For Kenichiro Masuyama, who lives in Matsumoto City in central Japan’s scenic Nagano Prefecture, news that more foreign visitors than ever before are now coming to savor the region’s delights is hardly a surprise.

The prefecture is especially known for its highlands, and at 1,500 meters above sea level, Kamikochi has long been a starting point for ascents of the magnificent 3,000-meter peaks known as the Japan Alps. But as a magnet for tourists, it’s not only the mountains and boundless unspoiled nature that are the lure, because Nagano is rich in history and traditional culture, too.

But with all this going for Nagano, and more foreign visitors to boot, Masuyama still thought something was missing in Matsumoto that wasn’t missing in cities like Tokyo and Nagoya. That something was a giveaway magazine to provide practical information about the city and the prefecture in English.

After talking to non-Japanese friends and finding they agreed, with Masuyama as the driving force the first issue of the bilingual, English-Japanese free magazine NAGAKNOW was finally published in late April.

At present, the 24-page, A5-sized full-color monthly is primarily targeting Nagano’s estimated 120,000 foreign tourists a year along with its more than 40,000 foreign residents — plus, of course, any resident Japanese who want to share their information. Masuyama, while also working at a local hotel, heads the 14-member editing team and serves as editor in chief.

“Some may say this is just another free magazine,” said 32-year-old Masuyama. “And yes it is — but no. Actually, free magazines have been mushrooming both in Japan and elsewhere, but this is the first English-language free magazine in Nagano.” [“Mushrooming,” indeed they are, with some 1,100 free magazines and newspapers now being published in Japan, attracting a combined circulation of 260 million in 2006, according to the Japan Free Newspapers Association.]

In part, Masuyama believes, the success of such publications is due to the fact that, although municipalities like Matsumoto often make information available in English-language pamphlets on local food and drink specialties such as its sake and soba noodles, history and landmarks like its famed “Raven Castle,” they rarely offer practical information on where you can actually eat the soba or drink the sake.

NAGAKNOW aims to fill that gap and give useful information both for tourists and residents, including details of matsuri festivals and other local events, as well as community services such as Japanese lessons. This editorial mix, Masuyama explains, is supported by a survey his team conducted among local foreign residents to find what information they most needed.

Consequently, the first issue of NAGAKNOW, published on April 25, two days before the opening of this year’s mountain hiking season in Kamikochi, turned the spotlight on Kamikochi in particular — along with features on upcoming events in the area and the story of a Matsumoto ramen shop and its owner.

That blend of contents, however, followed intense discussions among the magazine’s workers about whether they should be aiming at foreign residents, foreign visitors — or both. “So far, we have decided to create the contents for both, because of Nagano Prefecture and Matsumoto City both being tourist destinations,” Masuyama says.

“We believe information which is useful and interesting to local people will also be useful and interesting for visitors. We try not to present a stereotyped Matsumoto and Nagano, but to cover stories that are really original to the localities. If the magazine also targets readers who are interested in Nagano but are living outside the area, it will be able to expand its readership much more.”

Such editorial direction, Masuyama explains, is the result of discussions among the magazine’s volunteer staff of people from different countries, some of whom have previous experience as writers, editors or designers.

“I think if a wider variety of people take part in writing stories for the magazine, the contents will become wider in scope, deeper and more interesting.”

Sounds like a simple formula, perhaps, but publishing local information in the form of a free magazine is a very challenging undertaking, he says.

Financially, the first edition has yet to break even, even though 1,000 copies were distributed to restaurants, supermarkets, department stores, colleges and bookstores in the Matsumoto area, as well as to some inns in Tokyo and Kyoto.

But believing in the potential of the medium, Masuyama and his team are working on the second issue scheduled for June, for which he hopes there will be more advertising revenue as he eyes creating a nonprofit organization to underpin their endeavors.

“We chose the form of a free magazine because I, myself, enjoyed reading English free magazines when I was in the United States and in Tokyo. Now, having had that experience of getting good and useful information for free, I don’t want to pay for it myself.

“We chose English because it is a language through which more people around the world can exchange and access information. So I hope a little ramen shop in Matsumoto may eventually become known to readers abroad through NAGAKNOW — and those readers will one day come here to taste the ramen and enjoy Nagano’s many other delights.”

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