The true concept of sustainability in tourism can be observed at destinations where local people are happy to live, you can see the preservation of heritage in action, and natural resources are being well taken care of. The tricky part, however, is to also find a way to maintain streams of income in order to be a viable, sustainable tourism destination. In Japan we are seeing so many examples of destinations which are too popular and overtourism is a real problem. On the other end of the scale, however, a total absence of visitors is also a serious problem. I had the chance to visit a quaint and interesting village in the Hiroshima countryside, called Joge, which has so much potential for success as a sustainable tourism destination, but is struggling due to a lack of visitors.
Joge (pronounced Jou-gei) town is a well-preserved Edo-era village in the rural countryside of Hiroshima. The streets are lined with traditional Japanese houses accentuated by criss-crossed wall decorations, interesting retro signs and antique features unrivaled at similar rural destinations.
In its current state, as a picturesque town, it’s a pleasant place to walk around and has great visual appeal for photographers, instagrammers and those looking for an interesting and easy weekend drive location. Only the Joge station shop, a few Japanese Inns, a couple of noodle shops and a museum were open when we visited on a sunny Sunday in November.
As a tourism destination, Joge has the potential for appeal, but unless changes are made, it will disappear. Rural ghost-town problems like this are sadly not unique. Rural towns across Japan are now struggling with depopulation, and like Joge, could be revived if a few appealing goods and services were added to not only enhance tourism but also to draw in new residents and businesses.
The town is easily walkable in 1-2 hours, you can take in the streets of Joge much as they were 100’s of years ago thanks to the efforts of the passionate townspeople who have been tirelessly preserving the unique and beautiful crisscrossed plaster designs of the building exteriors. There was a display in the front window of the town’s museum, showing photos and details of a plastering workshop. As an avid home plasterer myself, I eagerly asked if it was open to the public as a regular event. The staff were flabbergasted, but pleased, that anyone might actually be interested. As there is no online information for the town, they took our address promising to send us a postcard about any future events happening in the town. Of course, once we get the postcard, gethiroshima can help promote their events, but there should be more interaction between the town and online community. Without someone in residence sharing information outside of the town via a blog, the web or social media in our media-savvy times, a destination like this is unlikely to build any type of stable visitor demand or steady income.
As the towns sole attraction, the museum could also be improved. It does not have any English information but has very friendly staff and some mildly interesting displays about famous residents and there are two full sets of Samurai armor. Unfortunately, the ‘no photography’ signs around the museum are not doing the town any favors, as even keen visitors are forbidden from helping with free online promotion.
A search for information about Joge brought me to the Setouchi finder travel site which promotes a doll museum and other attractions which did not seem open at the time we visited. We did have a peek through shuttered shop windows and saw an interesting bakery and antique Kimono shop which seemed to be only recently shuttered. We also saw the outside of the old theatre, but couldn’t see inside, which is unfortunate as I discovered photos later of its interesting and beautiful interior.
It wasn’t a wasted first visit as wandering the streets and taking pictures of the old shop signs and intricate detail of the buildings was enough for me for a couple of hours. The problem is, however, that if visitors just come to see the beautiful facade of the Joge ghost-town, there is absolutely no benefit for the local community. Without goods and services for visitors to spend their money on, there is no way for tourism to benefit this local community so desperately in need of support.
One small way visitors can help, if you also find that nothing is open when you visit, is to stop in for a meal at one of the noodle shops and buy some unique local souvenirs at the Joge train station shop. The ginger topping for rice is delicious in hot ginger tea, the 70 yen soap made at the local elderly resident home is a bargain, unique, and paper folded wallets are great for keeping business cards organized. There are also delicious looking ‘Castella’ cakes similar to the signature spongecake of Nagasaki available. Even if you only spend a few coins, the money spent on these items stays in this local community.
I was glad we made the drive out to Joge, but driving away I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that we couldn’t see or do more. The town seems to be disappearing and my mind was filled with ways they could revive it.
Comparing Joge to the zero-waste town of Kamikatsu, there is a distinct advantage in how the Shikoku village of Kamikatsu has been able to attract entrepreneurs to return to start new businesses, namely two excellent Craft Breweries, which appeal to resident, visitors and a wider domestic audience due to online sales. Kamikatsu also has an active NPO and town office collaborating on sustainable planning and management- creating jobs and sorting 80% of its waste. The Zero-Waste Academy NPO is run by a passionate group of people creating and who also create jobs for elderly retired residents as well as run tours of the waste sorting facilities for over 3,000 visitors each year.
If Joge could attract entrepreneurs, it would breathe life into this town. We saw some vacant shop buildings along the main street that were for sale, causing me to envision opening a little coffee shop that also sold local goods alongside unique products utilizing local resources such as mushroom-veggie burgers (this area is famous for its quality mushrooms), wine, sake and craft beer from the region as well as Sera fruit and local bakery goods. An ‘event’ workspace in the shop could also be utilized as a plaster-wall training area where daily sessions could be booked in advance.
I also had visions of an enthusiastic entrepreneur who opened up a local shop being entrusted with the keys to old shops and buildings, to allow for short walking tours to be booked by visitors who were keen to learn more about the town’s heritage and willing to pay for a behind-the-scenes peek inside.
In terms of assets, the town has a lot going for it: is well-preserved, relatively easy to access, has at least some eateries and places to stay as well as brimming with historical and cultural appeal. Interestingly, I noticed that there was an electric car and charging spot in town, which has the potential to be expanded into a ‘zero-emission tour’ to take visitors around the town who can’t or prefer not to walk due to disability, circumstance or even bad weather. Electric Vehicles (EV’s) are a perfect means to provide quiet transport that is nicer for the visitor as well as residents. Adding a few electric assist rental bicycles, or Segways, would add further appeal without concerns over noise or air pollution. I can imagine a few rental bicycles and Segways fitting in front of the museum or station quite easily. If funding were available, investing in solar panels for the town (perhaps on the museum or station roof) to charge an EV, bicycles, mini-buses or Segways with clean and renewable energy, it would create stronger appeal.
There is certainly a lot of potential in Joge for anyone interested in starting a new business and moving out to the countryside. If anyone is thinking of resettling a family in the beautiful countryside, one distinct advantage that Joge has, over many rural towns, is its public school open to students from elementary through high-school.
To get there, it is most easily accessed by car as it is located just off the main road next to Joge train station. Joge is not far from a lot of other interesting rural destinations, so it is worth the long drive if combined with a stop in nearby Sera, Onomichi, Shobara or other charming areas. I’d recommend a stop in the nearby Oheso (Belly-button) bakery for amazing loaves of bread, pizzas, drinks and desserts in a refurbished traditional Japanese country house. It is run by an international couple- menu in English, Japanese and Spanish. The town itself can be covered in less than 2-hours of a leisurely stroll.
The train station staff let us park in front of the station for free. Apparently, there is a train and bus service as well although it is infrequent, time-consuming and rather expensive at 4,000 yen for a round-trip bus ticket from Hiroshima city.