Responsible tourism: Japan tour, village traditions
This area has relied in the past on public works projects financed by central government, which have often been the source of much environmental degradation in Japan. The introduction of rural tourism here will bring a welcome alternative source of revenue and mean that the environment can be protected at a local level.
We have a policy of 'leave no trace' when visiting rural areas such as Asuka. We only use established walking trails to limit damage to vegetation, all rubbish is removed, and the taking of any plants, rocks, etc. is discouraged. We use public transport as much as possible to lessen the environmental impact of this tour - for example on the Japanese bullet trains.
We stay in local, environmentally friendly accommodation along the way - for example tatami-mat rooms in traditional minshuku inns. Food is locally sourced and provided - and guests have the opportunity to experience local food production themselves in the rice fields of Asuka.
We also make a donation for each customer to the Nature Conservation Society of Japan and the Japan National Trust, organisations which help protect the nature and also architectural heritage of Japan.
This tour is part of a new trend in rural tourism in Japan, supporting small, family-run inns and guesthouses in small towns and villages where there are few work opportunities. In contrast to the most widespread form of tourism here - large groups visiting impersonal concrete hotels - our tours go off the main tourist trail. As well as bringing revenue to these areas, demonstrating the tourist potential of these destinations encourages local people to take pride in and conserve their areas and their older, traditionally constructed buildings.
The presence of a Japanese-speaking tour leader makes a big difference in cultural interaction; it allows for communication between the visitors and local people and lessens the possibility of minor cultural gaffes by foreigners that might otherwise create nervousness on the part of local people about hosting foreign guests.
Our local guides spend a huge amount of time and effort explaining to our clients about local customs and etiquette, so that our clients can interract appropriately with the local community. Japanese culture can feel extremely unfamiliar and habits which we might be second-nature to us (such as blowing our nose) can seem rude to the Japanese. Our pre-departure literature alerts our clients to ways they can avoid giving unintended offence.
The tour introduces clients to the cultural heritage of an area which has a history going back centuries, but has perhaps not been fully appreciated in recent decades. Along the way guests have the opportunity to help experience Japanese culture first hand by harvesting rice in Asuka, getting to grips with Kayabuki (Japanese traditional roof-thatching using pampass grass, reeds and other materials) in Kobe and visiting a small paper lantern studio in Kyoto.
Small group tourism encourages young people who would otherwise leave to find work in the cities to stay and start locally, creating small-scale sustainable enterprises that cater to visitors. We try to avoid the destinations that cater to mass-market tourism, taking our guest to the lesser-known but if not more rewarding places that larger tour companies tend to avoid due to their unsuitability for large groups. This means our clients money will end up in small community that may have little in the way of work for its young people.