A small town in Japan changes the way of tourism
Uchiko cho is a small town located at a corner in Shikoku Island, Japan. Miles away from Tokyo and its population, currently just under 17,000, the town struggles to stop its population from shrinking. However, Uchiko is one of the most prominent towns in Japan that they started to protect their historic townhouses 40 years ago when Japan in post-war time looked only something new.
I did not feel that I would like to visit Shikoku until my late 40s. In general, it is said that the most famous tourism asset in Shikoku is the Henro Pilgrimage, a Japanese version of Santiago de Compostela. Because I am not a buddhist, patiently walking through the four prefectures, Kagawa, Tokushima, Kouchi and Ehime, on Shikoku island was my least interest. It was Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin that finally lured me to Shikoku first time. Although I only stayed on a small island at that time, I found that Shikoku offers lots of historic and cultural places and unspoiled nature much more than I had imagined before. Since then, I wanted to go back to Shikoku.
For my second visit to Shikoku Island, I decided to go to Uchiko cho in Ehime prefecture. Through the year, Uchiko presents lots of traditional events; Kite fighting festival in Spring, Lantern festival in summer, Moon viewing in autumn and more. From the point of mass tourism, however, Uchiko could be seen as a place that does not have eye-popping views inside the area. Recently, the travel industry in Japan has tended to fan tourists to only see and visit Zekkei, extreme landscapes in Japanese, which you have to see before you die.
Frankly, when I enjoyed wandering through Uchiko, none of the views I experienced were too spectacular to take my breath away. Nevertheless, the views are penetratingly beautiful. It may not be as romantic as the bridge in Madison County, but Tamaru Bridge is an authentic bridge with a roof. You can walk through the main street of preserved traditional houses (Machinami Hozon area) within 30 or 40 minutes, but if you carefully look behind the doors of the houses, you will find the rich history of Uchiko. At the centre of Uchiko cho area, Uchiko za, a wood-built theatre, has stood there for a century and the community still uses the theatre to entertain visitors as well as themselves. The charm and beauty of mountains and crystal clear water of the rivers vividly comes up in my mind even months after I came back to the UK.
I could have visited more touristic areas than Uchiko. There is a particular reason why I chose to visit Uchiko cho which is probably not known outside of Japan at all. I got to know that Uchiko is the one of the pioneering towns in the rural areas of Japan where local people realised what impact on their everyday life would be brought by protecting their historic legacies. Uchiko cho started to protect their traditional townhouses and keep to produce their locally unique fruit, vegetables and pork long before other towns and villages.
According to the town’s history, Uchiko started their own plan to preserve the old town area almost 40 years ago. At that time, Japan was still approaching the peak of their post-war industrial and economic boom, many people seemed to look at only something new rather than preserving their traditions.
With their burning passion for preserving the old houses first, Uchiko promotes a several policies to improve the quality of what a town can do for the community. For instance, there are two local markets where local producers can directly sell their fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, even the queen wasp in a jarred honey and more. In other words, the residents in Uchiko can see what sort of food local farmers and producers can offer the community. These days, this type of community setting is called Michi no Eki (station of road) and there are now many of them all over Japan.The one in Uchiko is Karari which is one of the most successful Michi no Eki in Japan. Not only does Karari attract the locals, foreign tourists drop by and enjoy communicating with the locals.
In order to avoid being isolated from the world, Uchiko is keen to have active relationships with other towns both in and outside Japan. The notable relationship is with Rothenburg, Germany. Their relationship started 30 years ago, and Uchiko cho invited the then mayor of Rothenburg to a symposium to discuss how to preserve the historic townhouses. Since then, they keep their relationship by exchanging people every few years. One of Uchiko’s recently added annual events is the Beer festival in autumn.
I was eagerly briefed about Uchiko by Yumiko Horie. Thanks to our social media network era, we found each other in one of the SNS after a 10 years absence. She moved to Uchiko with her family in Spring 2015. She works for Save the Children Japan (http://www.savechildren.or.jp/jpnem/eng/) as an advocacy manager. One of her activities, which is to advocate for and promote UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/), eventually helped us to meet again in Uchiko.
She did not have any connection to Uchiko before. It is her husband, Kunihiro Nodo, whose strong ambition to move to a rural area brought his family to Uchiko. They are quite happy to settle in and have a strong will to promote Uchiko to the world. Both of them have already been a strong part of the community that encourages the residents to accelerate the plans of SDGs from Uchiko to the world.
From the point of sustainability, visiting the tana-da (terraced rice field) in Izumidani hamlet is the highlight on my stay in Uchiko cho. This is not a tourist attraction and you cannot get there without cars. The tana-da in Izumidani is the place where the people in Uchiko have cultivated and worked to nourish the community both in physically and psychologically for many, many years. You will be astonished to see how the people keep rice fields on the steep hills. The tana-da in Izumidani is an unmissable example to learn how people harmonise their life with the natural environments by integrating human beings with wild nature. In Uchiko, tourist attractions are nothing artificial nor modern. However, thanks to its firm and lingering ambition to preserve their cultural and traditional heritage, the charm of Uchiko is slowly spreading beyond Shikoku Island.
The difficulty of exploring Uchiko, and Shikoku island, is that public transport connections are quite inconvenient and time-consuming for tourists. Unlike the other three islands in Japan, Honshu, Hokkaido and Kyushu, Shikoku does not seem to have its own Shinkansen routes. You can do the round trip of Shikoku by using the JR network, but you are forced to change trains several times to complete the round trip. Instead of using the public transport, the number of cyclists, in particular, non-Japanese, seem to increase. According to Nodo, who is in charge of developing the tourism in Uchiko, he has now more opportunities to speak English than when he lived in Tokyo.
Despite a non user friendly public transport network, however, Shikoku is getting more foreign tourists gradually, but surely. The four prefectures in Shikoku Island scrum together and try hard to publicise the Henro Pilgrimage to the world, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japan-hopes-to-follow-camino-de-santiagos-path-to-marketing-success-with-750-mile-buddhist-a6794266.html. In addition, Setouchi Triennale, the biggest contemporary art festival http://setouchi-artfest.jp/en/ in Japan, has started on 20th of March and until the beginning of November this year. So, if this piques your interest in experiencing Shikoku, your early planning is recommended.
Back to Uchiko. After enjoying the German food at Zum schwarzen Keiler (the owner does not come from Rothenburg, though) with Yumiko’s family, I stayed standing in the middle of the town conservation area for a while. It was a cold night in January. However, surrounded by Uchiko’s traditional houses, I felt at peace with a town which I had forgotten for long time.
Photos from Uchiko cho
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Copyright ©ＬＯＮＤＯＮ Ｌｏｖｅ＆Ｈａｔｅ 愛と憎しみのロンドン All Rights Reserved.