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Tiny island offers expansive opportunities

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Tiny Yuge Island may be tucked away in Ehime Prefecture, but Japanese and international travelers alike continue to visit. Located on the Seto Inland Sea, residents have created delicacies from the island’s resources, incorporating salt, seaweed and native plants.

Shimade Cafe is one establishment where customers, including the roughly 15 percent that are non-Japanese, can order dishes made with locally grown ingredients.

“Most of my foreign customers are yacht enthusiasts from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and other places,” Ritsuko Murakami said at the third Satoyama Cafe, organized by The Japan Times Satoyama Consortium in Tokyo on Jan. 25. Murakami is the founder and president of Shimano Kaisha — the company overseeing Shimade Cafe. “Some of them spend months on the ocean. I heard Yuge Island was featured in a yachting magazine,” she said, offering a guess as to why the island is popular specifically among those traveling by yacht.

The most popular dish at the cafe is the Tsumina Lunch, with “tsumina” referring to the various healthy greens, flowers and seaweed naturally grown on Yuge Island. These ingredients include kikuimo, or Jerusalem artichokes, and hijiki seaweed.

Murakami has dedicated most of her career to boosting the island’s livelihood with its population of just over 3,000 residing within Yuge Island’s 12 km circumference.

Born on the island, she worked for the Yuge Town Hall for 38 years before establishing Shimano Kaisha. While at the town hall, she was assigned to create a “women’s cram school,” comprised of volunteers who would help the town hall preserve traditions and promote the island. The group created books with collections of traditional local tales, organized outings to allow area children to collect tsumina and held events for exchanges between islanders and people from other areas.

However, she wanted to take these activities to the next level. In 2004, she unified 16 all-women groups to establish the Oidensai Group. The members were responsible for running shops selling regional delicacies, overseeing larger events between island residents and others, as well as creating local dishes, crafts and other products.

In 2008, the members of Oidensai Group used their earnings to create Shimano Kaisha to promote Yuge salt, which is famous for its distinctive crystalline shape, and engage in various projects that link island promotion to its rich resources.

As president, Murakami continued to expand her organization. Opening Shimade Cafe was just one of her many accomplishments. In 2010, the company established Yugenosho, a nonprofit organization that makes Yuge salt. In the same year, the company also established the nonprofit organization Shimano University, which creates projects catering to the elderly community. These projects include growing kobu mikan limes and caring for the environment to protect tsumina.

When asked how she manages so many different activities, she said, “This is just the result of doing what I was asked to do. I just want to help those who need it.”

For example, her company delivers food to elderly residents who live by themselves — something that is normally the responsibility of city hall.

“I generally don’t think too hard. I start doing things when I feel like it,” she said. “The most challenging thing for me was not having enough time to sleep because I have been doing too many different things. My family probably faces more challenges than I do from me being too busy.”

Murakami wants to welcome more foreign tourists to Yuge Island. In addition to its hotel, the island offers several accommodation options, including homestays with area families that create a firsthand experience of everyday life on the island. Although small, the island’s experience-based attractions coordinated by Murakami’s company are unique and range from collecting tsumina to learning how Yuge salt is produced.

“I love this island and I want many people to come and enjoy great experiences,” she said..

This series introduces municipalities and local companies promoting the beauty and excellence of deep Japan.