Agricultural tourism catches on in Japan

More than 100 farms in this part of the country welcome tourists who can stay overnight and experience farm work

TONO, Japan — Kotoro Kikuchi, a second-year student at Tono Ryokuho High School, came to stay at a farm Sept. 26-27 with three other boys from his school.

“Today, we harvested chestnuts,” Kikuchi said.

Kikuchi, 17, said he came here to experience agriculture, but he wants to be a fisherman after graduating from high school.

Fellow schoolmate Tokiya Ogasawara, 16, said he hasn’t decided what he wants to be after graduation.

“But there’s nothing outside agriculture that I want to do,” Ogasawara said.

Kikuchi,Ogasawara, Masaki Endo, 16, and 17-year-old Yuya Kikuchi were on a program for second-year students of their school that promotes farmstays to experience farming. The farm/bed-and-breakfast where they stayed is run by retired Tono city area revitalization section manager Noriyasu Sasaki, 63, and his 62-year-old wife, Manako.

Besides rice, the Sasakis grow blueberries, chestnuts, persimmons and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Their house used to be a barn, with their former house, built 70 years ago, next door.

But the old house was cold in the winter, so the Sasakis renovated their barn to make it their residence. Their former dwelling became a dormitory for their bed-and-breakfast business.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, which hit on March 11, 2011, a total of about 400 people came to stay at the Sasakis’ bed-and-breakfast between May and November of that year.

“So we decided to accept anybody who wanted to come,” she said.

This municipality of 28,750 in a heavily agricultural area of Japan stands both as a leader and a successful example of green tourism.

One hundred and forty farming households here welcome tourists who can stay overnight and experience farm work while interacting with locals.

About 2,000 people a year, including students on school trips, have been experiencing rural life by picking berries, fruits or vegetables and making meals together with residents. Tourists from New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States have also participated in the program.

The goal of this exchange between city and rural residents is to stimulate the local economy, and to have local residents feel a sense of accomplishment and pride by hosting tourists. Many delegations from other prefectural governments have come to observe the success of Tono’s initiative.

Traditions are still strong in this area and they are still passed on, which is why green tourism works so well here, Tachibana said. “We can still feel the old Japan here.”

But modernization has long reared its head even here, and older people’s knowledge is in danger of being lost, said Shin-Ichi Kikuchi, president of the Tono Natural Life Network (TNLN).

“We want to energize Tono, so city people can know about this life,” Kikuchi said.

Green tourism is common in Europe but new in Japan, although a network of such activities has been established throughout the country, Kikuchi said.

“We have visitors from the city as well as high schoolers, corporate personnel and foreigners,” he said.

Foreigners can be welcomed in Chinese, English and Korean.

“We have an app for other foreign languages,” Kikuchi said.

To promote the city’s green tourism, an agency working for the TNLN holds promotional events in Tokyo. The organization also counts on word-of-mouth, and its website is also in English, French and Portuguese.

“I have visited Taiwan to do promotion myself,” Kikuchi said.

One night, breakfast and evening meal costs $109. Student visits, which includes lunch, costs $125. 

Manako Sasaki said she thinks it unnecessary, however, to get agricultural experience by staying at a farmer’s inn. The thing to do is to go to an agricultural area, stay in a farmhouse, and connect with local people, she said.

“That is the real pleasure of a farmer’s inn,” she said.

Japanese people, however, are notoriously hard-working and rarely take vacations, so therefore have little opportunities, during their working life, to experience what the TNLN offers.

“I am proposing a vacation law to the Japanese government,” Kikuchi said.

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