For over two decades we have taken thousands of customers to many off-the-beaten-path areas of Japan. Whether deep in the mountains of central Japan, isolated villages or remote islands, these places offer insights, elusive to most visitors to Japan, into the nation and its people, its culture and natural beauty. They also reveal an often hidden side of Japan that is far from its common image as a technologically advanced and crowded nation. Rural Japan is in a gentle but seemingly unstoppable decline.
Unused and overgrown paddies and arable fields are found throughout Japan. Forests are often uncared for and farmhouses in various states of ruin are prominent almost everywhere. Throughout this landscape bamboo growing rampant seems to be on a destructive march through everything standing in its path.
Richard Irving, one of the two founders of Walk Japan and also Emeritus Professor of Policy Studies at Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe, is an expert on the issues facing rural Japan. For more than 30 years Richard has been researching and documenting rural Japan in his study area of Ayabe in Kyoto Prefecture. His research paper Environmental caretaker – Who wants the job? eloquently describes the problems of a declining and ageing population and their growing impact on rural communities.
In 2002, our CEO, Paul Christie, moved to Kunisaki, a picturesque and verdant peninsula rich in Shinto-Buddhist history, to, as he says, fulfill a long-held dream to lead a quiet rural life after a career in commerce and the media. Like so much of rural Japan, however, Kunisaki faced then and still faces an uncertain future as the local population continues to age and decline in numbers. Paul set about living his dream and initially started by reviving a barren hillside, which had been clear cut for timber. He then began refurbishing unused and decaying buildings; removing bamboo groves that were destroying forests and invading arable fields; establishing vegetable plots and planting fruit trees. He also helped local farmers with the planting and harvesting of rice, cutting grass on communal land, and occasionally chasing after cows that had escaped from their sheds.
What Paul started in 2002 subsequently became the core of the Walk Japan Community Project, which we formally established in 2007. Since then, the Project has grown significantly in size and scope and now also includes the provision of employment both directly and indirectly, accommodation for staff and visitors, and the dissemination of our activities and achievements to other communities and groups around Japan and overseas.
Richard Irving's paper Environmental caretaker – Who wants the job?