International Friday: Revitalizing Rural Japan

Mizuki Matsui’20 is helping to revitalize the ancient city of Shiroishi in Northern Japan through the power of tourism.

Mizuki Matsui'20 next to the Buddhist head priest, Mr. Aso Taishun Mizuki Matsui’20 next to the Buddhist head priest, Mr. Aso Taishun
Credit: Mizuki Matsui
De-population, or
kaso, is a prevalent problem in rural areas of Japan. Declining birth rates, combined with an increased migration of young people to bigger cities, is shrinking the populations in these areas, leaving the elderly to look after themselves and their cities. This signifies a major challenge to rural communities, as their culture and traditions are slowly disappearing.

Originally from Kasugai City, Mizuki Matsui’20 relocated to Shiroishi after graduation from Beloit College. Located in the Northern Japanese region of Tohoku, Shiroishi City has a rich history and culture; from the 17th century to the end of the 19th century it was the entrance to Sendai Domain, the biggest kingdom in its region. Mizuki and his team are working hard to develop creative approaches to share the appeals of the “hidden city of samurai” in order to bring more life to Shiroishi.

Mizuki’s role is to “connect the different dots in the city.” “We currently have one dot (Shiroishi Castle), but there are so many other interesting dots. My role is to build relationships with the local people so that we can offer tourists the full potential of this place.”

Norizane Miyagi has dedicated his life to making authentic samurai swords Norizane Miyagi has dedicated his life to making authentic samurai swords
Credit: Mizuki Matsui

“Connecting dots” has helped him meet and befriend several of the emblematic people in the city. Norizane Migyagi is a craftsman known for his authentic samurai swords. Fumiko Sato makes washi, a type of traditional, hand-processed Japanese paper that was once one of the country’s main industries, but is now fading. For years, she ran the workshop with her husband, but after he passed away she decided to continue the work by herself. Fumiko, at the age of 80, still continues the work with washi crafting dyed wallets, card holders, boxes and other delicate pieces made out of this special material.

Fumiko Sato, craft woman who makes washi, a traditional Japanese paper Fumiko Sato, craft woman who makes washi, a traditional Japanese paper
Credit: Mizuki Matsui

Mizuki held an online tour with the local Buddhist head priest, Mr. Aso Taishun, last month. They talked about Zen’s relationship to Samurais and gave a lesson on how to practice Zen meditation. Around 70 people from more than eight countries participated and were able to get a sneak peek of the experiences that await them in Shiroishi.  For Mizuki, working with Mr. Taishun has been especially rewarding. “He is really welcoming and open to all ideas,” he says.

The tour was part of an initiative to put Shiroishi onto the tourism map, despite the limitations and movement restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Greater focus is also being placed on “microtorism,” that is, creating content about Shiroishi so that people in nearby cities, such as Tokyo and Fukushima, will be drawn to make a visit.

Winter in Shiroishi Castle Winter in Shiroishi Castle
Credit: Mizuki Matsui
Mizuki has a big goal, but for now he is focusing on creating bonds with other locals. “I want to do everything I can to get people from all over Japan and all over the world to know about Shirioshi city, but I cannot do everything alone. It’s essential to meet more people and get everyone on board.”

Note: Students interested in sustainability in rural Japan are invited to take courses in 2021-22 that will prepare them for field studies in heritage tourism and geotourism in the Oga Peninsula, Akita Prefecture, in August 22. The field studies are part of the Landscapes Japan program.

By: María Elvira López'21
March 19, 2021

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