More than 250 local governments have offered to serve as host towns for foreign athletes who will take part in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, in a bid to promote exchanges with participants.

The central government has been soliciting ideas from local authorities willing to support visiting athletes. So far, it has approved 179 projects. Some registered host towns have already begun activities, inviting athletes and staff.

Murayama, a city in Yamagata Prefecture will host athletes from Bulgaria. The municipality held a two-week training camp for the country’s rhythmic gymnastics team in June, with an official saying the city hopes “the athletes can get used to Japan” as they aim for gold in 2020.

Bulgaria won the bronze medal in the rhythmic gymnastics team competition at last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

“Our city didn’t have any ties with Bulgaria before,” the official said. “The Olympics enabled us to form a friendship with the country.”

A group of 26 athletes and staff visited the city, where they performed in front of residents and practiced with members of a rhythmic gymnastics club at a local school, according to the official.

Athletes experienced Japanese culture by wearing kimono and taking part in a tea ceremony and a flower arrangement session offered by local residents. They also visited the nine elementary and junior high schools in the city to interact with students.

“It was the first time for most athletes to visit Japan, and they were delighted to be able to take part in cultural activities, which were rare opportunities,” the official said, adding that local residents were also pleased with the chance to get to know the athletes and watch a performance of some of the world’s top gymnasts.

Under the host town plan, the central government will shoulder up to half the costs for localities to hold sports and cultural exchanges.

Olympics minister Tamayo Marukawa said earlier this month that most towns registered so far have chosen to welcome athletes “from industrialized countries and Southeast Asia, with only six African countries involved.”

A government official expressed hope that more municipalities would open their doors to Africa and Latin America.

The government will solicit applications from local authorities several times a year as preparations for the games continue.

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