Inbound Ambassador

Seeking Sustainable Tourism : Miyajima

At the end of Sakura season in April, I had a very interesting research day on Miyajima to inform a new series, “Seeking Sustainable Tourism”.
I’ve visited Hiroshima’s most famous island over fifty times in the last 22 years and I would rank it highly as a sustainable tourist destination: 7 (out of 10). This April visit was to answer if a visitor could enjoy a day on Miyajima without using or receiving any plastic waste.

Seeking Plastic-Free Momiji-Manju Cake
My mission was to find a Momiji-manju cake vendor who could sell me one of the island’s most iconic sponge cakes without the typical plastic wrapping. Unfortunately, of the five mini-factory shops- where they make the cakes from start to finish- all said it was ‘impossible’ to sell me a plastic-free cake. It’s a shame, but the act of asking itself can sometimes spark positive change.

In the process of my search, I came across an alternative maple-shaped cake sold loose in a case which could be bought without any packaging at all. The Croissant-Momiji cake shop staff is a great plastic-free alternative, the staff said it started up 3 years ago. There is also the deep-fried Momiji-manju cake called Age-momiji sold on a stick. It would be great in future if it were possible to buy the island’s most famous souvenir without any wrapping, especially for those eating it in the shop, but at the moment this doesn’t seem possible.

Wrapper-free Croissant-Momiji

In general, Japanese shops at tourist destinations, such as Miyajima, could see cost-benefit and improved positive branding by banning plastic bags and single-plastic containers. A shift in thinking of plastic as a clean and necessary part of good service is necessary, but the cost-benefits for the shopkeepers and island management, in general, will be seen immediately.

Plastic Pollution on Beaches near Giant Tori Gate Miyajima
Plastic Single-use Drink Containers
Vending drink machines are available across the island, but most do not have the recycling bins next to them. Single-use Starbucks coffee cups, Cold drinks in single-use plastic cups with plastic straws, and PET plastic drink bottles are seen everywhere. There are no water fountains or refilling stations for visitors who have their own water containers, or who may want to refill a PET drink bottle with water. I saw some travelers filling up bottles in the toilet sinks, but this has much less appeal than if there were a water-filling tank near the main sights.

Floating oyster beds provide local food but also plastic pollution
Beach-Clean-Up
As a part of my research day I picked up any litter I saw while walking around the island. Although I found the streets mostly spotless, I spent about an hour collecting plastic pollution on the beaches around the Giant Torii gate. This activity is always an interesting reminder of how dirty and damaging plastic wrapping, bottles, bags, and containers are when they end up in our oceans and water systems. I picked up 3 kilograms (6.6 lbs) of plastic-tube pollution and pieces of styrofoam from the oyster farms, 6 plastic bags, and a few recyclable glass bottles, pet bottles, and cans.

Talking Waste with International Visitors
Talking about waste issues in Japan and Belgium, two intelligent young travelers I talked with gave me wonderful insights on how Japan compared to Belgium on waste management, daily habits, and infrastructure. They said there were zero-waste stores in Belgium where you can use your own containers and shop without buying waste. They also described their usual habits of carrying their own shopping bags and using reusable cutlery when at home but admitted they hadn’t thought to do this while traveling in Japan. Read more about this interview in Trash-Talk #1.

Japan’s streets are clean, but too many plastic bags are used
The Belgian pair, an American couple from Texas (USA), a young German couple and an older female Swiss traveler all commented on the overuse of plastics on Miyajima and in Japan generally. Despite all travelers I spoke to being impressed with how clean everywhere in Japan is, they were equally shocked by the overpackaging of every item the bought. A Swiss woman described this as Japan’s “Plastic-upon-plastic-upon-plastic problem which is completely unnecessary.”

The European Union has made the news at the end of 2018 as having created the ‘World’s first comprehensive plastic (waste) strategy’. All the European travelers I spoke with said plastic-bags are banned or in the process of being banned.

Some plastic-free, made-in-japan products available
In comparison, the visitors from Texas said that although they personally thought plastic waste was an important global issue, since they had seen plastic problems in oceans where they dive, the plastic-reduction efforts in their area were unfortunately stopped after only a short time. Upon further research, I found that a Texas plastic-bag ban court case made its way all the way up to the highest levels of government.

The transition away from unnecessary plastic bags and wrapping:
For Japanese tourism destinations to get serious about reducing the amount of single-plastic waste, the following steps and targets should be a part of a ten-year strategy.

Stage 1 (now): Start with a simple question- ASK if customers ‘need’ a bag to give customers a chance to say “No thanks”
Stage 2 (within 1 year): Create a standard ‘Fee-based system’ for use of a bag (money raised could benefit trash costs for local residents as all garbage needs to be taken off the island.
Stage 3: (by 2025): Ban plastic bags completely, ban single-use plastic containers and make significant steps to reduce plastic wrapping of items
Stage 4: (by 2030): No plastic bag use, no plastic wrapper use, the majority of goods sold are not made of plastic and vendors do not give out single-use plastics with foods.

Using a Deposit-System for Containers
The German couple I spoke with talked of the Pfand deposit system in their country which makes the reusable or recyclable container a drink is sold in a valuable commodity to ensure return rates. Use of high-tech ‘reverse-vending machines’ like in the video below check the bottles and if accepted give a receipt returning the deposit which can be used at the check-out.

Japan has a positive international image of being high-tech and having lots of great vending machines, so this should be easier to implement here where adoption to new technology is mainstream. Putting this type of machine in stores or next to machines selling drinks would be an investment that would reduce littering and increase recycling rates.

Interestingly, the Guardian article about the German standard states that less-recyclable containers like PET bottles have a higher deposit charged in part to encourage the consumer to choose a more recyclable container (glass or can).

On Miyajima, charging a deposit for reusable containers could be applied to most eateries selling Bento lunch boxes, plates, cups and other containers used for take-out items. Most take-out foods will be consumed within a few hundred feet of the shop, so returning a container is less of a burden than taking the garbage home. A higher fee should be charged to customers who want single-use plastic containers and bags to take an item home. Furoshiki is now being successfully sold at LUSH stores in Japan as well as abroad as a way to wrap gifts and carry home shopping.

Why not reinstate the use of traditional Furoshiki as a standard wrapping for foods, gifts, and souvenirs on Miyajima. Fuoshiki is a beautiful, traditional aspect of Japanese culture that could improve the aesthetic appeal of Miyajima as well as the individual products and shops which demonstrate their use.

For take-out coffee from Starbucks, smoothie, draft Miyajima beer, add 100 yen for a reusable cup (and lid) to be refunded upon return, or pay an extra 150 yen for a single-use container to take away and not return. For take-out cakes, Senbei crackers, Kamaboko fish-cake sticks, Kaki grilled oysters, Niku-man dumplings, or even french-fries and other foods from the Matsuri festival style stalls behind the floating Itsukushima shrine can employ a similar system for a reusable tray or plate has potential.

Only 3 garbage sorting stations in Miyajima
Tourism destination managers who implement small changes in sustainability to reuse or recycle and reduce waste, energy and resource use will quickly start to see not only the cost benefits of making attractions more sustainable-tourism destinations but also a high-quality branding benefit to its overall destination appeal which will attract more of the right kind of visitors. A 2018 study by Booking.com show that a whopping 87% of international travelers are seeking sustainable accommodations and destinations.

The report indicates that the green travel trend continues to gain momentum with a large majority of global travelers (87%) stating that they want to travel sustainably, and nearly four in 10 (39%) confirming that they often or always manage to do so. However, 48% indicate they never, rarely or only sometimes manage to travel sustainably, suggesting that while promising strides are being made for a greener future, there is still plenty of room to turn intentions into action.

Itsukushima Floating Shrine Walkway Lanterns
Overall, I would rate Miyajima at 7 on my scale as a very sustainable tourist destination. Most travelers arrive by public transportation (JR train and ferry), most of the food and products sold on the island are locally produced by local people. In fact, the local dishes featured are Momiji-manju cakes made in small factories on the island, Kaki oysters from the nearby floating farms and local Anago eel. The buildings are restricted in how they can be built and rebuilt to fit into the traditional and cultural aesthetic- this includes small cafes, bars, eateries and shops run in traditional ways as they have been run for many years. Also, most of the sightseeing is done without the need to use fossil fuels- either on foot, bicycle, rickshaw, cable car or shuttle bus. The island is very walkable, traditional temples and shrines are protected and well-maintained.

On the could-be-improved side, there is a lack of renewable energy, rain-catchment systems or effort to reduce waste – such as by adding reusable containers or waste sorting stations. Like Venice, Miyajima island also struggles with overtourism. Yet, there are no limits or staggering methods in place to limit the number of tourists allowed to visit the island at any one time. Although most main dishes are locally sourced (oysters, fish and eel), the oyster farms are also a major contributor of plastic (and styrofoam) waste for the entire region and beyond. For dining and shopping, there are few reusable or recyclable containers in use, and very little shopping or take-out eating is available without single-use plastic waste. There are no refillable water stations and customers need to work hard to decline plastic bags and wrapping.

Sakura on Miyajima with the Pagoda in the Background
Adding a few sustainability-focused strategies to Miyajima’s destination management could greatly improve its ability to run as a more sustainable tourism destination. This in turn would be of greater benefit to local people, visitors, the environment, and improve its profitability over the long term.

Destinations like Miyajima in Japan which effectively make an effort to change will benefit from the improved branding. More sustainability-focused management strategies will also attract the ‘right’ type of tourist- visitors who are willing to travel with a lighter footprint. Based on my interviews with visitors to Miyajima, the destination is already attracting sustainability-focused visitors who are well-informed and active participants in following sustainable practices. Therefore, a switch to more sustainable practices at Miyajima will not only help the destination cut costs and waste management difficulties but allow it to become an internationally acclaimed green-destination.