Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO World Heritage; Kusatsu Onsen has famously vast amounts of hot spring water; deep powder snow is the signature of Niseko. Beyond Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, there are plenty of tourist hot spots in Japan’s countryside, each boasting certain characteristics that make them popular destinations for visitors.
The city of Chino, on the other hand, is relatively - for lack of a better word - ordinary. Its winters are bitterly cold, but it doesn’t get much snow. It has plenty of old buildings, but nothing worthy of official recognition. On the surface, it looks like any other countryside town, with lots of fields, old houses, and elderly people.
Yet efforts are underway in Chino to attract tourists, to use tourism as an instrument of social and economic development, while protecting and promoting the Chino area and what makes it unique. Here we take a closer look at how they’re doing this, and how this helps the region long term.
Where is Chino?
Perched in the foothills of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range, Chino sits on the eastern side of Nagano Prefecture, and is about 2 hours away from Tokyo by train.
With an elevation of 1,000m and resting under one of Japan’s most famous mountain ranges, it is a land blessed with the bounties of nature, with a culture formed by the land and the seasons, in a place where civilization has existed for 10,000 years. Its high elevation means the winters are piercingly cold with lots of sunny days, while summers are delightfully less hot and humid than the rest of Japan.
On the other hand, with 47% of the population in Chino over 65, the city faces the typical problems that are ubiquitous in much of rural Japan: an aging population, an increase in abandoned houses, the lack of job prospects for young people, and the deterioration of public transportation to name a few.
Despite the social challenges and the lack of the typically obvious tourist attractions, there are some who recognized the potential to develop tourism in the region, and to utilize that as a means to attract longer-term residents in order to revitalize the community sustainably. Thus began the process of “Kankou Machizukuri” in Chino.
What is “Kankou Machizukuri”?
This term is made up of two words -
Kankou: Tourism, sightseeing
Machizukuri: Community development, urban development
Tourism can be viewed in a narrow sense, as concerned with “sightseeing” for the purpose of “looking” and “learning,” or in a broader sense, encompassing “recreation” and “accommodation.”
Kankou Machizukuri in Chino is broader than that. It’s not about developing the city for the sake of tourism. The goal of Kankou Machizukuri is to develop and bring new life to a community, and to do so sustainably.
How is Kankou Machizukuri done in Chino?
Let’s start with what Chino is NOT doing: it is not about bringing in investors and developers to build cookie-cutter hotels or amusement parks that offer no sense of place; it is not reinventing or redesigning the city and bulldozing away tradition and history; and it is definitely not sidelining locals and taking orders from bankers and agency executives sitting in glassy, air-conditioned offices (which is exactly what happened to Phu Quoc, Vietnam, a prime example of sustainable tourism development gone terribly wrong).
To borrow the tagline from Chino's Yamaura Stay project to summarize their development strategy: it is about allowing you as a visitor to “discover an ordinary day for the village, but a very special day on your journey.”
In fact, a closer look does reveal just how extraordinary a seemingly “ordinary” place like Chino can be: the vivid changing of the colors each season in an area surrounded by mountains, and the deeply rooted wisdom of generations surviving the freezing winters in high altitude.
Chino-Tabi, the DMO (Destination Management Organization) for Chino City and its surroundings, offers a spectacular array of activities and experiences that allow visitors to explore the breath-taking natural beauty of the region, and delve into the awe-inspiring and characteristic local culture. By highlighting the “extraordinary within the norms of daily life”, they ensure that local culture and ways of life are preserved, respected, and promoted, all the while making the most of it to bring in social and economic development to benefit the region.
Developing A Destination Sustainably Through Offering Unique Experiences
It’s More Than Just Sightseeing, It’s About Immersion
One of the centerpieces of Chino Tabi’s efforts is Yamaura Stay. Simply speaking, the Yamaura Stay project involves renovating traditional farmhouses into luxurious accommodation facilities, which are rented out to visitors as a holiday house. And yet it is so much more…
Chino Tabi brought in Alex Kerr, Japanologist and East Asia researcher, to design and oversee the restoration of four beautiful kominkas, or century-old farmhouses. Kerr is well known for his restoration style of “old-world aesthetics and present-day comfort”, leaving intact all the original charm of the antique beams and walls while creating a neat and cozy space equipped with all the modern comforts.
For visitors, Yamaura Stay is not simply an accommodation facility, but a gateway to interacting with the community. The experience of staying in one of these farmhouses goes beyond the properties and encompasses the whole village area. Visitors interact with the village as they stroll among the fields, talk to local grannies, or relax in the hot springs. And for the locals themselves, the restored farmhouses are also used for gathering, and are a symbol of pride for locals who take care of them.
It’s About Genuine Local Hospitality That Makes You Want To Come Back
One of the key parts of the Kankou Machizukuri process in Chino is the involvement of citizens, not just on a consultation level, but actually including them as part of the hospitality experience. Citizens themselves are involved in hosting tourists, by transforming the region’s unique lifestyle, daily handicrafts and industry into unique experiences for visitors. The very “normal” interactions - talking to citizens about their lives, or joining them in doing their daily chores - could very well be the most memorable for visitors. It also enables visitors to imagine what it would be like to actually live here.
As a result, the visitors themselves aren’t the ones who come away with unforgettable experiences. Locals themselves find a renewed sense of value in the “every day”, which kindles a sense of pride and belonging for the community and the environment they live in.
It’s About Living Like A Local
The experiences offered by Chino Tabi give visitors a taste of life like a local in this special region. For example, the way Kanten (“agar”), frozen tofu, and frozen daikon are made are just a few of the ingenious ways locals have developed to work with and thrive in the harsh cold winters. The distinctive climate has also made the region famous for its top-quality saw-making and extensive sake production.
Visitors can cook with the village grannies and prepare unique dishes involving these foods, observe up-close the technique of a smith and make their own Japanese knife; or spend a day with a farmer helping with the harvest. All these experiences aren’t simply about the process of making or cooking things,
but are also about gaining insight into the real lives of people who live in an environment and community such as this. Visitors on their adventures get beneath the surface, and have exclusive access to places usually inaccessible to tourists.
Chino Tabi creates “journeys where, instead of hastily passing through, you have the chance to immerse yourself into local life.” In doing this continuously and sustainably, the goal is to make it a place where people want to come back to again and again, and eventually move to.
We are eagerly looking forward to the easing of travel and the reopening of the borders, so that we can showcase the brilliant experiences that Chino has to offer to both domestic and international visitors, and also to see how this model of regional revitalization would really serve its purpose!