National | Regional voices: Chubu

Iga, known for its ninja, looks to draw foreign tourists by turning castle town into a hotel site

Chunichi Shimbun

The Mie Prefecture city of Iga, the origin of one of Japan’s most famous ninja clans, plans to open the growing number of vacant homes in its castle town to tourists.

Under the “castle town hotel” project, the Iga Municipal Government will renovate traditional Japanese homes — some built in the Edo Period — in the district south of Ueno Castle. The idea is to appeal to foreign tourists by offering the experience of staying in a castle town.

“We hope to make use of historically valuable buildings and curb the decline of the city center,” an Iga official said.

Around a corner from the main street in Iga, homes line a quiet street. Some have gates and gardens, many overtaken by weeds.

“There are more than six vacant houses along this street alone,” said Takashi Toyomi, a municipal government official in charge of vacant houses. “It would be a waste not to utilize the houses with such an atmospheric feel. If vacant houses keep on increasing, the community would disappear as well.”

According to the local government, there are 308 vacant houses in the city center, making up 15 percent of all empty housing in the city.

The city will start by renovating five vacant homes in the area within a radius of 500 meters by the spring of 2020, with the idea of creating a small villa with a reception area, a restaurant, a gallery and an information center for foreign tourists. The city will also create a map showing restaurants and public baths in the neighborhood.

According to the municipal government, as many as 111 vacant houses in the city center were evaluated as having high historic value, having been built in the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) or the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912), with some more than 200 years old. The city plans to start renovating them in 2020.

The idea of transforming a castle town into a hotel started in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2015, when officials there launched a project to revitalize the area.

Nipponia is a group of traditional homes scattered around Sasayama that are used as accommodations for tourists. The buildings maintain their traditional look on the outside but have been refurbished inside with changes such as turning a kitchen into a lobby.

“In addition to the increase of tourists who stay longer, we are seeing more people settling in or starting businesses here,” said Takeshi Fujiwara, head of Note, a Sasayama-based company that operates Nipponia.

Regarding Iga, Fujiwara said: “The size of the castle town (in Iga) is bigger than that of Sasayama, and the place is already well known thanks to ninja, so it has a lot of potential.”

Iga Mayor Sakae Okamoto, who visited Sasayama on an inspection tour, said: “We hope to follow suit in Iga with the help of the private sector.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 24.