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Although travel is about new sights, sensations and experiences, more often than not, the chief pleasure of traveling is the temporary reprieve from the daily grind. Yet much of the travel experience leaves little time for forging deeper connections to people and places, and it can feel as though you’re simply skating across the surface of another somewhere.

Not so at the INOW program.

Based in Kamikatsu, a tiny village in the cedar-forested mountains of Tokushima Prefecture best known for its forward-looking zero-waste policies, the INOW program offers an alternative to sightseeing-centric modes of travel. Over two weeks, participants live in the village as local residents; even the program’s name, pronounced ee-no, is Awa dialect for “let’s go home.” Activities vary by season, ranging from tea harvesting to indigo-dyeing workshops, but always include several shifts volunteering at Gomi Station (Kamikatsu’s local waste-separation center) and zero-waste business Cafe Polestar.

If the itinerary sounds vague, that’s because it is — deliberately so. Each program is highly flexible and tailored to the individual participant based on their interests. But the true range of possible experiences in Kamikatsu isn’t evident from the INOW website at all, and that is partly by design.

Getting your hands blue: INOW program co-founder Linda Ding (right) and participant Naomi Weiser dyeing cloth at Watanabe’s, an indigo studio in nearby Kamiita. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Getting your hands blue: INOW program co-founder Linda Ding (right) and participant Naomi Weiser dyeing cloth at Watanabe’s, an indigo studio in nearby Kamiita. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

“It’s not a set program where everybody’s going to get the same experiences,” says INOW co-founder Linda Ding. “And we call it a program, but really, it’s like, ‘Here’s our lives, please come and join us.’”

“Think of it as tourism to change your own perspective,” co-founder Terumi Azuma says. “We want you to enter a completely different daily reality, and experience it as your own. The point is that we’re not treating participants as customers, but as someone living in Kamikatsu.”

Officially launched in July 2020, the idea for INOW came to Ding and Azuma rather organically. In 2019, they had originally intended to build a hostel in Kamikatsu to attract visitors to the town. Quickly realizing neither of them actually wanted to run a hostel, in its place they launched the Try Kamikatsu! Program, a kind of internship in which participants would work at Cafe Polestar — owned by Azuma — several days a week in exchange for food and lodging. The onset of COVID-19 forced the program to shut down for several months in spring 2020, which gave the pair space to rethink their goals and priorities, eventually resulting in the current INOW program.

One of the main draws of the program is experiencing the village’s zero-waste lifestyle. At the INOW house, participants are obligated to separate their trash according to the town’s stringent system, scrubbing their plastic wrappers clean and clipping them onto the hanger next to the sink to drip-dry.

The weight of play: At Kamikatsu’s Gomi Station, a children’s toy takes an entire hour to dismantle into its various components for recycling. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
The weight of play: At Kamikatsu’s Gomi Station, a children’s toy takes an entire hour to dismantle into its various components for recycling. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

At Gomi Station, where the sorting of 45 categories of trash is overseen by a small cast of city hall employees, you quickly learn to separate glass bottles by color, cans by metal type (aluminium or steel), and even different types of cartons. A children’s toy takes an entire hour to dismantle into its various components: a fistful of metal screws and a heap of colorful plastic. Volunteering here is an eye-opening experience; regular recycling systems in other parts of Japan feel profoundly inadequate in comparison.

For Azuma, a native of Kamikatsu, sharing the zero-waste lifestyle through INOW is more than simply adhering to town policies. It’s about discovering what you actually need to survive by learning how to reduce waste.

“Zero waste is about knowing yourself,” she says. “It’s about what’s important to you, what you’re willing to spend time, energy and money on, what will make your life feel happy and abundant.”

Ding concurs, adding that spending two weeks in Kamikatsu’s zero-waste system inevitably forces participants to change, one way or another. “One of the participants was someone who only ate at convenience stores,” she says. “There’s no konbini here, so he just had to cook for himself. It’s forcing people to be in these positions where they get to try something different.”

Both Ding and Azuma believe Kamikatsu has much more to offer beyond zero-waste lessons.

“When I first came to Kamikatsu, the thing that stood out to me the most is how people and nature have intertwined in one of the wildest places of civilization that I’ve ever seen,” Ding recalls. “There’s community, but I don’t have to go out of my way to be in nature. I simply have to walk out of my house.”

Indeed, another of the program’s draws is being able to spend time in nature with a number of local residents, many of whom lead quietly inspiring lives. You might spend a morning with activist Atsuko Watanabe cooking lunch over a wood-fired stove, or an afternoon making art and discussing philosophy with woodblock printmaker Osamu Nakamura.

Artistic itinerary: Spending an afternoon making art with local woodblock print artist, Osamu Nakamura. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Artistic itinerary: Spending an afternoon making art with local woodblock print artist, Osamu Nakamura. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

INOW’s very charms can be a source of frustration for some: unlike a tour, there isn’t always a real “schedule,” and activities often change at the last minute. Not everyone will be able to commit to two weeks on this program, and those who don’t drive may find Kamikatsu’s lack of transportation infrastructure a real headache — the nearest supermarket is a 10-kilometer cycle down the mountain.

But life in Kamikatsu is often about learning to take things as they come, and not being too attached to specific outcomes. Even if activities change, there is invariably something else to do: a waterfall to hike to, a forest to explore, an event at the local community center. Past participants all agree that two weeks feels far too short.

“We want to provide something that has more than just monetary value,” Azuma says over Zoom. Perhaps most remarkable is how INOW is able to make you feel right at home in Kamikatsu — several months on, I already find myself wondering when I’ll go back.

With its ability to truly welcome and integrate newcomers into the community over the space of just two weeks, INOW is the rare program that lives up to its name.

The INOW program runs for 14 days and costs ¥110,000 per participant. Accommodation and local transportation are provided. The fee does not include meals, transportation to and from Kamikatsu, or insurance. For more information, visit inowkamikatsu.com.

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