Surrender to Nagasaki's new charms
THE quaint prefecture of Nagasaki, Japan, is not well known for being a tourist stopover. Yet, tourism in the region is now entering a new era, riding on the momentum of restoration works and even a bid for a Unesco World Heritage Site listing - for its churches and Christian sites, including the Oura Cathedral built in the 1850s.
Here's the lowdown on what is being done to revitalise tourism in the region.
This island is part of Ojika town, which includes the surrounding islands.
About 11/2 hours from Sasebo Port by high-speed ferry, this is the northernmost island of the Goto Islands, which lie in the East China Sea.
In recent years, both new and previous residents - who returned to live on the island - have been building inns, by renovating old houses with modern kitchens and bathrooms, and arranging for visitors to stay at the island homes of local fishermen and farmers.
Many are young people, which has brought a youthful energy to the island.
Shimayado Goen inn, which opened in June last year, has been seeing a steady stream of tourists.
In the past six months, it has attracted visitors from more than 10 countries and territories, including the United States, Hungary and Taiwan.
"Many people from abroad come to visit for the interaction you can have with the islanders, the kind that you can't have in big cities," said Taiyo Iwanaga, 35, the inn's owner.
The yearly number of tourists visiting Ojika has exceeded 40,000, bringing it into the spotlight as a new tourist spot.
Those returning to live on the island, known as U-turners, and those moving to the island for the first time - called I-turners - have made this happen.
Mr Iwanaga is a U-turner.
He went to the United States for baseball training after graduating from a local high school. There, he earned a teaching qualification in English.
After returning to Japan, he worked as a tour guide for foreign visitors. During this time, he learnt of the needs of tourists, which he took into consideration when creating his island inn.
For instance, every room has its own bath, as many foreigners are not comfortable with using a shared bathhouse.
The inn's website can be viewed in both Japanese and English. He also shares information in English on travel review sites popular among foreigners, as well as on Facebook.
Among the I-turners is 27-year-old Ryo Fukugawa from Fukuoka Prefecture, who came to the island in 2013 as a member of a municipal government-backed programme.
His term with the programme is due to end in March but, not wanting to leave the island, he decided to renovate an old house to provide hospitality to the tourists.
"I want to become someone who connects the island with tourists," he said.
The polygonal tea fields in the town of Higashi-Sonogi, located in a misty valley, account for about 60 per cent of Nagasaki Prefecture's tea.
To shore up popularity for its Sonogi-cha tea brand, farmers in the town's Nakaogo district are planning tours for people to pick tea leaves, visit a tea factory and learn how to serve the beverage.
They are calling the activity "green tea-rism", a play on the term green tourism.
Last October, five tea-farming families formed a promotion council. Bottled tea has become common but the tea producers are eager to make consumers aware that it can be enjoyed fresh from a teapot.
"During the first tea harvest in April and May, the aroma of steamed tea emanates through the whole place," said council chairman Hisatsugu Nakayama, 67.
Guests staying at a farmhouse offering minpaku accommodation services (homestays with locals) can enjoy local cuisine such as dagojiru soup, which contains whale meat. They can also eat tempura tea leaves.
For baths, they head to Ureshino Onsen hot spring in Saga Prefecture, a 10-minute drive away.
Being new to the minpaku concept, Mr Nakayama and the other farmers visited minpaku lodges in other prefectures before being granted minpaku licences from the prefectural government on Jan 7.
From March to October this year, overseas tour groups with at least 10 people will visit Higashi-Sonogi a total of 18 times as part of Nagasaki Prefecture sightseeing tours.
They will visit the tea farms, where they will be served with boxed lunches made by local housewives.
"I want to spread the project to other local industries such as rice, fruits, livestock and fisheries," said Shoji Iizuka, 42, a member of the town government's programmes for regional vitalisation.
The small artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki is an important historical site. It is the former home to a Dutch trading post and the area in which the city's international exchanges began.
The Nagasaki city government is currently restoring the fan-shaped island to its original state nearly four centuries ago.
Six buildings will be restored this year, including an earth-walled storehouse for imported goods.
"If tourists can dress in period costume, eat the same traditional meals and play billiards like the Dutch traders, I think they'll have a more fulfilling visit," said Saori Yamada, 23, who promotes Dejima under the Nagasaki Urban Landscape Laboratory.
Once Japan's sole spot for overseas trade, Dejima was also a place where various Western techniques were brought into the country, such as modern medical care.
It soon became a gathering place for scholars who came from all over Japan to study on the island.
Dejima was influenced by many foreign customs.
Meat dishes, coffee, wine, Western music, opera and even animals such as elephants were brought to the island.
"If this project's various events bring in many visitors and local residents feel pride in Dejima, it'll become a place where international people gather again, just like it used to be," said Ms Yamada.
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK