renewal that have persisted over 13 centuries attests to a rare and treasured continuity between past and present in a country where, as Donald Richie often said, change itself is a tradition.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.