Ecotourism in Japan: Life off the beaten track

PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

Mention ecotours aimed at balancing environmental conservation with tourism, and many people think of locations deep in the mountains, or remote islands far away from urban areas. Increasingly though, and especially in Japan, ecotours are taking place in forests or parks close to urban centres.

If you visit a nearby satoyama village forest, you may discover something surprising. Satoyama are natural woodlands that coexist with nearby human communities.

In late October, the Michikusa-bu ecotour was held in a satoyama area near JR Kita-Kamakura Station in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. Tree doctor and guide Tomoyuki Sasaki explained about jiaogulan grass growing on a mountain trail. "The grass is believed to cure disease. Why don't you have a bite?" he suggested.

Participants apprehensively put it in their mouths, but their worries soon turned into laughter, with one saying: "It tastes a little sweet," and another saying, "I think it's bitter."

In addition to plants, Sasaki, 35, guided participants while explaining about various issues such as the geography around Kamakura in the Jomon period (10,000 BC to 300 BC). He also talked about Taiwan squirrels, a non-native species that increased in the city during the post-war period.

About 200 kinds of plants grow naturally in and around this satoyama, and the seven participants enjoyed a relaxing stroll that lasted for about 90 minutes.

"I learned about grasses and flowers that I had never thought about before. The tour has changed my way of looking at nature," said Yuko Nakayama, a 48-year-old from Yokohama.

"Even weeds growing beside the road have names and interesting stories. I hope the tour will become an opportunity for participants to become interested in the environment around them," Sasaki said.

Ecotours became widespread in the United States and European countries in the 1980s and began in Japan around 1990 on Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture and on the Ogasawara islands administered by Tokyo. In 2008, the ecotourism promotion law was enacted in a bid to promote ecotours while preventing an excessive number of them.

Participants experience and learn about nature and history while listening to explanations from a guide. In principle, ecotours accept only a small number of participants.

According to a questionnaire conducted by the Japan Ecotourism Society of 500 men and women in the Tokyo metropolitan area in January, only 27.6 per cent of respondents said they "have experienced an ecotour" or "know of ecotours." A total of 48.6 per cent said that they "do not know about ecotours at all."

Based in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, the society has been organising events to introduce ecotours at home and abroad, aiming to make people more familiar with the concept.

"Information has not been sufficiently distributed," laments Keiichi Tsujino, 63, the secretary general of the society.

In response to a question about problems with ecotours, many respondents chose the answers: "They seem expensive" and "I worry about [whether] my physical strength [is sufficient] to take an ecotour."

Asked, "What place do you think of when you hear about ecotours?" the largest number of respondents said "Yakushima island" in Kagoshima Prefecture, followed by Hokkaido and Okinawa.

The questionnaire showed that many people are simply not familiar with ecotours.

"While experiencing the immenseness of nature is one of the charms of ecotours, we need people to know that there are also tours in places that are not particularly unusual," Tsujino says.

Short ecotours held near residential areas, like Michikusa-bu, are available across the nation. In Hanno, Saitama Prefecture, where forests account for 76 per cent of the city's land area, more than 100 ecotours focusing on satoyama culture and other themes are held annually, mainly by local residents.

Even in winter, when the weather is not so suitable for strolling, the city attracts many visitors with such programmes as making shimenawa (holy straw rope) at a traditional Japanese house or making a traditional Japanese kite.

In Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, there are popular tours for observing wild birds and the giant flying squirrels that jump between trees. Many of them last two or three hours.

"We hope visitors can enjoy ecotours before or after their shopping or sports activities," says an official at Picchio, which organises such ecotours.

Tsujino adds, "The best thing about ecotours is that participants can enjoy nature and satoyama culture areas near cities. I hope there will be more ecotours featuring innovative activity plans."