At the Sea People restaurant in Shima, a coastal hamlet in Mie Prefecture, sea diver Machiyo Yamashita wants a piece of a tourism industry dominated by the cities that sapped her town's vitality by luring away its youth.

"I want to cook and serve customers abalones I caught myself an hour ago," said Yamashita, 64, over a lunch of shellfish, "aosa" sea lettuce and seaweed soup, all featuring items she found in the sea that morning. "The real stuff is cheap and delicious, and has to be fresh."

Attracting tourists to Shima, renowned for female divers who harvested pearls before K Mikimoto & Co. set up a farm nearby, would help the town counter the decline caused by the depopulation blighting the provinces. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe identifying tourism as a source of growth, local bankers and officials are taking unprecedented steps to stimulate the industry.