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Launch a tourist-friendly Seto Inland Sea ferry system and they will come

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For decades the Seto Inland Sea islands have been accessible to only the most intrepid foreign tourists. English guidebooks have long considered the mainland coastal cities of Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima (and perhaps parts of the western shores of Shikoku) to be the sole places of interest. The 250 or so inhabited islands scattered like pebbles between these two land masses — where the true heart and soul of the Inland Sea resides — have been relegated to guidebook text boxes labeled “Off the beaten track.”

The national government has yet to recognize the Seto Inland Sea islands as having their own tourism identity, and local governments often consider these far-flung extensions of their mainland towns to be “backward” and inconsequential.

There have been some notable exceptions, such as bridge systems built to connect some of the islands. The Shimanami Kaido even includes a dedicated path for lightweight vehicles such as mopeds and bicycles.

While some tourists have been attracted to the newly accessible isles, the bridges have also, unfortunately, contributed to the eroding of the local culture. A couple of the islands have been emboldened to further industrialize, leaving their coastlines felled and concreted over for shipbuilding, steel manufacturing or new factories. Other islands remain out of reach to foreign tourists because of their size — too big to walk or bicycle around comfortably for sightseeing. The infrequent public buses aren’t really an option either.

To visit the smaller, less accessible islands, non-Japanese tourists must resort to searching out the small harbors in various towns along the coast, dealing with questionable signage, non-English-speaking ferry port staff and unannounced schedule changes. On a wing and a prayer, the tourists may get to their destination.

If they succeed, they can forget about navigating public transportation during their stay, because everything on the smaller islands is within walking distance — their accommodation, the beach, the restaurants. Families can relax, let their children run and explore, swim, kayak, go hiking and spend time on the beach. After having exhausted themselves on the tourist beats in Japan’s major cities, most independent travelers are happy to just kick back for a few days of rest. The friendly islanders welcome such visitors, who are happy just being and don’t need to be entertained.

The government has every reason to be interested in revitalizing the Seto Inland Sea islands, and doing so with as little environmental impact as possible: without factories, coastline destruction and sea walls. Not only are these activities destructive to the natural beauty of the isles, but they are extremely expensive to implement and require years of planning. The truth is that the resources needed to attract tourists are already in place.

These long-sequestered island communities offer a plethora of cultural activities. In the same way that washoku, the nation’s World Heritage food, is indelibly linked to Japan’s four seasons, almost every facet of Japanese island life is dependent on this same ebb and flow of nature, resulting in an annual menu of events that has been played out for hundreds of years, some spanning a millennium.

Island gods are supplicated through seasonal ceremonies, rituals and directives. In springtime, the locals on one particular island ready straw boats and load them with handmade paper dolls that will be floated out to sea to help protect women from disease. The island next door has, from time immemorial, held a festival where men — all of them 42 years old — run at lightning speed while carrying a portable mikoshi shrine to ward off impending bad luck.

On the next island down the chain, the locals persuade destructive garden pests — via poetry and the beat of a taiko drum — to immediately turn themselves in. A few days later, those same islanders will honor Benzaiten, the goddess of the sea, in a ceremony performed at the lowest tide of the year.

Come summer, bon dances abound on the Inland Sea islands, with the natives costumed in yukata (summer kimono) and ancestral spirits seen off via lanterns on the sea. One particular island will perform the same dance it has for the past 700 years to appease the souls of the Heike warriors who died in an Inland Sea battle of 1185. In the autumn there are festivals to celebrate a good harvest, those performed to bring good fortune, and elaborate conflagrations to invoke the god of fire to rid you of your sins.

These are the activities of just a few of the islands. There are many more. Most would welcome tourists — if there were any.

The continuing decline of the islands means their ancient customs are in jeopardy of being lost forever. Yet these deeper connections to Japanese culture hold a distinct allure to overseas visitors. Giving tourists the chance to witness, and even participate in, these rituals would in turn help keep them alive.

The only thing the Seto Inland Sea lacks is a reliable, tourist-friendly transport service. Just like the shinkansen crosses prefectural boundaries so people can travel uninterrupted from one part of Japan to another on the same train line, tourism to the Inland Sea would be assured with the introduction of an inter-island ferry system. Like the train lines, it would operate year-round traveling up and down the 450 km (280 miles) stretch of sea, allowing passengers to get on and off at smaller islands as well as the larger mainland cities at the beginning, middle or end of their journeys.

But in contrast to a train line, no new train stations or tracks need be built. The sea routes are already in place — the lighthouses, ports, jetties and sea maps already established and in use. All that’s needed is a fleet of ferries. Once an island-hopping platform exists, Seto Inland Sea tourism will occur naturally, from its eco-friendly roots.

Let’s hope Japan has the prescience to halt the continued decline of the islands, which will result in such a great loss for Japan.

Japan Lite appears in print on the last Monday Community page of the month.