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Coastal town opens up to sailors, cyclists

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Onomichi Mayor Yūkō Hiratani shared some of the city’s recent efforts to attract more tourists during a recent interview with The Japan Times at his office in the new city hall that opened in January.

These efforts follow the city, located in the southeastern part of Hiroshima Prefecture, celebrating the 850th anniversary of the opening of its port that overlooks the Seto Inland Sea.

The new building was constructed using the skills and equipment to build large ships. Thanks to local shipbuilding methods, some of the construction materials were shipped via the sea and part of the building was built in the same manner that ships are.

Historically, the city has prospered with the growth of the maritime shipping industry. However, for the city’s sustainable development, Hiratani said it’s crucial for them to turn it into a port city people want to visit.

Last year, Onomichi welcomed a few superyachts visiting from overseas that journeyed from locations such as Central and South America. With the growing popularity of these large luxury yachts around the world, potential economic benefits they may bring to their ports of call are drawing attention from other port towns in Japan as an effective measure to revitalize rural regions.

“We would like to improve the environment of the port area to accommodate more of these international visitors to our city,” Hiratani said.

This year, Caledonian Sky — a luxury cruise vessel operated by a U.K. company — is scheduled to bring about 100 American cyclists to visit the area on July 2. It will first drop off its passengers at the port of Imabari, a city in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku island right across from Onomichi. The cyclists will then cycle, starting on the Imabari side, on the Shimanami Kaido expressway that connects the two cities across the Seto Inland Sea.

The ship is scheduled to wait for the cyclists at the port of Onomichi where they will be picked up after finishing the route and spend some free time in the town. Hiratani hopes many of these cyclists will return to Onomichi and become regular visitors.

The Shimanami Kaido is a scenic road about 60 kilometers in length and was designated by the government as one of the National Cycle Routes last year. The Biwaichi in Shiga Prefecture and the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura ring-ring road in Ibaraki Prefecture were also selected.

“There are many bike routes that offer ocean views, but not so many like this one that actually make you feel as if you are riding into the sea. It’s a rare experience,” Hiratani said.

Cycling Shimanami 2020, a biennial international bike ride event, will be held on Oct. 25 on the Shimanami Kaido. For this event, not only the bike lanes but also the toll road for motor vehicles of Shimanami Kaido will be used to make room for about 3,500 participants. The use of electric bikes is also welcome at this event to increase its appeal across generations.

With the increasing number of visitors from around Japan and abroad, Onomichi, however, is facing a new problem — a shortage of accommodations. The Setoda Project to turn old sukiya-zukuri (traditional wooden architecture) houses into a hotel through renovation and rebuilding is underway to not only solve this problem, but also to offer a serene and homey atmosphere of traditional architecture to inbound tourists. The town of Setoda is located on Ikuchi Island, which belongs to the city of Onomichi.

“The houses were originally donated to the city as buildings of historic value by a wealthy merchant who was successful in maritime trade,” Hiratani said.

The concept of the project is to turn the whole town into a multifunctional hotel. The area shop owners association is making its own efforts with support from the city to fill vacant stores on the local shopping street with new tenants and to revitalize the area.

“It was the former owner’s wish to use it for the revitalization of the region, so this project is a perfect way to realize that wish,” Hiratani said.

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