Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Waves of change washed over the Seto Inland Sea during the 2010s

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

Okayama Prefecture embarked on a plan to bring more foreign travelers to the Seto Inland Sea when it built an international villa on a small island in the Kasaoka island chain in 1988.

The villa sits on a 2.86-square-kilometer patch of forest and granite known as Shiraishi Island, which translates as White Rock Island in English. While the majority of the island’s 400 houses were built near sea level, the Shiraishi International Villa was constructed on top of a hill so visitors could admire the panoramic views of the Inland Sea. Guests there are able to sit on a wooden deck that overlooks the traditional Japanese-tiled roofs of homes facing the beach.

Often described as a “hidden gem,” the island remained popular among both domestic and overseas tourists until 2010. With the ever-increasing numbers of non-Japanese travelers looking for off-the-beaten-path peregrinations, there was no reason to think things would ever change.

But the bottom dropped out of foreign tourism all across Japan when the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the Tohoku region in March 2011. In addition to being one of Japan’s strongest earthquakes ever, the region was also hit by a tsunami and nuclear crisis resulting in more than 15,000 deaths. Even though Shiraishi Island is 800 kilometers away from the disaster zone and was not directly affected, there was a sharp decrease in international visitors that year. At the time, many of us living here worried about what would happen to our small island. Would anyone come back?

The tourist tracks

Although Shiraishi doesn’t offer World Heritage sites, cycling, art or famous tourist spots, the more intrepid travelers that venture here aim to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and colorful locals.

Island time: One of the draws of living on Shiraishi Island is that you can do things at your own pace. One day could be spent relaxing, the next day could be spent hiking. One thing's for sure, don't forget your camera wherever you end up. | AMY CHAVEZ
Island time: One of the draws of living on Shiraishi Island is that you can do things at your own pace. One day could be spent relaxing, the next day could be spent hiking. One thing’s for sure, don’t forget your camera wherever you end up. | AMY CHAVEZ

While northern Japan was quietly trying to find its way in the years following the disaster, a surge of promotion buoyed the commercial appeal of other Inland Sea destinations. To the west of Shiraishi, the Shimanami Kaido — a highway with bridges spanning a string of seven islands from Honshu to Shikoku — was coming into own, with English-language articles boasting of the dedicated bicycle paths built into the bridges to make them cyclist-friendly.

To the east, the Benesse art islands began expanding their art installations farther afield than the main island of Naoshima to appeal to a burgeoning group of art-lovers taken with wanderlust. Both areas further invested in businesses that would provide accommodation, restaurants and side-entertainment. While Naoshima now suffers from overtourism, the Shimanami Kaido’s 60-kilometer-long cycling route is a long way from having to worry about such a problem.

With the dip in tourism due to the 2011 disasters, our island is no longer competitive. Even in 2019, the Shiraishi International Villa’s occupancy is still down 10 percent from 2010 despite an overall increase in foreign arrivals in Japan from 8.5 million 10 years ago to more than 31 million in 2018. Of the current figures, Japanese people account for an increasing percentage of overnight stays due to a gradual easing of a previous ban on Japanese nationals unless they were accompanied by one or more foreign guests.

What has transpired over the years here is not an aversion to foreign tourism. Most locals would indeed like to see more non-Japanese visitors come to experience the joys of nature and the liberty of “island time” where your day is filled with no plans, no must-see sites and no museums to rush to before they close. On the contrary, on island time, spontaneity reigns allowing you to relax one moment, and go hiking or kayaking the next.

Focusing inward

Our island community dropped from 641 residents in November 2010 to 453 at present. Over the past decade our local doctor passed away, the kindergarten and elementary school have closed and, this spring, the seaweed business folded and the remaining fishermen are few.

The houses that dot Shiraishi Island are filled with folk that are likely to stop and chat with any visitors, one of the island's many charms. | AMY CHAVEZ
The houses that dot Shiraishi Island are filled with folk that are likely to stop and chat with any visitors, one of the island’s many charms. | AMY CHAVEZ

For now, Kasaoka Mayor Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Tadashi Amano, the island’s community director, are focusing on addressing the concerns of island residents and improving their lives. While attracting more overseas tourists remains a concern, there are no definitive plans in the works to try to bring in more people from abroad.

Our island chain was recently awarded Japan Heritage status, though, a surefire way to bring in Japanese visitors from other parts of the country. Domestic tourism is more familiar, less volatile and can be accomplished through multiple known outlets using resources that are currently available.

“With increased domestic awareness of the island’s role in the history of stonemasonry, perhaps foreign tourism will follow,” Amano says in a hopeful tone.

The New York Times recently ranked the Seto Inland Sea seventh in its “52 Places to Go in 2019,” but our island still struggles to attract people from overseas. This may mean the glory days of international tourism are over for our island and that the villa will no longer be very international. True diversity may fade into the past along with the 2010s. While it would be gratifying if overseas tourists find us on their own, for now most inbound tourists are heading to more popular cities and towns. It appears that the 2020s will be about looking inward and getting our own house in order.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).