Had an inspiring daytrip to the small fishing village of Tomonoura which gave me hope for its sustainable travel destination potential.
Tomonoura is a small fishing village along the coast in Fukuyama city, Hiroshima prefecture which has become a sought-out travel destination. This little town has been the setting of countless Japanese film and TV programs, as well as the setting for Miyazaki’s animated Ponyo film. Locals also told me about when Hugh Jackman stayed while filming scenes from Wolverine.
Wandering through the old town is a rare experience as all the traditional wooden structures are in their original design- unlike most towns in Japan – there are no deviations from this classic design over a 5×5 block area. Looking down at the fishing village allows visitors to think back on Japanese history.
The most famous historical significance is connected to rebel Samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, who hid in a secret attic space and planned a rebellion against the government in this village. The buildings back over 140 years and traditional medicinal alcohol not found elsewhere.
The combination of old and new, traditional and refurbished innovation could provide inspiration for other traditional destinations across Japan, and even perhaps internationally.
The following points are some features of Tomonoura I noticed which might give it an advantage in terms of sustainable tourism destination potential.
Not easy to get there
In terms of minimizing numbers of visitors and maintaining a better balance between visitors and locals, the narrow streets of this fishing village cannot accommodate more than a handful of people at a time, especially if we are aiming for social distancing.
So, having certain barriers to mass tourism such as limited parking, no access or parking for bus tours, no nearby docking for cruise ships, no nearby international airport, train station and other large group tactics in use in major sites – actually creates a more manageable ebb and flow of visitors at any one time. The visitors who make their way all the way here will try to get here early or later in the afternoon because of the space limitations.
Expensive + Limited Parking as Destination Asset
Parking fees are high in the town center, but that works well to limit traffic on the narrow village roads. Only early morning visitors or late afternoon off-peak visitors could access this harder to access and higher-priced parking. This inconvenience could be strategic to a sustainable destination. If the parking fees benefits the local economy, it could be seen a steady source of income even when all the shops are closed and visitors don’t spend money elsewhere.
Finding ways for visitors to spend money locally to benefit the local economy should be an aim of any destination planners. If the parking is more expensive, having a notice at the payment till saying, “Thank you for supporting protect our historical buildings with — xx% of this parking fee” that would be more transparent and reduce friction with visitors asked to pay more than usual.
A unique feature of Tomonoura is its traditional townscape. This is one reason to charge more for parking, or even charge an entry tax to visitors to the town which is used for restoration work and a stipend for locals to keep their small businesses running. Miyajima island, for example, is starting to charge an additional 100 yen per visitor to the island. Tomonoura, like Miyajima, is a destination many come to for walks and taking photos and there are likely many visitors who don’t feel the need to buy anything during their stay. This is the reason to have the added entrance fee.
As I enjoyed a coffee in a restored 120 year old house, the owner said it was likely one of the younger buildings in the village. There are a couple of taller less inspiring buildings as you look over the village, but not in the central area to distract from the similar level of rooftops leading to the port, sea and islands beyond.
This is very unusual to find in Japan in these modern times where destinations like this which do not have UNESCO standards to uphold for building restrictions often have different styles and heights of buildings ruining the townscape.
Unique products + Easter Eggs
I was struck by a different type of alcohol in the souvenir and liquor shops once I arrived- it’s an unusual variation of medicinal alcohol called Houmeishu. I later discovered that Tomonoura actually has two breweries for this tipple in town. I would love to see them promote brewery tours and further insights for visitors in addition to the free tastings at local shops.
Miyazaki’s acclaimed animation film PONYO was set in this town of Tomonoura, but you are not overwhelmed with posters and references to the film. Instead, visitors are treated to Easter Egg finds hidden around town. There are subtle references to the film’s central character along the streets and in shops.
I don’t know any traveler fans of the film who wouldn’t love discovering these hidden easter eggs around town which blend with the traditional aesthetic. They could add a few more ornamental tiles or carved pieces of stone here and there around the backstreets and create a buzz with a guided tour, or social media campaign.
Walkability + Cars
Tomonoura is a very walkable village as the narrow streets limit car speed and access, this enhances the visitor experience on foot. Navigation is also easy- the central stone lighthouse at the pier and the crescent shaped village wrapping around the cove with mountains at its back make it impossible to get lost.
I’d love to see a ban on cars during peak visitor hours of 10-2 accessing the central areas in order to enhance the visitor experience and improve the local residents’ quality of life. There is a classic house section in the village about five blocks by five blocks large which would be wonderful to wander and take photos and enjoy without the danger and ugliness of cars driving through and parking on side-streets ruining the aesthetic.
Join me as I walk through the town and discover the classic buildings, products and services:
Anyone who follows my travels knows I am always on the lookout for a cup of coffee, Japan is a great place for coffee lovers and I usually find great options no matter where I end up in cities or the countrysides. In Tomonoura, I was pleased to discover a great cafe in a restored old house. The cafe was also popular for its take-out ice-creams. At the main port area, there was another new sweets shop supplying visitors with the ice-cream they sought out to fulfill a travel must-do in the village of sitting on the stairs at the port to eat or drink while taking in the view.
What really impressed me is the plastic-free take-out containers in use at both of these modern shops. This shows more respect for a visitor seeking out a culturally and historically significant destination such as Tomonoura. It also shows more respect for the local communities which struggle with waste management issues – especially for plastics which too often end up polluting the waterways and could damage the perception of quality of a water-centric destination like Tomonoura.
Ideas for Sustainable Travel Destination improvement at Tomonoura + Beyond
- Water fill-up spots: water fountains for public use are still rare in Japan, but necessary in warmer months. Best to encourage reusable waterbottles (Tomonoura brand water bottles would be popular at souvenir shops) + link spots to MyMizu app to create wider appeal.
- Pedestrianize the main village area (no cars or at least no non-local traffic) between 10-4 on weekends and holidays at minimum.
- Free daily walking tour early in the day to attract early risers (1 hour morning tour to finish before 9am) – give insights on best photo spots and share insights about the village. Introduce spots connected with films, historically significant with Samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, breweries of local medicinal alcohol, local temples, viewpoint at lookout where castle once was, and more. Guides paid by local village tourism fund, end tour at a a local shop to encourage sales.