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

Japanese Style DMOs Drive Local Tourism (1) Infusing Akan Tourism with Ainu Culture Masayuki Onishi Director, Akan Tourism Association & Community Development Organization [Date of Issue: 30/November/2018 No.0285-1093]

Date of Issue: 30/November/2018

Japanese Style DMOs Drive Local Tourism (1)
Infusing Akan Tourism with Ainu Culture

Masayuki Onishi
Director, Akan Tourism Association & Community Development Organization


Hokkaido's tourism industry is already the same size as agriculture and fisheries put together, serving as a key driver in Hokkaido’s development. With inbound tourism continuing to grow, the hot-spring resort Akanko Onsen is revisiting Ainu culture as part of community development that focuses on genuine local power. We are currently honing adventure tourism, while also engaging in a style of regional management that emphasizes local consenus-building.


An unexpected treasurehouse of history and culture

British-born, Japan-based businessman David Atkinson suggests that four conditions are necessary to develop a strong tourism industry: climate, nature, culture, and food. Hokkaido has often been said to suffer an unfortunate lack of history and culture, but that has changed in recent years with international recognition of the Ainu people as a precious resource keeping alive in the Hokkaido area indigenous traditions and culture stretching 10,000 years right back to the Jomon era.

The hot-spring resort Akanko Onsen, which is my hometown, lies inland in eastern Hokkaido. In Akan Mashu National Park, a band of volcanoes, forests and lakes form a magnificent panorama of untouched natural beauty. About 80 minutes by car from Kushiro City, this is one of the few tourist areas where the Ainu and Wajin (Japanese) peoples are engaged together in community development.

The theme running throughout our community development is the creation of an international resort infused with Ainu culture. The Ainu believed that people were part of nature and that everything has a spirit. They coexisted with nature, worshipping plants, animals, mountains, lakes and other elements of nature as gods (kamuy), and giving thanks for this natural bounty as part of their daily life. We want to position the Ainu people's coexistence with plants, animals and all the other elements of nature at the heart of our community development.

A National Geographic fellow coming to Hokkaido to do a story just kept saying “Fantastic!” as an Ainu women dressed in traditional costume played a traditional song on the traditional stringed “tonkori.” The massive tree standing behind her in a restricted access area is said to be 700 years old.

A National Geographic fellow coming to Hokkaido to do a story just kept saying “Fantastic!” as an Ainu women dressed in traditional costume played a traditional song on the traditional stringed “tonkori.” The massive tree standing behind her in a restricted access area is said to be 700 years old.

Growth engine for Kushiro tourism

Driving the community development effort is the Akan Tourism Association & Community Development Organization, which was designated as a Japanese-style DMO by the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) in November 2017. DMOs, or Destination Marketing/Management Organizations, are intended to drive the development of regional tourism, and our organization is determined to develop long-term stays and inbound tourism as a way to combat the drop in domestic tourism accompanying Japan's population decline.

Last year, Kushiro City had around 1.53 million overnight visitors, around 610,000 of whom stayed in the Akanko Onsen area, which was approximately 106 percent year-on-year. Around 150,000 overnight visitors to Kushiro City were foreigners, up 17.3 percent year-on-year, and around 80 percent of these stayed in the Akanko Onsen area.

Kushiro is the target of a number of key national tourism policies, including the JTA's “Tourism Nation Showcase,” which aims to direct foreign visitors out into the countryside, and also the Ministry of the Environment's “Project to Fully Enjoy National Parks,” designed to step up Japan's national parks to international level, and local perceptions of tourism have changed greatly as a result. Looking at the ambitious goal of doubling tourist numbers by 2020 (270,000 inbound tourists for Kushiro as a whole and 250,000 for the Akanko Onsen area) that has been set, local operators too have become extremely motivated.

Taking on the adventure tourism market

The main theme for tourism in the Akanko Onsen area is adventure tourism (AT), tourism packages that combine at least two of three major elements: local nature, a cross-cultural experience, and an activity. With the world AT market estimated to be worth 49 trillion yen, we aim to become Japan’s AT centre. Our target audience is wealthy adventure tourists and long-stay visitors from Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe, North America and Australia.

We are currently working closely with the global Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) to train guides who can meet the needs of visitors coming to Japan in search of AT and to develop a whole range of stay programs that make maximum use of the region's attractions. An ATTA survey put Japan's AT competitiveness index right up in first place in Asia and 13th in the world, noting that Japan not only has all three major AT elements, but that each of these is at a high level.

Our goal is make a “hop” in 2018 by getting systems in place, a “step” in 2019, whereby we flesh out our next major projects, and a “jump” in 2020, when those projects produce results. Specifically, we want to get the Adventure Travel World Summit,* the ATTA's biggest annual event, held in Kushiro as soon as we can.

*The Summit draws close to 1,000 participants, primarily from the tourism industry, from more than 50 countries around the world. In 2018, it was held in Tuscany, Italy.

Creating an adventure tourism mecca We have a whole range of Lake Akan adventure tours available for beginners right through to experts.

Creating an adventure tourism mecca
We have a whole range of Lake Akan adventure tours available for beginners right through to experts.

Four key projects underway

1. Akan Foresta Lumina

This night forest walk takes the theme of coexistence with nature beyond ethnicity and religion. As a new expression of Ainu art, Akan Foresta Lumina is a light and sound performance staged within the Akan Mashu National Park that uses digital art to convey a message from Ainu mythology. In Canada, a similar experience based on native Indian culture has drawn around 200,000 tourists.

2. Premium guidance through the world's only natural marimo habitat

Marimo, a species of moss sometimes called an aquatic jewel for its beautiful round form, has been declared a natural treasure in Japan. Marimo are native to Lake Akan, and we plan to hold guided tours to show visitors these delightful marimo and the beautiful natural environment that allow marimo colonies to flourish. The idea is to make use of marimo moss as a tourism resource while simultaneously protecting it as a species, developing a tour that can stand as a model experience program for the “Project to Fully Enjoy National Parks” noted earlier.

3. Parokoro Project as a powerful showcase for Ainu culture

Taking advantage of the coexistence of Ainu and Wajin (Japanese) people in our town, we are also working on various initiatives to “paint the whole town with Ainu culture.” One central element of this cross-cultural exchange experience will be Ainu “art museums,” mini-showcases of Ainu art set up in vacant stores, hotel lobbies and parks within the town. In Ainu, “parokoro” means someone who talks a lot.

4. International-level mountain resort guided tours

Mt. Hakuto, the mountain closest to the Akanko Onsen district, boasts a unique geothermal environment, with its streams feeding our hot springs and moss growing right up to the peak, which is never covered with snow even during winter. We plan to market the Mt. Hakuto Nature Trail that runs through this fascinating area as an international trail course.

In April this year, Akan Adventure Tourism Co.,Ltd. was set up as a Destination Management Company (DMC) to spearhead the operation of these projects. Fifteen companies have provided 400 million yen to finance the AAT, most comprising local organizations such as the Lake Akan Ryokan Cooperative, but also including outside parties such as the JTB, the Development Bank of Japan, and Japan Airlines. This dual DMO-DMC setup will lend real momentum to our work.

The magical Thousand Torches procession lighting up the evening at Akanko Onsen. Visitors and locals write down their dreams and prayers and proceed down the road, praying together and sharing the same natural environment. This event takes place in September and October.

The magical Thousand Torches procession lighting up the evening at Akanko Onsen. Visitors and locals write down their dreams and prayers and proceed down the road, praying together and sharing the same natural environment. This event takes place in September and October.

13 years of consensus-building

Local management relies heavily on consensus-building. In 2002, efforts began to create a financing mechanism by raising the onsen tax, but these failed to gain the agreement of the entire community and no progress at all was made for many years.

However, we did not give up, and in April 2015, 13 years later, the private sector put forward a proposal with the agreement of local ryokan operators and finally succeeded. While this was the first time such a scheme has been realized in Japan, it has since been echoed in Kamikawa-cho in Hokkaido and Beppu City in Kyushu.

Steady progress on community-building

Based on a long-term plan using our own tourism funding acquired from the higher onsen tax, we have been developing the Akan Forest Garden as the gateway to the Akan Onsen district—a welcome zone for visitors, in other words. One result so far has been the establishment of a car park which began operating within the zone in August this year. Our next project will be to build an adventure center as a base for adventure and cross-cultural exchange.

Looking back, our community development efforts have changed significantly over time, from group travel to individual travel, and from the domestic market to the inbound market. While we need to be committed to ongoing change, there is one element that will be unchanged—genuine local power, or what I call “hometown power.”

The Marimo festival has a 69-year history. These moss balls were cherished by the Ainu people as spirits of the lake. While they have since become a national natural treasure, they have also faced extinction several times. Conceived to inspire people to help save the endangered marimo moss of Lake Akan, the Marimo Festival is held every October as a traditional Ainu festival that is both solemn and magical.

The Marimo festival has a 69-year history. These moss balls were cherished by the Ainu people as spirits of the lake. While they have since become a national natural treasure, they have also faced extinction several times. Conceived to inspire people to help save the endangered marimo moss of Lake Akan, the Marimo Festival is held every October as a traditional Ainu festival that is both solemn and magical.

Revisiting the wisdom of Ainu culture

Hokkaido is currently promoting the Irankarapte campaign. “Irankarapte” is an Ainu greeting that literally means “Please let me touch your heart gently,” and the idea is to make it a byword for Hokkaido hospitality. As interest in Ainu culture grows, so too is the profile of this beautiful phrase.

When I was asked to think about what Hokkaido would have been like without the Ainu people, I realized afresh how lucky we are to have Ainu culture. The way the Ainu view life and death, daily life, and coexistence with nature seems to me to epitomize the values which modern society has lost.

I believe that the real essence of progress in a developed nation can be found in the way that indigenous peoples lived their lives. The next message that I want to convey to the world is to come to Hokkaido to experience a vast land from time immemorial and touch the wisdom of an indigenous people as an opportunity to rethink the meaning of life.


About the Author
Masayuki Onishi
Onishi Masayuki
Chairman & CEO, Tsuruga Holdings, Tsuruga Group
Director, Akan Tourism Association & Community Development Organization

Born in Kushiro City. After graduating from the Division of Management at The University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Economics, he entered Mitsui Trust & Banking. In 1981, he joined the Akan Grand Hotel K.K. and in 2016 became the Chairman and CEO of Tsuruga Holdings K.K. He currently operates hotels in 12 places around Hokkaido. He holds various key positions such as Vice-Chairman of the Hokkaido Economic Federation, and is also a member of the Council for the Development of a Tourism Vision to Support the Future of Japan and of the Ainu Policy Promotion Council. Heavily involved in building partnerships in eastern Hokkaido, he was chosen by the Japan Tourism Agency as one of the top 100 charismatic faces in tourism, and also received a Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism award for service to tourism in 2016.


(For the Japanese version of this article)


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