Tour operator Paul Christie describes his community project in Japan.
You intend to live here? The question greeted us as we began to fulfil our long-held dream of living in the countryside. Yet the speaker was not querying us so much as expressing her astonishment that anyone would want to live in her neighbourhood, albeit it is a picturesque village nestled in the beautiful surroundings of the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture.
In the early days after our arrival, the idea that someone could find good reason, other than birth, to live here was a common refrain amongst most locals we met. After all, even the majority of those born here over the past 50 years had left. Why would anyone be attracted to the place? What could be achieved here? Yet, over the intervening 13 years, we have found a happy home where we are raising a family, and an environment in which we focused development on making Walk Japan into a successful travel business.
The locals, however, had good reason to be sceptical. For decades, Japan’s declining and ageing population has been an increasingly serious issue in rural areas. As things stand, the prognosis for maintaining a healthily functioning society in much of the countryside is poor.
Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, Walk Japan has taken thousands of overseas visitors to bucolic, off-the-beaten-track areas of the country. One of the firm’s founders has spent his whole academic career researching the population issues facing rural Ayabe City in Kyoto Prefecture. And, it was my personal interest in rustic life—nurtured as a child in and around the orchards and hop fields of Kent—that was the principal motivation that led me back to the countryside.
Given this confluence of business, as well as academic and personal interests, establishing Walk Japan’s Community Project was a natural progression. It is now at the core of Walk Japan’s CSR programme.
Launched in 2010, the project is a long-term commitment by us, both as individuals and as a corporate entity, to reinvest in our village in Kunisaki, and help sustain it by working with locals and caring for the wider landscape. Activities include re-establishing natural woodlands and maintaining cedar plantations; reviving arable fields and creating orchards; caring for long-neglected park areas; and renovating disused buildings.
In addition to farming our own land, we assist our neighbours in tilling their fields, and planting and harvesting their crops. These activities have now reached a sufficient scale and momentum for us to see tangible, positive results in the villagers’ lives and surroundings. This investment of time and money also has the virtue of creating an environment suitable for sustainable tourism.
Our business, running tours exploring the country from Hokkaido to Okinawa, has always had a strong and direct local economic impact wherever we operate. We use mostly family-owned businesses, such as restaurants and inns, providing them with a regular and stable source of income. Our tours in Kunisaki similarly support local commerce. With 17 members of staff working in our office here, we are the largest employer in our village—and the impact of our business is all the greater for it.
Earlier this year, Katsusada Hirose, governor of Oita Prefecture, and Satoru Nagamatsu, mayor of Kitsuki City, visited us to learn first-hand about our business and community project. We also discussed our most ambitious project to date: the redevelopment of the local, disused elementary school as a locus of small-scale enterprises, local and international community interaction, housing, cuisine, art, education and tourism.
Our hope is to create a potent and practical symbol for a more sustainable society, economy and environment.
Recently, a local farmer and senior member of our community dropped by for our regular meeting to discuss progress being made with the Community Project, including the school. With a palpable sense that, together, we are proceeding to help create a more vibrant community, all scepticism about the future is becoming a distant memory.
All customers on our tours to the Kunisaki Peninsula participate in our Community Project. However, we warmly welcome anyone interested in paying us a visit to see what we are doing.