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

Knowledge and Enthusiasm are the Key Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017* (2) Tom Vincent CEO, Tonoloop Networks Inc. [Date of Issue: 30/March/2018 No.0277-1072]

Date of Issue: 30/March/2018

Knowledge and Enthusiasm are the Key
Kyushu Promotional Tour 2017* (2)

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 second part of the report.


(Continued from previous issue)

Another place that felt very much in need of the kind of stylish sophistication of Unagi no nedoko, was Inoue Industry, in Yatsushiro. Yatsushiro is the only area in Japan still farming and producing the igusa reeds used in tatami mats. But cheaper and larger, more efficient production in China, and the decline in the use in tatami in general, means the future of the industry is precarious.

A tatami is a traditional flooring mat unique to Japan; the tatami lies at the heart of the Japanese people and culture.  The Yatsushiro city boasts more than 95% share in Japan of igusa (rush straw, the material for the tatami mat) production, and its related businesses have been supporting the lives of the people of Yatsushiro for more than 500 years.  But because of Westernization of housing and increase of cheap imports from China, the number of igusa farmers has dramatically decreased to 1/25 of the golden age, and continues to decrease even now.

A tatami is a traditional flooring mat unique to Japan; the tatami lies at the heart of the Japanese people and culture. The Yatsushiro city boasts more than 95% share in Japan of igusa (rush straw, the material for the tatami mat) production, and its related businesses have been supporting the lives of the people of Yatsushiro for more than 500 years. But because of Westernization of housing and increase of cheap imports from China, the number of igusa farmers has dramatically decreased to 1/25 of the golden age, and continues to decrease even now.

Sadly we didn't get to visit an igusa farm and talk with the farmer about that side of the story, and from the little we could talk with them, the local government appeared to have few ideas and little enthusiasm for promoting the industry. But we did visit Inoue Industry, a small cottage manufacturer making igusa mats and other products. The products ranged from potentially very stylish mats and curtains to quirky bric-a-brac, but more than anything it felt that here what was needed was some young knowledge and enthusiasm to help promote the products and gather a fanbase. Without embarking on any complicated marketing campaign, here was somewhere that could potentially take off with just a simple, inexpensive, stylish and fun instagram account.

Igusa thin rope products “nawa-noren” (rope curtains). Inoue Sangyo Inc. started to try manufacturing of ropes by using the igusa produced in their native Yatsushiro, the home of the No.1 production volume of igusa in Japan. Igusa allowed them to make thinner ropes compared to usual straw ropes, which opened up possibilities for a variety of use. It was employed for use in the Tsubame Shinkansen, and eventually became a popular household item.

Igusa thin rope products “nawa-noren” (rope curtains). Inoue Sangyo Inc. started to try manufacturing of ropes by using the igusa produced in their native Yatsushiro, the home of the No.1 production volume of igusa in Japan. Igusa allowed them to make thinner ropes compared to usual straw ropes, which opened up possibilities for a variety of use. It was employed for use in the Tsubame Shinkansen, and eventually became a popular household item.

Murakami-sangyo Co., having been in the tatami-omote (tatami facing) wholesale business for more than 100 years, has developed a new product suitable to modern lifestyle and its needs in a quest for “new possibilities of tatami” to realize revival of the igusa industry. The new product “HIKARI-TATAMI,” with build-in LED floodlight, glows from inside.

Murakami-sangyo Co., having been in the tatami-omote (tatami facing) wholesale business for more than 100 years, has developed a new product suitable to modern lifestyle and its needs in a quest for “new possibilities of tatami” to realize revival of the igusa industry. The new product “HIKARI-TATAMI,” with build-in LED floodlight, glows from inside.

Of course, if your product is good and you are confident in what you do, then contemporary sophistication, and even a convenient location, are unnecessary. Moritaka Hamono in Yatsushiro is a perfect example of just that. Tucked in a residential area in a nondescript area of the town, the shopfront is Showa-retro(i) at its best, nothing fancy but obviously much loved.

MORITAKA HAMONO Inc. The Moritaka family has a history of 700 years beginning from the founder Kongohyoe Minamoto no Moritaka, the swordsmith based in Mt. Homan in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, and continues through the 27th today.

MORITAKA HAMONO Inc. The Moritaka family has a history of 700 years beginning from the founder Kongohyoe Minamoto no Moritaka, the swordsmith based in Mt. Homan in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, and continues through the 27th today.

And the small, dirty little blacksmith's workshop at the back turns out some of the best kitchen knives in the world. The little shop has foreign visitors several times a week, some flying down mid-vacation from Kyoto just to visit the shop to buy knives. Many have researched and know as much about Moritaka's knives as they could ever need to know before they arrive, so there is little necessity for complicated English language pamphlets etc to help, besides a simple “how to care for your knife” paper. Moritaka Hamono is a wonderful example of how a traditional craft business can be run successfully without compromise or unnecessary decoration.

The characteristics of Japanese cutlery manufacturing technology is layering of iron and steel. The process of heating iron and steel at high temperature and joining them enables production of hard, strong, durable and sharp cutting tools. In particular, the highest quality steel called Aogami Super is very delicate and can crumble into pieces if it is heated too much, thus it requires a high degree of mastery.

The characteristics of Japanese cutlery manufacturing technology is layering of iron and steel. The process of heating iron and steel at high temperature and joining them enables production of hard, strong, durable and sharp cutting tools. In particular, the highest quality steel called Aogami Super is very delicate and can crumble into pieces if it is heated too much, thus it requires a high degree of mastery.

If they use ready-made, preprocessed and convenient composite steel material, they can dispense with joining process of iron and steel, and moreover, may achieve several times more production. But as blacksmiths, they cannot satisfy with this solution in terms of quality and sharpness. For this reason, they adhere to the traditional and difficult technique of forge welding -- “triple structure” technique -- by which a layer of solid steel is sandwiched between 2 layers of soft iron.  This meticulous process enables amazingly sharp cutting quality.

If they use ready-made, preprocessed and convenient composite steel material, they can dispense with joining process of iron and steel, and moreover, may achieve several times more production. But as blacksmiths, they cannot satisfy with this solution in terms of quality and sharpness. For this reason, they adhere to the traditional and difficult technique of forge welding -- “triple structure” technique -- by which a layer of solid steel is sandwiched between 2 layers of soft iron. This meticulous process enables amazingly sharp cutting quality.

After Yame we moved on to the extraordinary Aso caldera. The drive through the narrow winding pass into the crater was a chilling reminder of the recent Kumamoto earthquake, but once through you enter into a breathtaking other-world. If Hitoyoshi is unique for its shochu, and Yame has the potential to become a thriving, delightful little rural town, then Aso is something else entirely. Here, thanks to the ancient and extraordinary gigantic volcanic crater, with walls of mountains in a circle surrounding you and the striking, grass-sided Mt Aso itself in the centre, this is another ecosystem, another world all of its own, physically separated from the outside, and with the potential to be a totally unique and mesmerizing mini paradise.

Mt. Aso has one of the largest caldera in the world, with a huge somma.  Mount Aso is a common name for five peaks: Mt. Taka, Mt. Naka, Mt. Neko, Mt. Eboshi, and Mt. Kishima.  As of now, Mt. Naka has an active crater.  The Minamiaso-mura (Minamiaso Village) is situated in the southern foot of Mt. Aso.  The sweeping view of Mt. Aso from this village is breath-taking.

Mt. Aso has one of the largest caldera in the world, with a huge somma. Mount Aso is a common name for five peaks: Mt. Taka, Mt. Naka, Mt. Neko, Mt. Eboshi, and Mt. Kishima. As of now, Mt. Naka has an active crater. The Minamiaso-mura (Minamiaso Village) is situated in the southern foot of Mt. Aso. The sweeping view of Mt. Aso from this village is breath-taking.

And yet, again, it felt that the only thing holding Minami-Aso village back from becoming a very special, thriving area was Minami-Aso itself. Minami-Aso cries out to become a mecca and model for a contemporary mash-up of traditional and cutting-edge eco- and sustainable technology. The numerous springs, pools and waterways throughout the area, for example, could so easily be harnessed to become a living, working example of traditional and cutting edge eco-technology, not just a tourist pastiche, but really working for a small community.

And yet, the most pretty of them was stuffed at the roadside in the corner of a car park, and in another the old, traditional potato-peeler waterwheel that could so easily be brought back to life to become a simple, inexpensive and authentic way for people to learn about farming and energy, lay in the pool half-broken and forgotten, not even mentioned by our guide until I asked. And worst of all, the biggest and most spectacular pools at the pretty little local shrine have been entirely taken over at the entrance by a brand new, huge, garish and incongruous crystal shop, that has nothing to do with Minami-Aso and serves only to illustrate the lack of consensus, understanding and enthusiasm the village has of its own potential for vitality.

Our stay at the Sozankyo inn, though, on the other side off the crater, was a sign that things are moving forward, albeit slowly. Sozankyo is a small comfortable inn, half traditional ryokan and half hotel. The two selling points we were told were that the whole hotel had free wifi, and that the beds were raised tatami areas with mattresses on them instead of futons. To be honest, neither were particularly impressive, although perhaps there are some foreign guests who are more comfortable with a half-bed/half-futon to sleep on? I'm not convinced…

But what Sozankyo brought home most clearly was that, if rural Kumamoto and Fukuoka are aiming to encourage overseas tourists, then the area still has a long way to go to even coming close to a basic, world class standard. It is almost unbelievable that Japan still has precious little free wifi available, but even here it is taken for granted that business hotels have free internet. So for wifi to be a selling point in a ryokan hotel in 2017 is, frankly, a little sad. Sozankyo is a nice little hotel and I would be very happy to stay there again or recommend it to friends, but for it to be the best the area can offer, and apparently some way ahead of other local inns, means there is still a lot of work to be done.

The Sozankyo. After the Uchinomaki hot spring resort was devastated by the ruinous rainfall disaster that hit the northern Kyushu in 2012, they have shifted the main business target to the attraction of foreign tourists. Their substantial efforts at expansion of inbound tourism has been appreciated, which resulted in their winning “the Kyushu Mirai Award: Grand Prize in Inbound Tourism.”  For the future, they will develop projects that can involve the entire Uchinomaki area.

The Sozankyo. After the Uchinomaki hot spring resort was devastated by the ruinous rainfall disaster that hit the northern Kyushu in 2012, they have shifted the main business target to the attraction of foreign tourists. Their substantial efforts at expansion of inbound tourism has been appreciated, which resulted in their winning “the Kyushu Mirai Award: Grand Prize in Inbound Tourism.” For the future, they will develop projects that can involve the entire Uchinomaki area.

That said, the amount of effort being put into making even the most remote areas of Japan into suitable travel destinations for overseas guests is remarkable, and central Kyushu is no different. I don't know if there is another country in the world that is working to make the whole country a destination in quite the same way. But the speed at which things are moving is serving to highlight just how far many areas of Japan have stagnated or been left behind, particularly over the past 20 or 30 years. For better or for worse, world travelers are becoming more and more sophisticated, and you can be sure that most who visit southern Fukuoka and Kumamoto will have visited many other countries and be accustomed to standards around the world.

If the area is to become a successful destination, the main players and people in the local tourism industry must educate themselves as to what is expected and thought of as standard around the world. Only then can they really decide what to adopt, what to adapt, what to do better and what to leave as it is. And only then, perhaps, can they learn from Mr. Yamaguchi at the Fujiya Hotel, and begin to enjoy describing and promoting the area with heartfelt fun and enthusiasm.

No doubt though, on our trip this time, the closest we got to Shozo Yamaguchi's enthusiasm and pleasure came from the younger people we met on our trip. It feels that as soon as possible the emphasis should be moved from the older to the younger generation, to support and promote them in their efforts in developing, enjoying and enthusing about the huge potential in Kyushu's provincial and rural areas.

(i) “Showa-retro” is a classic style—often dilapidated but homely—that brings back memories of the time between the 1950s and 70s when postwar Japan was still struggling to overcome hardship but people were full of hope and human relationships in the local community were still rich and vibrant.


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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