A village boasting a 600-year-old history, a historical site of Confucianism in South Korea. This small, traditional village is known by many names, but in recent years it has come to serve another purpose: a bridge to better ties with Japan.

Isao Tsuchikawa started running Tokyo-based travel agency IO Travelers Co. with his younger brother, Osamu, in 2009 and saw the tourism potential of the Andong Hahoe folk village before it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

“We suggest and give ideas on what kind of travel would be interesting in Andong. And that is something that cannot be found in guidebooks,” Isao Tsuchikawa said, noting that their close ties with Andong-based travel groups and authorities give the agency an edge.

Aiming to think outside the box, the firm is one of the rare Japanese travel agencies that offers trips tailor-made to each traveler and gives people a chance to interact with the local community while traveling in Hahoe and elsewhere in the city of Andong.

Situated in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk Province, in the southeastern reaches of South Korea, the village of Hahoe is home to descendants of the Ryu clan of Pungsan.

For local residents, the single-clan village presents a picturesque sight of a nostalgic past, featuring the thatched-roofed, traditional houses of the Joseon Dynasty and surrounded by the Nakdong River.

It also gained fame after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II’s visit there in April 1999 and is noted for its famous Hahoe Mask Dance Drama, a shaman rite. According to Andong officials, more than 1 million people travel there annually.

Visitors from Japan and elsewhere get a taste of historical and cultural tours through Hahoe, a three- to four-hour drive from Seoul or Busan. They also have the option of staying at houses in the village, the Tsuchikawa brothers said.

IO Travelers going to Hahoe plan out their itineraries carefully and make sure they are unique, not just the customary, cookie-cutter variety trips commonly sold in Japan, the brothers said.

Feedback from customers has been good.

The hope in the long run is for more people to take an interest in the entire city, and by so doing “foster goodwill between Japan and South Korea,” Osamu Tsuchikwaw, the company’s co-head, said.

“The idea is that hopefully more people will come to Andong for the sole purpose of visiting the city, and not just take it as a side trip when they visit Seoul or Busan,” Isao said.

While tourism takes a hit every now and then when political ties between Tokyo and Seoul become frosty, the Tsuchikawa brothers seem to take these challenges in stride and focus instead on what they see as low-key efforts to fuel interest, particularly in Andong.

In a related development, tourism in regional cities is one of the new engines for the Korea Tourism Organization, which aims to achieve an annual target of 17 million overseas tourists by 2018.

“South Korea has become one of the influential countries in the world tourism industry, drawing more than 13 million international visitors last year,” Chang Soo-jung, president of the Korea Tourism Organization, said at a gathering early this year addressing more than 80 media representatives from around 50 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

Chang made his remarks during the journalists’ weeklong trip in April, which was organized by the Journalists Association of Korea, in cooperation with such government entities as the South Korean foreign and tourism ministries.

Participants in the tour for the Journalist Forum for World Peace were there to discuss peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and to visit places in South Korea reflecting the country’s economic prowess.

Chang said his organization “has made great efforts to establish South Korea as one of the world’s top tourist destinations” by engaging in value-added tourism by promoting its traditional and pop culture.

In an optimistic outlook on the Asian neighbors’ ties, a Japanese government survey in March said that public sentiment toward South Korea has improved, with 33.0 percent of those polled saying they feel friendly, up 1.5 percentage points from the previous survey in 2014.

The survey came after Japan and South Korea signed a pact in December to resolve, once and for all, the long-standing issue of the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemism for the masses of females who were forced into Japanese military brothels during the war to provide sex for Imperial Japanese troops.

Isao does not know how their efforts to boost interest in Andong will pan out in the bigger picture of enhancing bilateral ties, but says he and his brother have a desire to contribute to such an end.

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