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Why Shirakawa Village Is Considered One of the World’s ‘Top 100 Sustainable Destinations’

Japan’s idyllic Shirakawa Village has worked to mitigate overtourism and preserve the integrity of the local traditions and landscape by limiting visitors to those who respect the town’s heritage and embrace the spirit of mutual assistance that drives the local culture.

In between the precipitous mountains and deep woodlands of Shirakawa Village, in central Japan, lies a sprawl of gassho-zukuri houses — unique Japanese-style homes with steep-pitched, thatch-gabled roofs. The dwellers of these traditional houses are the village’s original local residents.

In 1995, the region around this village transformed itself into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Gifu Prefecture, when the village was registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This certified the universal value of the historic landscape featuring these distinctive thatch-roofed housings and the traditional way of life and culture that developed in this rural community — all of which still remain essentially intact. And in 2020, a quarter of a century later, Shirakawa Village (known in Japanese as “Shirakawa-go”) enjoyed renewed interest from many tourists when it was selected as one of the “Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the World” by Dutch nonprofit Green Destinations.

With that as a backdrop, let us deep dive into the secrets of success behind Shirakawa Village evolving into a sustainable tourist destination that has managed to maintain its traditional way of life amid a beautiful rustic landscape.

Evolving into a sustainable tourist destination by rebuilding the economic base

Shirakawa Village has long been referred to as “secluded” — 95.7 percent of the surrounding area is a forest zone corralled by steep mountain slopes. Because much of the land in this zone has been state-owned, it was difficult for the private sector to develop industrial forestry in this area. But in 1995, when UNESCO chose Shirakawa-go as the third village to be certified a World Heritage Site, this small rural community with just around 1,600 residents suddenly found itself establishing a global brand that could attract as many as 2.15 million tourists a year from all over the world.

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However, the growing popularity of the village as a preferred destination has resulted in overtourism and “zero-dollar tourism,” which are typical issues often faced by tourist hotspots. As an increasing number of Shirakawa-go residents started tourism-related businesses, they scrambled for a small slice of the pie, which eventually led to the vicious cycle of trying to expand the pie by attracting more tourists to meet overly emphasized economic needs. In other words, these villagers got trapped in the pitfall of “mass tourism,” so to speak. But what is noteworthy about Shirakawa Village is that the local community has succeeded in turning things around quite drastically — to the extent of being named one of the “Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the World," all amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to evolve into a sustainable destination. For that, we must rebuild the economic base that we still mainly rely on for mass tourism. Rather than attracting more tourists, our priority is in retaining the value of our local community. We need to redefine our brand,” says Tatsuya Ozaki, the deputy manager of the Shirakawa Village Tourism Promotion Section.

A reservation-only policy and strict fire-prevention measures

A mass water-spraying drill using water guns | Image credit: Japan Rail and Travel

There are two initiatives carried out at Shirakawa Village that Green Destinations found particularly impressive. One is the implementation of a reservation-only policy that proved to be highly effective in preventing overcrowded by tourists. The village first introduced this policy as a seasonal measure several years ago, when the nightly illumination events during winter began attracting an excessive number of visitors. From January 2019, the village enforce this reservation-only policy throughout the year, applying it also to tourists visiting by car and making Shirakawa Village a reservation-only destination all year round.

Another initiative that was well-received by the Dutch NGO was the village’s strict fire-prevention measures. The gassho-zukuri houses are very vulnerable to fire, being old buildings primarily made of wood and thatches. In addition to holding water-spraying drills and inspecting the water sources used for extinguishing fire on a regular basis, the residents make it routine to patrol the village four times a day to look for fire hazards. In fact, when a fire broke out in one of the thatched-roof houses in 2019 (which coincidentally was the year when Shuri Castle in Okinawa and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, two historic monuments also registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, burned down), residents from young to old got together voluntarily with water guns to help the firefighting team extinguish the fire. Thanks to their concerted efforts, the villagers were able to prevent the fire from spreading to other houses nearby.

A winter illumination event | Image credit: The Gate

Another factor that led the NGO to highly evaluate Shirakawa-go’s readiness against fire was the booth newly set up inside the village for heat-not-burn tobacco smokers. This installation was part of a collaboration agreement between Shirakawa Village and Philip Morris Japan, which provided a booth for paper-rolled cigarette smokers outside the village.

Interestingly, these booths also serve the role of unstaffed tourist-information centers. While the smoking booth set up inside the village is limited to heat-not-burn tobacco smokers only, the idea to set up another booth for paper-rolled cigarette smokers outside the village was adopted to respond to the needs of both types of smokers and to considerably mitigate the risk of fire in the village at the same time.

“I can clearly see that these booths have brought about significant changes in both the safety and environmental aspects of the village,” Ozaki says. He went on to explain that a rule was once enforced to make the village a complete no-smoking zone, but that did not help eliminate paper-rolled cigarette smokers — there were always violators puffing away in hidden spots. At one time, the villagers even found visitors smoking paper-rolled cigarettes under the eaves of a fire-prone thatch-roofed house, which made Ozaki realize that enforcing a total smoking ban or even setting up ashtrays in designated areas would not help reduce the risk of fire but could actually heighten the risk.

Spirit of 'yui' embedded in tourism, local education

Underpinning the initiatives that Shirakawa Village has taken to become a sustainable destination is the spirit of “yui,” which is a traditional system of mutual assistance that the locals have been practicing generation after generation in literally every aspect of their lives. Yui was originally conceived as a local term to describe the unique connections and bonds built among the locals. In recent years, it was reinterpreted in the context of a cultural heritage seen, for example, in the traditional re-roofing work by villagers helping one another in the straw-cutting process to bundle the fresh straw to be used as new thatches. This annual ritual has been included as one of the programs in village tours designed to offer tourists a chance to directly watch, feel and experience the concept of yui in action.

Locals using bundled straw for re-roofing the famous thatched roofs | Image courtesy Sustainable Brands Japan

The updated version of the spirit of yui can now be felt in the local academic environment, as well. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has designated Shirakawa Village as a pilot location to test the functionality of 5G mobile communication systems. In addition to the organizers of this village using state-of-the-art, ultrahigh-speed communications technology to disseminate information and disperse the number of incoming tourists, the benefits of 5G are also being shared with a total of approximately 110 students enrolled at Shirakawa-go Gakuen, a primary-to-middle school run by the local government. Here, they are seriously discussing the future of Shirakawa Village and exchanging fresh ideas to find solutions to the challenges faced by the locals.

Ozaki says: “The natural bonds established among the villagers regardless of which generation they come from is another form of blessing driven by the spirit of yui.”

Becoming a destination where locals can interact with visitors as equal partners

To appreciate the real value of Shirakawa Village as a World Heritage Site, visitors should focus not only on the traditional landscape and the famous gassho-zukuri buildings but should also fully embrace the concept of yui, i.e., the spirit of mutual assistance that drives the local culture. For the people of Shirakawa-go, attracting tourists en masse is not their priority; they place more importance on receiving visitors that are interested in understanding the cultural heritage of the area.

Ozaki says: “We need to develop a form of tourism that is sustainable. To achieve this objective, we want to welcome visitors with whom the locals can interact as equal partners sharing the same sense of values and awareness to preserve this region. Although we do not intend to fully deny the benefits of mass tourism — since that is supporting the livelihoods of the villagers today — we would like to shift our tourism in the direction of offering personalized experiences that can enhance the value of Shirakawa Village as a sustainable tourist destination, via interactive programs designed to allow visitors to enjoy indulging in the village lifestyle. That will be our mission going forward.”

Since the start of 2021, the municipal authorities, including the government of Gifu Prefecture, have been staying vigilant and taking strict cautionary measures to prevent tourists from bringing COVID-19 into Shirakawa Village or spreading such from this region. If you are interested in visiting Shirakawa Village, be sure to choose an appropriate timing when you can feel safe — reaching this destination as a traveler that not only enjoys the landscape but that also appreciates the rich culture and fully respects the safety policies, so as to help keep Shirakawa Village sustainable.

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