NAGANO – An increasing number of foreign visitors are traveling off the beaten path and taking part in farm-stay programs to get a taste of the typical Japanese country life.
It’s hoped that the popularity of stays in traditional farming villages, which have helped attract overseas travelers away from tourism hot spots like Tokyo and Kyoto, can help revitalize rural communities amid the nation’s tourism boom.
The annual number of foreign travelers to the country has already reached the 30 million milestone for the first time in 2018 and the country aims to welcome 40 million by 2020.
In late October, when leaves began to take on their fall colors, two workers for Chinese travel magazines were having fun harvesting carrots, green peppers and other vegetables on a farm in the Takeshi district of Ueda, Nagano Prefecture.
At night, they ate tempura made from the vegetables they picked earlier in the day, and sat up late playing hanafuda card games and other traditional pastimes at the farmhouse.
“We had a good time chatting with farmers, something that we can’t enjoy at ordinary sightseeing places,” said Jin Qiyang, 34, one of the two Chinese visitors.
“Chinese people are curious to understand Japanese culture deeply. I suppose there is a strong demand for farm stays,” Jin added.
The two were invited to the area by the central government, the Nagano Prefectural Government and a local tourism promotion body.
Tranquil mountainous farming communities like the Takeshi district, about 150 km northwest of central Tokyo, can be found across the country.
“At first, it never crossed my mind that so many people would come here all the way from other countries,” said Ichiro Kobayashi, 67, president of Shinshu Seishun-mura, a local firm operating farm-stay programs in the district.
The company has accepted Japanese students on school trips at contracted farmhouses in the area since 2002 and foreign tourists since 2005. Alongside Japan’s rising number of foreign visitors, the number of overseas guests participating in the program has been on the rise, hitting 2,322 and accounting for about 40 percent of total visitors in 2016.
Charging ¥8,000 per person per night, with dinner and breakfast included, overseas travelers from 20 countries and territories, including China, Taiwan and Australia, have joined the company’s programs.
According to a survey on farm stays by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. conducted in December last year, 66.2 percent of 71 program operators that responded to a question about foreign visitors said their number is “on the upward trend.”
By contrast, 43.3 percent of 104 respondents to a question about Japanese participants said their number “remains flat.”
Municipalities in other prefectures are also attracting foreign tourists with farm-stay programs.
In the town of Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, visitors can try planting and reaping rice and kneading dough to make udon (wheat flour noodles) and soba, with 195 households accommodating them as of 2016.
Some farmers of mandarin oranges, one of the specialty products of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, are trying to attract visitors with a fruit-picking program.
“It’s important for business operators to offer services and items that cater to what the overseas visitors want,” said Kazunobu Tsutsui, a Tottori University professor studying farm tourism for foreign tourists.
“It would be hard to keep the tourism industry running unless the agricultural business itself remains commercially sustainable. Amid a decline of farmers, it will be vital to secure successors through the migration of younger generations” to farming communities, Tsutsui added.