For many of us familiar with the charm of rural Japan, there is a strong sense of missed opportunity. Despite the ongoing depopulation crisis and its economic impact, Japan’s countryside communities still have much to offer, however, especially to travelers not fixated on any “must-see” lists repeated online.
It turns out that many individuals strongly share this sense of missed opportunity and remain optimistic about the tourism opportunities in their rural towns. People who took a chance on small-town life and built—with their hostels, dorms and affordable backpacker accommodations—a bridge between the travel community and the entrepreneurial spirit of those in rural locations who feel hopeful for them to return in the post-pandemic era.
These are the stories of some of those individuals.
Missed opportunities in rural Japan
Traveling in rural Japan can be a challenging but very rewarding experience. Compared to the destinations along the country’s famous Golden Route (the popular route between Tokyo and Kyoto), the scarcity of tourist facilities in Japan’s rural parts will test the skills of even the most seasoned travelers. The situation manifests itself in the low number of tourists giving rural Japan a chance.
Shikoku is home to four prefectures and one of the culturally richest destinations in Japan. However, it hosted only 1.9% of the 32 million foreign tourists who visited Japan in 2019—the last full year of international travel before the coronavirus pandemic.
In comparison, 47%, 39%, and 28% of travelers visited Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. While the major cities offer their own kind of experiences, it’s disheartening that the majority of visitors to Japan miss out completely on the wild and unique natural beauty found in its rural regions.
Hiroumi Wada: New life in Hiwasa
I walked into Ichi the Hostel in Hiwasa, a coastal town in Shikoku’s Tokushima Prefecture, on a stormy day after hiking for nearly 30 kilometers and exploring two of the mountaintop temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route.
The hostel feels like an oasis in rural Japan where, although you can always expect high hygiene standards, stylishness is a rare find. However, I get an immediate sense that Hiroumi Wada, the hostel owner, is very well-tuned to the needs of solo and independent travelers.
Wada opened Ichi the Hostel after his own experiences traveling in Southeast Asia, the mecca of generation-defining hostel culture. He realized the missed opportunities for rural Japan due to the lack of facilities that may appeal to independent travelers, which led him to open his hostel in 2019.
Hiwasa is the adopted home of Wada, originally from Wakayama. He spent most of his adult life in Osaka, where he had a music career as a bassist in a rock band and a sales position at a machinery factory. He temporarily relocated to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, where he gained experience in the hospitality industry.
His search for the perfect location to open a hostel in rural Japan soon brought him to Hiwasa. While sitting at the common area around a stylish wooden table, he tells me about the three conditions he set for the ideal hostel location in rural Japan: proximity to the ocean, small community and tourist appeal.
Oceanside Hiwasa is home to 5,500 residents, a sea turtle museum and a sanctuary on Omaha Beach and is close to some of the best trails along the Shikoku pilgrimage route. Thus, it matched all his conditions and was the perfect base for an off-the-beaten-path travel experience.
Wada says that most of his guests were foreigners before the coronavirus pandemic impacted his business and chose to close the hostel for three months. However, Wada was not discouraged and used the time to expand his vegetable garden and turn the old shack adjacent to the hostel into a pub, which now also attracts the locals.
Like the modestly sized dwelling that Ichi the Hostel occupies, many of the hostels in rural Japan make use of the unused or abandoned houses that can be found in abundance due to depopulation.
Azumi Sento: Serving the community in Kochi
In Kochi Prefecture’s Aki City, Kochi no Ya Hostel was a passion project of Azumi Sento. It is another excellent example of a hostel adding to its town’s appeal while serving travelers and the local community. When I opened the door to the small garden and entered Kochi no Ya, I was their first foreign guest, which, unfortunately, opened its doors merely two months before the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
The tastefully decorated hostel is a partially refurbished 80-year-old Japanese home. I was so taken by the tranquil ambiance that I quickly decided to extend my stay. Sento, who greets me at the hostel’s picturesque cafe, timidly admits this sentiment shared by many guests and locals, who often visit for the popular Saturday night pop-up bar event.
Aki is a town commonly overlooked by guidebooks, which merely mention it as a stop to change buses or trains on the way to Kochi city. However, with its beautiful silhouettes and narrow streets lined with traditional Japanese houses, the seaside town is a perfect base to explore the unique coast of Kochi Prefecture—known for breathtaking landscapes such as Cape Muroto and the nearby Ioki Cave.
During an evening stroll through the dimly lit streets of Aki, Sento told me that Kochi, the largest city in the prefecture, has long overtaken Aki’s position, which lost almost half of its population since the 1980s, as the beating heart of the Kochi Prefecture.
Sento also temporarily traded Aki for Kochi for eight years to work in a graphic design company after studying sociology in Tokyo. However, her interest in rural revitalization and her experience living and traveling in Australia brought her home to Aki.
We ate at an old sushi restaurant called Yakko Sushi, run by an elderly husband and wife that was miraculously open on a Sunday night. Sento spoke about how she became a part of a big international community in Australia. This sense of belonging fueled her desire to give back by building a means to share Japan and, more specifically, her hometown with the international travel community.
…they serve a greater purpose than just offering accommodation to travelers.
Our itamae (sushi chef) sadly noted that, despite its seaside location, their restaurant is one of the few remaining sushi shops in Aki. The small town was once home to dozens of them in its heyday. I thought of how appreciative he must be for younger Japanese like Sento who choose to leave the big cities behind and return to their hometown to help revitalize it.
Like Hiroumi Wada, Sento sounded encouraged despite the devastating impact on tourism due to coronavirus just after opening her hostel. In the meantime, Azumi rents out space in her hostel for private events such as art exhibits, live music or private parties.
Her hostel is also offering long-term workstation plans to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic. Additionally, she stills runs a pop-up bar every Saturday to bring the locals and occasional guests together while eagerly waiting to welcome back tourists to her hostel and hometown once the borders reopen.
Ubukata and Park: Away we go
Yoshihiro Ubukata and Miyoung Park, who have been operating Aso Base Backpackers Hostel at the base of Mt. Aso in Kyushu since 2009, are among the early adopters of hostel culture in rural Japan, serving mainly to solo international travelers.
Their hostel, which features dorms and private rooms, is very well-suited for the needs of solo and international travelers. Free coffee is available all day, and a small library featuring foreign language books was an absolute delight.
Their beautifully and modestly sized hostel is almost as impressive as its location, which offers views of Aso-Kuju National Park, home to Japan’s largest active volcano. The volcano recently erupted (October 2021), and Ubukata said they had experienced many (non-fatal) eruptions since the hostel’s opening.
While the ashes are not pleasant, volcanic eruptions had not had nearly the impact on their business as the effects of the coronavirus, which stopped the flow of foreign travelers entirely. Before the pandemic, foreign tourists made up 70% of their guests.
They blend perfectly with their natural surroundings, bring a modern, chic and youthful energy to their small towns.
Ubukata and Park got the travel bug in their youth like many of their guests. Their story reminded me of the Sam Mendes movie Away We Go, which follows a couple during their road trip in North America to find the perfect town to raise a family.
More than a decade ago, they engaged in a similar mission in Japan, traveling from Hokkaido down to Kyushu, but for a different purpose: to find the perfect rural town to open a hostel.
After considering Biei and Niseko in Hokkaido and Kirishima, Kagoshima and Yufuin in Kyushu, they told me it took them mere minutes to decide on Aso after watching a lively group of young foreign travelers step off the train at Aso station.
A sense of optimism
I share their enthusiasm about Aso. To me, it feels like a town purposely designed with solo travelers in mind:
A small and visually pleasant train station featuring traditional Japanese architecture, udon and ramen shops near the station, a local onsen with a fantastic rotemburo (outdoor bath) and—thanks to Ubukata and Park, perfect accommodation with reasonably priced lodging for solo travelers. All without compromising on quality and all within quick proximity to some of the best hiking trails Japan has to offer.
I’m grateful to hostel owners such Hiroumi Wada, Azumi Sento, Yoshihiro Ubukata and Miyoung Park because they serve a greater purpose than just offering accommodation to travelers.
They blend perfectly with their natural surroundings, bring a modern, chic and youthful energy to their small towns, and, most importantly, provide a sense of optimism in rural Japan.
What do you think of hostel culture in Japan? Do you have any memories or experiences traveling in rural Japan? Let us know in the comments!