Last September, I had the pleasure of meeting the Director of Spirit of Japan Travel, Masaru Takayama, who founded the company in February 2008 so that local communities interested in ecotourism could market directly to travelers from America and Southeast Asia, rather than through mass tourism travel agents. I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about the state of Japan environmental record in the wake of the devastating tsunami earlier in 2011.
I’ll start off with the question on everyone’s minds, namely is it safe to travel to Japan? What would you tell a concerned traveler?
Yes, it is safe! We live here. I believe that it was mostly the media that reported rumors that has hit Japan’s tourism industry hard. However, if you are really concerned, but still want to travel to Japan, I would suggest traveling west from Tokyo or traveling north to the Hokkaido area. Both regions have been proven to be unaffected by events.
What distinguishes Japan from other ecotourism destinations?
We are one of the safest countries in the world to travel and have a matured and sophisticated society where modern and ancient world co-exist in harmony with nature. Having close to 7,000 islands, 74% of our national land is mountainous with climates varying from cool temperate to sub-tropical making Japan a biodiversity hotspot. Overall, while the travel cost is higher, the destination is regarded for higher-end quality over quantity.
On the topic of certification, does your organization set and enforce minimum environmental cultural standards? If not, how do you evaluate potential tours, accommodations and destinations?
Unfortunately, neither the Japanese government nor the national ecotourism association offers any certification program at the moment for sustainable tourism. But, we endeavor to use lodges that are certified as environmental-friendly by the Japan Ecolodge Association. We minimize impacts by using public transportation and the carbon footprint is fully-offset.
Editor’s Note: In January 2012 the Global Sustainable Tourism Council officially recognized the Japan Ecolodge Association’s Environmentally Sustainable Accommodations Standard as being in line with the GSTC criteria for sustainable tourism.
Japan has always had a unique environmental record. The same country that conducts scientific whale hunts in international waters is also a world leader in clean energy development and boasts a comparatively low ecological footprint for a developed nation. As an ecotourism operator, how do you try to frame or portray the Japanese people relation with their natural environment?
We show everything, the facts. There are shops that still sell whale meat because there are still slow demands. The industry is really old. It is believed to have started in the 8th century and was once a sustainable way to harvest much like the Eskimos did until westernization arrived. We are not brutal people; rather we prioritize our life in harmony with nature. It has always been with our Shinto religion, and hope it will stay that way for the generations to come.
Please describe an ideal itinerary for an ecotourist family first weeklong (7 days) trip to Japan.
We suggest you fly into Osaka (KIX) do a couple of days in Kyoto for culture/history tour with the local people to get some understanding of the origins of who the Japanese are, including experiential programs such as pottery, tea ceremony, Zen meditation, kimono, sweets, traditional cuisine. Then, spend the rest of the week in a rural village or two for authentic travel experience with the local communities.
Farmhouse stays, rice planting and harvesting, green tea picking, basket weaving, sushi class, dance and music can also add to the mix of wonderful activities for families. For ecotourists, wildlife encounters with birds, whales, dolphins, bear, deer, plants and endemic species as well as sea turtle conservation will appeal; and for adventurists, scuba diving, island hopping, camping, rapids, icebergs on a kayak or a canoe, multi-day hiking and trekking or cycling are available too.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Yes, our promises:
- We’ll provide you with outstanding service. We work hard to make sure you enjoy the trip and that the memories will last a lifetime.
- We’ll make your Japan travel easy and unique. You can expect unique travel itineraries planned just for you, hassle-free.
- We’ll be responsible to our communities. Each and every tour is planned and operated by a local community that we are a part of, to benefit the local people.
- We’ll conserve our environment. Linking conservation and tourism while contributing to boosting Japan’s environmental literacy is our goal.
- We’ll offset your carbon footprint. You will no longer feel guilty if you are climate conscious. We calculate and offset your carbon footprint, every trip, every time.
Editor’s Note: Click for more information about other options for Local Travel Movement.