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e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Knowledge and Enthusiasm are the Key* Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017* (1) Tom Vincent CEO, Tonoloop Networks Inc. [Date of Issue: 28/February/2018 No.0276-1069]

Date of Issue: 28/February/2018

Knowledge and Enthusiasm are the Key
Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017* (1)

Tom Vincent
Political Commentator
CEO, Tonoloop Networks Inc.


The Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017 was organized by IIST in conjunction with the Kyushu Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry with the aim of boosting the number of foreign tourists visiting Kyushu. Tom Vincent took part in the tour as an advisor, and here we present his report in two parts. His impression of the huge potential of various regions around Kyushu along with his call for a little more understanding and enthusiasm on the part of locals targeting the tourist trade also speaks to similar initiatives elsewhere in Japan.


One of my favourite English books about Japan is the wonderful “We Japanese”, published by Fujiya Hotel in Hakone between 1934 and 1950. Originally individual pages printed on the back of the menu at the hotel restaurant, it was written and compiled into a book by Shozo Yamaguchi, who was managing director of the hotel at the time. Each subject is covered on just one page, and very often illustrated with beautiful black-and-white woodcut prints. I have a copy of the final 1950 edition, which I found years ago in a secondhand bookshop in London. It combines the earlier three editions into one 600-page treasure chest, complete with an astounding 900 illustrations, and covers almost everything you could possibly imagine about Japanese ways and customs - as the full title notes “Being Descriptions of Many of the Customs, Manners, Ceremonies, Festivals, Arts and Crafts of the Japanese Besides Numerous Other Subjects”.

One of the most striking things about “We Japanese”, apart from the amazing breadth of subject matter and the delightful, old-fashioned English, is the sheer pleasure and enthusiasm Yamaguchi takes in describing all manner of Japanese things, important or trivial, to a foreign audience. The book makes it clear that knowing about and explaining your own culture can be as enjoyable as learning about a new one. There is an obvious and happy pride to the descriptions, but it is an honest pride, not at all boastful. For all its detail, the book's message is a simple one: “This is our way of doing things. It's fun, isn't it?”

Traveling around Japan on a trip such as the Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017*, it is often all too clear that the simple pleasure and enthusiasm Yamaguchi mastered over 80 years ago is, sadly, still a rare skill. The strongest message I took away with me from the trip - as I do so often on similar trips in different areas of Japan - is the gap between the huge potential, and the huge lack in knowledge and enthusiasm in the people charged with promoting and explaining that potential.

To begin at the end of our trip, an example from the last night makes the point most clearly. On the last day of our tour we visited Sengetsu Shuzo in Hitoyoshi Town, to learn how Kome Shochu is made, the history and culture behind it, and about the Kuma River and the 28 distilleries which are still in production along its banks today. Here was a perfect example of a clear, fascinating and totally unique culture - no other town in the world, let alone in Japan, has a traditional rice shochu distilling industry all based along one river. It would be so easy to promote and describe it, and make Hitoyoshi a must-go destination for lovers of traditional alcohol production around the world. There should be no need to even discuss what makes Hitoyoshi and the Kuma area unique. Surely “We are the town where Kome Shochu is made” should be the immediate, enthusiastic refrain? If that was the story, as a visitor I would immediately be interested, and infected by the local enthusiasm.

Kuma-zochu is a brand of shochu (Japanese distilled beverage) made from subsoil water of Kuma River and rice from Hitoyoshi/Kuma region.  Based on the history of more than 500 years, 28 Kuramoto (sake brewers) dedicate themselves to their old-fashioned homemade method maintained by Toji (a group of artisans).  At the same time, including small-scale Kuramoto, they work hard to develop new products under the leadership of the younger generation. “Kawabe” of Sengetsu Shuzo Co, Ltd. won a Gold Medal in the shochu category of the Los Angeles Wine and Spirits Competition with 76-years history.

Kuma-zochu is a brand of shochu (Japanese distilled beverage) made from subsoil water of Kuma River and rice from Hitoyoshi/Kuma region. Based on the history of more than 500 years, 28 Kuramoto (sake brewers) dedicate themselves to their old-fashioned homemade method maintained by Toji (a group of artisans). At the same time, including small-scale Kuramoto, they work hard to develop new products under the leadership of the younger generation. “Kawabe” of Sengetsu Shuzo Co, Ltd. won a Gold Medal in the shochu category of the Los Angeles Wine and Spirits Competition with 76-years history.

And yet, at dinner that evening when I asked the representative from the local tourist office what she recommended as the main tourist attraction of the town, her answer was, “the onsen”. Why? Why onsen? Almost every town across Japan has onsen. No doubt the Hitoyoshi onsen are very nice, but they are nothing more than a bonus, after the town's truly unique point, which has to be Kome Shochu. For a town to have onsen, or perhaps a beautiful mountain, or a waterfall, or a castle, or temple even, is a great potential tourist attraction, perhaps. But that sort of natural or historic attraction needs sophisticated planning to be useful in bringing in people and truly revitalizing a town's economy. On the other hand, a full-blown, unique and traditional industry, and one that produces a luxury, consumable and affordable product as the main tourist attraction? That is a gift most towns would long for. So the fact that the tourist board of Hitoyoshi could not bring itself to focus on the one unique selling point of the town was a telling, and slightly depressing, end to what had been a varied but ultimately quite exciting trip.

We began in Yame, in southern Fukuoka. I had visited Yame several times before, and knew about the tea, and the difficulties of the butsudan and paper lantern industries, and also about Kasuri weaving. This time we were to focus on Kasuri, and visited the traditional Aizome workshop run by Takeshi Yamamura, and then the small Shimogawa factory. The two companies take quite different approaches to the same kasuri tradition, and each in their own way is unique and interesting. Japanese indigo is of course well-known world-wide, and although Yamamura-san's workshop is small and only able to accommodate a small group at a one time, there is no doubt the authentic, hand-made indigo dyeing process, and the wonderful little traditional rooms they use as a “showroom”, would make for a very special and rewarding trip for many people from around Japan and the world. For those interested in a (very slightly) more modern approach, the rows and rows of old Toyota looms at the Shimogawa mill, too, make for a glimpse into a world you don't often get to see.

Aizome Kasuri Atelier. Takeshi Yamamura's atelier is specialized in traditional Kurume Kasuri: hand-woven ikat textile in natural indigo. Against the downward trend of production decline of “kasuri” after 1975, the Indigo Dyeing Atelier continues on a unique path of adhering to handweaving of kasuri dyed with natural indigo.

Aizome Kasuri Atelier. Takeshi Yamamura's atelier is specialized in traditional Kurume Kasuri: hand-woven ikat textile in natural indigo. Against the downward trend of production decline of “kasuri” after 1975, the Indigo Dyeing Atelier continues on a unique path of adhering to handweaving of kasuri dyed with natural indigo.

Their dyeing process begins with fermentation of “sukumo,” the raw material for dye, and next they dye the fabric into deep blue by using dyes of different strength, each contained in a separate jar.  Then, repeat the process of squeezing yarn to stabilize the indigo color and striking it against a dip in the ground for more than 40 times.  (Indigo Dyeing Atelier)

Their dyeing process begins with fermentation of “sukumo,” the raw material for dye, and next they dye the fabric into deep blue by using dyes of different strength, each contained in a separate jar. Then, repeat the process of squeezing yarn to stabilize the indigo color and striking it against a dip in the ground for more than 40 times. (Indigo Dyeing Atelier)

“Kurume Kasuri” is a traditional cotton textile with 200 years of history,  woven in Chikugo area of Southern Fukuoka. “Kasuri” is a Japanese tie-dye technique equivalent to “ikat”, which creates patterns by partially binding the yarn before dyeing and weaving.

“Kurume Kasuri” is a traditional cotton textile with 200 years of history, woven in Chikugo area of Southern Fukuoka. “Kasuri” is a Japanese tie-dye technique equivalent to “ikat”, which creates patterns by partially binding the yarn before dyeing and weaving.

But to me, it was the Unagi no nedoko (i) shops that offered the biggest glimmer of a brighter future for Yame, and the area as a whole. To be honest, though, it was not so much because of the selection of goods they had on sale, although the quality was very high and beautifully displayed. However, with similar shops popping up all across Japan to showcase and sell local traditional crafts and household goods in a stylish and contemporary way, after a day or two it is difficult to remember if a product you liked was at that shop, or at a similar shop in a similar town somewhere else in Japan. I wondered as we left if instead of trying to cover every traditional craft in the area like so many other shops are doing, they might not be better specializing in just one thing, say kasuri weaving, for example, and becoming the top specialists in Japan in that field, with the same stylish energy, enthusiasm and sophistication?

Unagino-nedoko shop. Focusing on the products made in Chikugo Region in Kyushu, the shop also serves as an antenna shop that connects “the manufacturers” and “the users” in the manner only possible in this hometown.  The shop also offers information about characteristics of materials, manufacturing processes, usage and messages from the producers.

Unagino-nedoko shop. Focusing on the products made in Chikugo Region in Kyushu, the shop also serves as an antenna shop that connects “the manufacturers” and “the users” in the manner only possible in this hometown.
The shop also offers information about characteristics of materials, manufacturing processes, usage and messages from the producers.

Regardless of that, though, it feels like finally things are moving in a good direction. Only a few years ago nearly all the shops in small rural towns across Japan were either cheap chainstores, or old, tired and unloved private shops with half empty shelves and fading posters on shabby walls. Now though, finally, a younger generation with a broader world view are beginning to revitalize things. Here in Yame, at last, the town's few remaining beautiful old streets and buildings are beginning to be recognized for the potential they hold. Sadly, most of the post-war architecture in provincial Japan is ugly and cheaply built, often in a state of disrepair, and Yame is no different. But now the small pockets of unharmed older buildings are slowly being brought back to life. This feels like a good start. I only wish that alongside the renewal of the old buildings there was as much energy being put into developing attractive, suitable new architecture for Japan's small rural towns and cities where old buildings have been pulled down, or are beyond rescue. Perhaps that will come soon?

(i) Literally “eel bedrooms,” unagi no nedoko is the nickname for houses with a narrow frontage but an elongated space behind, originally developed in Kyoto where land tax was charged based on street frontage rather than site area. A shop area was often located in the front of the house, with the rooms lined up behind forming the family's private living quarters.

(to be continued in the next issue; No. 0277 (30/Mar/2018))


tom-vincent
About the Author
Tom Vincent, CEO, Tonoloop Networks Inc.

With a 240-year-old Omi merchants house located in Hino, Shiga Prefecture as its base, Tonoloop Networks works on media and content production, branding, promotion and strategic consulting for central and regional government, and corporations. Tom is also joint founder and owner of craft beer company Hino Brewing.

*About the Tour
The Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017 was organized by IIST in conjunction with the Kyushu Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry with the aim of boosting the number of foreign tourists visiting Kyushu in December, 2017. The 4-day tour was designed to rediscover regional resources through the eyes of foreign experts, and which would then ultimately tie up with the end-goal of growing Kyushu's inbound flows. To that end, the tour program had a party of experts from various fields taken around Kyushu to identify what needed to be improved, areas that tended to be overlooked, and areas that should be more actively foregrounded. The tour was focused on Kumamoto Prefecture and southern Fukuoka Prefecture in central Kyushu, this year, and visited the following spots:

Day 1:
Start-up Meeting » Dyeing Atelier » Shimogawa » Unagino-nedoko
Day 2:
“Minami Aso village”, “Asobo no Sato Kugino” » Sozankyo (Japanese inn)
Day 3:
Moritaka Hamono » Inoue Industry » Murakami Industry » Sengetsu Shuzo
Day 4:
Wrap-up Meeting

[Tour Map] (537KB)

Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017 Report (Kyushu Bureau of Economy, Trade, and Industry) (2MB)



(For the Japanese version of this article)


| Top Page | Category: IIST activitiesRegion & Industry |
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