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When you mention Shikoku in casual conversation, there’s a good chance the person you’re talking to has heard of it, yet has never visited the area themselves, even if they are Japanese.

Shikoku clearly has more to offer than just stunning nature, delectable food, and illustrious culture. And this makes one wonder: How successful has the region—and others like it—been in their efforts to attract new visitors? Is there more that can be done?

To find out, The ACCJ Journal spoke to industry insiders and enthusiasts, including members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Tourism Industry Committee.

For Co-Chair Steve Dewire, who is general manager at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a focal point for many of Japan’s regions, allowing them to position themselves as viable alternative destinations to major cities such as Tokyo.

“I believe that different regions are sincerely focused on expanding their draw for tourism. This can be well targeted to return guests who have explored the country’s major sites and locations. Their subsequent visits are to experience local culture and tradition in a more intimate fashion,” Dewire said.

Sanae Sekiya, co-chair of the Tourism Industry Committee and a partner at consulting company Tri-Star LLC, agrees. “Shikoku has an advantage in terms of beauty in nature, sports activities, such as cycling, canoeing, and fishing, and, of course, food.”

That said, Dewire acknowledged that the regions must make long-term, strategic decisions to ensure that they do not promise more than they can deliver.

“Many regions may not have the full supporting infra­structure, but their hope is to move in this direction as tourism grows,” Dewire said. “Regions can expand their participation in national and international tourism events and partner­ships with more established cities and sites nearby. Building suitable infrastructure takes time, support, and an effective short term and long-term plan.”

Sekiya agrees: “A key factor going forward will be improve­ments to public transportation. Convenient applications on mobile phones will also be important as they make it easier to survive in a foreign country.”

Other features that will help are developing a modern infra­structure and increasing the variety of activities on offer to include not only traditional ones, such as workshops that teach local crafts, but also modern ones, such as whitewater rafting along the Yoshino River.

“In addition to enjoying food, culture, art, temples, shrines, and scenery that are not familiar, visitors can have an enhanced experience in Japan if there are more options for things to do and experience in local places,” Sekiya said.

To find out what this would be like, The ACCJ Journal was among a group of foreign media invited in November for a three-day tour of Shikoku, in particular the Iya Valley region, Takamatsu City, and Shodoshima City.

A pleasant surprise for the group was that Shikoku revealed itself not just to be a proverbial diamond in the rough, but also a region that’s ideal for modern travelers.

The smallest of Japan’s main islands, Shikoku has, in recent years, sought to enhance its profile on the global stage. And that effort is beginning to pay off.

Tourism in the region is increasing, fueled largely by visitors from China, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. Domestic and Western tourists are also beating a path to the isle.

One thing helping draw such a diverse group of travelers is the variety of means by which one can reach the island—low-cost domestic and regional carriers, ferries, and trains being the most popular.

Once there, visitors can enjoy even more travel options, including car, motorcycle, and power-assisted bicycle rentals. Tour buses, boat cruises, and even cable cars are also popular, and hotels often provide shuttle bus service to and from the airport.

Indeed, the region is going out of its way to modernize its infrastructure by refurbishing traditional inns, offering online and offline materials in English, and ensuring access to fast and reliable Wi-Fi. Affordable business hotels are also available.

And that’s quite apart from a stunning natural endowment, unimpeachable hospitality, and a reputable culture. Local cuisine, such as udon in Kagawa, sea bream rice in Ehime, and ramen in Tokushima are a hit with visitors.

Our first destination was the vertiginous Iya Valley, which was named by New York-based Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the “50 Travel Locations to Visit in 2018,” the only Japanese destination to make the list.

One reason for the growing interest is that the valley has a reputation as one of Japan’s three most-secluded regions.

In the past, access to the area was limited due to its remote­ness, and only the most determined made it there. Warring samurai sought refuge in Iya during the Gempei War (1180–1185), for instance.

But that is changing, and we made our way to the valley courtesy of the Kotobus Group, a local tour bus operator, having arrived earlier in the day on an All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Takamatsu Airport in Shikoku, a journey of just over an hour.

The Iya Valley is simply stunning. To describe the scene from the many roadside viewing spots that zig-zag the area as dramatic is an understatement.

We took a break at Hi-no-Ji bend, a viewing spot carved out by the Iya River that resembles the V-shaped (hi) character of the hiragana script used for writing Japanese.

Each side of the valley, which stretches out in a 20-kilometer gorge around Mt. Tsurugi, rises several hundred feet into the heavens and stands covered in foliage. At the time of our visit, it was about to be overwhelmed by the fall tints of crimson and vermilion.

It’s little wonder that Mt. Tsurugi is known for its panoramic views and spring water—both highly sought by lovers of hiking, an activity that locals recommend.

A favorite for visitors to the valley is the mischievous Peeing Boy Statue, a monument of a child standing on the edge of a 200-meter precipice that is a symbol of innocence and courage.

It’s hardly surprising that a region that enjoys outstanding natural assets should also offer some of the country’s most sumptuous local fare.

Iya Valley is famous for buck­wheat, the ingredient used to make soba noodles. These, along with the local konnyaku (a kind of yam), iwa-dofu (hardened tofu), and goshi-imo (potatoes), are but a sampling of the region’s wholesome and savory food.

Visitors to the area would be negligent were they not to have lunch at the nearby Nanoyado Hotel Iyaonsen, a seamless combina­tion of tradition and modernity.

The hotel’s perch on the edge of a gorge offers some of the most life-affirming views in Iya. Just before lunch, we had a quick tour of the hotel’s well-appointed rooms, which are complemented by jaw-dropping views of the gorge.

But it’s the tastes that really stir the heart, and we began our meal with the locally caught river trout, helped along by a chilled glass of sparkling rosé.

Then, the delicate offerings of sushi, sashimi, and tofu, followed up with the famed Iya soba and a side of tempura with steamed vegetables and beef, helped banish any pangs of hunger brought on by the morning’s activities.

When the frozen vanilla sherbet dessert arrived, it was merely icing on the cake—and a perfect one at that.

Nanoyado Hotel Iyaonsen would have been a splendid option for a place to lay down for the night, but we were equally impressed with our choice: a traditional Japanese minka (inn) located in Togenkyo-Iya Mountain Village.

Originally dwellings for farmers, merchants, and artisans, minka—in their repurposed form—have emerged as the perfect option for visitors wishing to enjoy a sense of tradition but with modern comforts.

The refurbished farmhouses in Tougenkyo-Iya meet these criteria and form a network of inns managed by the Chiiori Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable tourism promotion.

One 300-year-old thatched farmhouse in the area was purchased by US writer and Japan expert Alex Kerr, author of Lost Japan. He named it Chiiro, meaning House of the Flute.

In our minka, we were greeted by a local and were offered a multi-course dinner made from fresh, locally sourced mountain ingredients. The chef, too, was a local woman who made our meal as we settled in.

Waking up to a village wreathed in morning fog—with a symphony of nature’s sounds playing in the valley below—it was not hard to imagine how farmers and warriors of yesteryear lived out their lives in these very mountains.

Over the next two days, our group visited a village with more scarecrows than people—hence its name, Tenku-no-mura or Scarecrow Village—as well as Kazurabashi Bridge, where members of the Genji and Heike clans battled during the Gempei War, and Choshikei Monkey Park, an open-air space filled with roaming monkeys.

We also enjoyed a hair-raising zip-line experience at Iya Fureai Park and a relaxing cruise aboard the Oboke Ravine Pleasure Boat, to name but a handful of activities.

One thing is clear: developing forward-looking business models that support the local economy, as in the Iya Valley, will be important in the years to come.

Indeed, the repurposed minka model has as a goal providing new revenue streams for largely depopulated traditional commu­nities. This will give them access to the modern economy while maintaining elements of their tradi­tional lifestyle. Shikoku, in this regard, appears to be ahead of the game.

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
The Iya Valley is simply stunning. To describe the scene from the many roadside viewing spots that zig-zag through the area as dramatic is an understatement.