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Japan's smallest inland village in Kochi Pref. looks to nature tourism for revival

Kosuke Suematsu, right, and Hiroshi Hiraga survey the Shiumi valley in Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, on Dec. 5, 2017. (Mainichi)

OKAWA, Kochi -- With the smallest population of any inland municipality in Japan, this village has set its sights on foreign tourists who love seclusion and plans to launch hiking and lifestyle experience tours as early as fiscal 2018 to carve out its own niche for revival.

    Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, located in the middle of the island of Shikoku, has only about 400 residents -- the smallest municipality in Japan when remote island communities are excluded. The village attracted national attention in June 2017 when the mayor announced that his administration was considering replacing the municipal assembly with a direct democratic general council of all registered voters. But now, the Okawa Municipal Government is looking to turn its small size and inconvenience in its favor by appealing to tourists seeking to get away from it all.

    The municipality covers only 95 square kilometers, with a population density of roughly four people per square kilometer. Surrounded by mountains around 1,000 meters tall and the riverhead of the Yoshino River, the area is full of natural wonders. However, unlike Iya valley in neighboring Tokushima Prefecture, which is well-known for its "Kazura-bashi" suspension bridge and is popular even among foreign tourists, Okawa is nothing but a point of passage for visitors.

    That's why the municipal government joined forces with Whole Earth Nature School, a Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture-based company well-versed in planning nature experience tours, in 2015 to come up with new ideas for promoting tourism in the village. In October 2017, company representative Kosuke Suematsu, 26, who has experience climbing South America's highest peak Aconcagua in Argentina, made a visit to Okawa.

    What caught Suematsu's eye was Shiumi valley carved out by a tributary of the Yoshino River. With the valley's close proximity to the center of Okawa, appropriate valley length and abundant trees and other natural sights, Suematsu deemed the area "perfect for beginner gorge climbers." He also suggested tours where visitors can learn about the villagers' lifestyle living in harmony with nature, such as the use of traditional natural dyes.

    English guidance in the village is limited only to road signs, however Suematsu said, "The lack of English information, nature only moderately touched by human hands -- This will actually be considered an attractive point of the village from the perspective of North American and European tourists." The village government and the company are currently in talks with travel agencies to pitch the plans.

    While proposals to dissolve the village assembly have been halted, Okawa created a stir all over the country concerning the issue of depopulation in rural areas. Hiroshi Hiraga, 37, director of "Okawa furusato mura kosha" (Okawa hometown village corporation), which is in charge of tourist activities, said, "Taking the raised awareness of the village via the news coverage of the general assembly as a good opportunity, we would like to show visitors through tours that our village is not average but a lively place to be."

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