Newsletter: July 2020
14th Jul 2020
Update: Covid-19 and Developments
We sincerely hope that this newsletter finds you in as good a situation and health as is possible in the circumstances. Thankfully, as far as we know all our staff have so far avoided contracting Covid-19. Nevertheless, and in common with so many around the world, we are having to find our way through a radically different state of affairs. As the once anticipated pre-pandemic outcomes show little sign of materialising, the more we are having to reassess and make changes to protect our customers and business. In the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, the measures we took to adjust to and absorb its initial shock have stood us in good stead so far. However, with a better understanding of the unfolding reality surrounding Covid-19 and its lasting effects we are now taking further far-reaching steps. These will help us ensure that we can sustain our business beyond the pandemic and allow us to overcome the new challenges facing us all.
Specifically, we are reducing further our overheads by closing all our Tokyo operations and centering our business at our offices in Oita, and in Hong Kong we will move to a smaller office. A large number of our colleagues are on government-paid furlough or other subsidy with the remainder, a core staff, working remotely. Our senior staff will be taking further salary reductions, which is made easier by leaving Tokyo for the Japanese countryside. These measures together with heavily reduced capital and discretionary expenditures mean that we anticipate being able to ride out the pandemic for an extended period of time, well beyond the six-months we had originally planned for without resorting to outside funding. However, it has also sadly become clear that we can no longer sustain some of our current staff, who are not eligible for furlough, and are having to say good-bye. We are trying to do this on the best possible terms we can muster for all of them in the hope that the community spirit that we have always practiced continues as best it may in the circumstances.
In preparation for the time when we can resume our tours, we are working with government agencies and our suppliers to establish clear and effective guidelines and best practices to ensure health and well-being on our tours. This work will continue as we gain a better grasp of what we can do to make our customers’ experience in Japan both enjoyable and worry free.
In addition, we have eased and expanded our cancellation and transfer policies for tours that start on or before 31st December 2021. These enhancements will allow our customers to make travel plans confident in the knowledge that they can adapt them more readily. Please see here for details.
As the rest of this lengthy newsletter shows, although we have not been able to run tours for over four months we have kept ourselves as busy as possible by continuing projects begun before January. These include introducing some new tours; formally establishing an agricultural enterprise; teaching at Temple University; and holding discussions on art, architecture and rural revival in the company of one of Japan’s top contemporary artists. Although not listed below, we have also been holding regular webinars for our staff on many subjects, both Japanese and otherwise, ranging from the history of Tokyo from Edo times and the Blue-eyed samurai (Please see below), through sake and kabuki theatre, to yoga classes.
The Japanese often cry out Ganbatte! as encouragement when good work requires that little extra effort to succeed. We would like you to know that we continue to toil away for a brighter future for all of us. We hope that this newsletter provides comfort, interesting insights and, above all, hope.
New Tours: Self-guided Kunisaki Wayfarer
We recently added a new tour, the Kunisaki Wayfarer, to our unrivalled roster of pioneering tours exploring Japan. This self-guided tour provides an introduction to the delightful and idyllic Kunisaki Peninsula on Kyushu, the most westerly of Japan’s four main islands. Buddhist monks and Shinto priests have been finding refuge and inspiration here for over 1,300 years and today, with its quiet country life far from Japan’s cities, in many ways it seems to have changed little over the centuries. This was the attraction for our CEO, Paul Christie, to choose Kunisaki as his home in 2002 when seeking a rural life. Since then, we have created a variety of guided tours and welcomed many overseas and Japanese visitors to the region. We are confident none have been disappointed. The Kunisaki Wayfarer is the latest addition to our popular series of self-guided tours and we are working on add-on options including visits to our Community Project, which is also on the Kunisaki Peninsula.
Just in case you missed our previous announcement, during the early days of Covid-19 we also launched the Shio-no-Michi: Salt Road, a guided tour that explores another little-visited but wonderful region of Japan. The Salt Road was a trading route connecting Matsumoto, an elegant city renowned for its castle, through Japan's famed Snow Country with the Sea of Japan.
Community Project Update
Life in and around our Community Project in the countryside of Kunisaki continues largely uninterrupted by the wider disruption affecting cities and towns. The major element of the Project is farming and we established Ota Estates, an agricultural commercial enterprise, in March to enable us to expand greatly this activity. Much of the time since then has been devoted to preparing for and planting out our rice paddies. We have increased our acreage this year by about 25% after an elderly neighbour, who is no longer able to care for her fields, asked us to take over. We have added a rice planting machine to our equipment and are in negotiation to manage and run a rice drying and hulling operation, which the owner is retiring from. Both of these additions will allow us to be more independent of the local farmers, who have kindly assisted us over the years. In return, we will be able to help them and other local farmers on a far greater scale.
The expansion of our organic market garden is progressing well. Since early spring we have been harvesting in succession shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onion, garlic and potato crops. In addition, we have allowed other small-batch crops, such as carrot and komatsuna Japanese mustard spinach, to flower and seed. Other work this spring included the long-delayed completion and reconstruction of a number of dry-stone retaining walls in the grounds of Koumori-tei, our first and iconic office in Kunisaki.
A film crew joined us at the height of rice planting to report on our activities for a global TV channel. As and when we have full details of the broadcast date, which is due at the end of July, we will let you know.
We have joined forces with Temple University at its Tokyo campus to establish a course on tour guiding for overseas visitors to Japan. Notwithstanding Covid-19, we began teaching using webinars in May. Walk Japan’s Tour Leaders have always been central to our successful development and we invest heavily in their professional development to provide the best guides in Japan. Now, we are delighted to bring our long-established expertise to a greater audience and help raise the overall standard of guiding and tours in Japan. We have almost completed the first semester and are looking forward to welcoming students on this course and related courses in future.
The Blue-Eyed Samurai
William Adams, the British mariner shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 who went on to become a samurai warrior, died 400 years ago this year. Adams, who is known in Japan as Miura Anjin, led an extraordinary life worthy enough for it to become the inspiration of James Clavell’s best-selling novel Shogun. After playing a part in harrying the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, Adams subsequently survived a disastrous expedition across the Pacific aiming for South East Asia’s prized spice islands that left him stranded and barely alive in Japan. Yet within a few years he had become a trusted samurai retainer of the great shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, who established the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Covid-19 has led to the delay of several events in Japan organised by the William Adams Club (WAC) to mark the anniversary but Walk Japan has been delighted to be involved in several ways. Professor Richard Irving, one of Walk Japan’s founders, is a leading expert on Adams and life-time honorary member of WAC. His research recently led to the DNA confirmation that Adams’ grave is at Hirado in Kyushu – but not whether the blue-eyed epithet is justified or not - and he is currently working on a book on Adams’ life. Walk Japan donated to the creation of a memorial to Adams, which Covid-19 permitting, will be set in the grounds of the British Embassy in Tokyo soon, and, our CEO, Paul Christie, has just been appointed as Vice-President of WAC. He joins descendants of the Tokugawa dynasty and the daimyo lord of Hirado as fellow board members along with other luminaries in British-Japanese relations.
Adams died in 1620 having never returned to Britain. One day in the not too distant future we will remember him and his exploits in a way befitting his remarkable legacy.
Top Japanese Artist Visits Walk Japan
Just before Covid-19 became a serious issue, we were pleased to welcome to Kunisaki the internationally acclaimed Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi, who was keen to learn first-hand about Walk Japan’s Community Project. During his stay, we held two public events, one at our home on the peninsula and the other in nearby Oita City, for him to introduce his artwork and the contribution his activities are making to the revitalisation of islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
Yanagi san has exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and the Biennale of Sydney in 2018, and his art is found in the collections of, amongst others, the Benesse House Museum on Naoshima island and the Tate Modern in London. He has also been working on projects in the Seto Inland Sea for 25 years that include his extraordinary and acclaimed Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, an artistic repurposing of a long-disused and derelict copper refinery. Most recently Yanagi san has created ArtBase on Momoshima, a delightful but depopulated island where he has converted an abandoned schoolhouse, cinema and houses into exhibition spaces featuring works by himself and other top Japanese artists. We visit Momoshima, Naoshima and Inujima on our Inland Sea Odyssey tour.
Besides working together on our tour, we intend to collaborate further with Yanagi san in creating a greater vision for revitalising declining areas of rural Japan.