One of the key themes in post-pandemic travel is “sustainability,” but few travelers stop to think about what it really means on a local level. More than just a buzzword, the idea of sustainability — meaning filling the needs of the current generation without compromising the economic and environmental landscape of the future— has become a way of life in some Japanese regions. Let’s look closely at how a region in northern Kyoto is working to put itself on the map as a sustainable destination for future-friendly tourism.
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Protecting Kyoto’s Beautiful Sea
Kyoto Prefecture’s coastal region is rich in culture and history, and offers impressive natural scenery. Kyoto by the Sea is a must-visit area for travelers seeking to get off the beaten path and into Japan’s delightful countryside. However, in recent years, residents of the coast have noticed that their world is changing. Inspired locals stepped up to spearhead the effort to show that Kyoto by the Sea could lead as a sustainable community example, and their focus turned naturally to the ocean.
A great spot to see how their efforts have made a difference is Hatchohama Beach in Kyotango City. This beautiful beach is watched over by a friendly local going by the nickname of Yassan. He has a youthful surfer vibe about him and a fierce passion for this stretch of coast. The regular cleanup efforts of Yassan and his friends keep the white sand inviting and safe. “This is where our children play and learn about the earth and life, but look,” he says as he kneels. “I want to show you something.” Scooping a handful of sand, he lets it run through his fingers and shows what remains on his palm: a multicolored mix of flakes, pellets, and tiny balls. “Microplastics,” he sighs. “We just cleaned this beach a few days ago but this stuff is impossible to remove.” These tiny, toxic beads of broken-down plastic waste circulate throughout the sea currents. They ruin beautiful beaches and can easily be eaten by animals. It’s a sad reality that plagues oceans worldwide nowadays.
Farther down the coast, where the recent cleanup didn’t quite reach, Yassan points out the other major source of beach litter. Plastic caps from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles peek from between rocks on the breakwater and lie half buried in the sand. Yassan doesn’t let this get him down, though. He reaches to pick up a few bottlecaps and says with confidence “Now, these we can do something about.”
Yassan’s workshop is a block inland from the beach, blending into Kyotango’s traditional atmosphere of single-story homes covered in salt-worn wood. This former Tango-chirimen silk factory is where Yassan runs Tango Experience, a local startup that offers sustainable solutions for protecting the environment while educating visitors. Most plastic pulled from the ocean cannot be recycled by conventional means, as the traces of salt would ruin the machines. Instead, plastics like PET bottle caps need to be recycled in a special way. This is the heart of Yassan’s recycling operation. He can easily turn thousands of bottle caps into hundreds of colorful octagonal plates that can be used as coasters, tiles, building materials, or for other creative uses.
Visitors are encouraged to stop by and try the recycling process for themselves. It’s a cleverly simple method that involves shredding, melting, and reshaping the plastic in an easy-to-understand process. Adults find it rewarding and children find it fun. Best of all, it’s highly educational, and inspires us to think about how we can reuse plastics, which is one of Yassan’s steps as he works towards a wider goal of protecting the ocean. “We need to seek ways to dispose of umigomi (ocean trash) ethically and reuse it in a creative fashion.” To this end, he and his wife use the repurposed plastic to create beautiful jewelry, keychains, bowls, and other fashionable items. A visit to Tango Experience and Yassan’s workshop is a delightfully rewarding activity, and his passion for a clean sea is infectious. The experience includes time in the workshop making your own coaster, an informative presentation on his recycling operation, and a visit to the local beach. E-bikes are also available for rental, making Tango Experience a perfect home base from which to explore this beautiful coastal paradise.
Entry fees: On weekdays, 5,000 yen for one guest, 3,000 yen for two or more guests. On weekends, 9,000 yen for one guest, 5,000 yen for two or more guests. Preschool children are free, or 1,000 yen if coaster is included. E-bike rentals start at 3,000 yen for 3 hours and 5,000 yen for full day.
Address: 272 Asamogawa, Amino-cho, Kyotango City, Kyoto
Booking Information here: https://tango-exp.com (Japanese only)
Building a Bridge Between Fish and Fishermen
Leaving the beach and diving into the Sea of Japan, we can discover a crucial element that makes this region special. Northern Kyoto has long been famous for its fish, and the port city of Miyazu is the home to some of Japan’s best seafood. The secret to Miyazu’s fantastic fish is the special oceanography of the area. Not just clean seawater, but the mud at the bottom of Miyazu bay is said to be excellent; rich in nutrients and minerals thanks to the many natural springs that flow into the sea here.
The expert who discovered the explanation for the special seafood in Miyazu is Yasushi Hondo, a fisherman who was born and raised in the area before spending 25 years as a researcher in the National Fisheries Research Agency and others. Upon returning to his hometown, he used his professional knowledge and innate ability as a fisherman to bring a new fishing philosophy to the region. “When I came back to Miyazu as a fisherman in 2010, I recognized that local fishermen do not know about the sea,” Hondo remembers. “So, I thought first we should learn about the ecology of fish and shellfish before we end up regretting the eventual decline in catch size.”
Hondo set out to change the way that fishing was practiced in the region. His approach is simple: “I think just catching fish in large quantities is not good,” he explains. That goes against the common practice driven by global capitalism and a desire for ever-expanding growth. Instead, Hondo encourages the fishing industry to refocus on progressive ways to raise fish that result in sustainable yields that sell for higher prices.
His ideas have revolutionized Miyazu’s fishing industry. One example of this is his work raising Tango torigai shellfish. Hondo found a new way to raise these tasty clams using careful cultivation methods that protect the clam’s food sources from predatory organisms and reduces the density of shellfish in the container to promote clam growth. It’s a labor-intensive process that requires him to read and respect the local ocean currents, foregoing the easy harvesting methods used by others. The torigai he produces are up to two times the size of other clams. This method has been widely hailed by the fishing industry and fish wholesalers, proving that a simple shift in practice and mindset can lead to a more sustainable industry.
Hondo’s sea cucumbers are also a major success story. These fleshy sea animals, called namako in Japanese, have long been prized as a delicacy in Japan. Miyazu fishermen used to harvest their namako after only a few years of growth and sell it at a relatively low price in an effort to maintain a steady catch, but Hondo has shown them a new way. He suggests patience, allowing the namako to reach maturity after five years before harvesting them. This also allows for a greater overall population of namako in the region, which was declining due to overfishing since around 2010. When fishermen began selling the larger namako for top price, they soon saw how a closer understanding of the lifecycle of sea animals and a sustainable approach to harvest can pay off.
Hondo’s sustainable techniques are based on simple knowledge and respect for the ocean, like it was in the old days before mass fishing became normalized. He is always happy to host students for ocean fieldwork, and hopes that when people eat his seafood they will develop an interest in ocean life and sustainable fishing practices. His methods are protecting both the life in the sea and the future prospects of the local fishing industry, not to mention growing the local economy in meaningful ways. Be sure to try some local seafood when visiting Kyoto by the Sea to fully appreciate how delicious a sustainable relationship with the ocean can be.
The Beauty of Local Sustainable Craftwork
Inland from the sea, at the foot of Mt. Oe, lies the small village of Futamata. This is the home of Toshihiro Tanaka, a fifth-generation craftsman who is carrying on the remarkable practice of creating beautiful, sustainable washi paper.
The history of paper goes back nearly 1,200 years in northern Kyoto. What makes Tango Futamata paper special, Tanaka explains, is that the region’s climate and soil is perfect for growing kozo, a low tree with long branches that hide an inner layer of bark that is ideal for paper making. The tree is fast growing and produces a number of long branches in a single year, making it a wonderfully sustainable natural resource, but it requires a long process of cultivation, harvest, and preparation to be usable.
Thankfully, Tanaka is up to the challenge of preserving the old ways. From seedling to final product, his family carefully follows the traditional process of creating washi paper using what nature provides nearby as his ingredients. The kozo plants grow in great clumps around his workshop. In winter, their stalks are cut and steamed in a massive cauldron using traditional methods before being painstakingly peeled, boiled, and beaten. When the kozo fibers are ready to be made into paper, they are mixed into a sticky material derived from plant roots and local groundwater.
The final step of the process is where the master shows his true skill. Tanaka deftly sifts the thick liquid through a wooden frame, maneuvering the board by hand to evenly distribute the kozo fibers. This is the secret to the durability of his washi paper. Through the hand-driven process, the fibers are tightly entwined in a way that creates what Tanaka proudly calls his “100-year paper,” meaning it will last far longer than most washi.
Once dried, the result is natural paper that is considered extremely high quality. The more delicate fibers of Futamata’s kozo trees make the paper softer and less susceptible to humidity and mold. Tanaka’s washi is often sought out by artists for new works as well as museum conservationists for the repair and protection of National Treasure artifacts like paintings and calligraphy. In this way, a small studio in a countryside town can play a big role in the larger world of Japanese art and historic restoration.
This sustainable workshop is a unique throwback to the olden days before machine processing and imported materials. “Not many can do what we do here,” Tanaka proudly reminds visitors. It’s hard work, but the variety of paper that he can produce is impressive. A small shop connected to his studio showcases both rustic kawa-unryushi paper where dark fibers stand out as a testament to the natural materials, as well as the delicate white choshi sheets used in fine art. Individual sheets and dyed paper for art and crafts is available as well.
For more information about visiting Tanaka’s workshop, please inquire with Kyoto by the Sea via email: email@example.com
Tanaka’s shop can be visited without a reservation via a five-minute walk from Futamata Station on the Kyoto Tango Railway Miyafuku Line.
More information here: https://www.tangowashi.com/ (Japanese website)
Eco-Conscious Accommodations in Tango
Getting out of the city and into the countryside is a special opportunity to see a side of Japan that tourists rarely experience. In northern Kyoto, there are some unique accommodations that allow guests to get in touch with rural life and connect with the locals in ways impossible elsewhere. Let’s look at a pair of unique overnight experiences that are inviting travelers to join in on their dream of reinvigorating the Kyoto countryside.
First up is Kaya Yamanoie, located at the top of a hillside of Mt. Oe covered in terraced rice fields in Yosano village. Housed in a former community center, it was reclaimed and renovated for private use in an effort to bring new life to the small mountain village in a sustainable way. One of the attractive points in the inn is the tasty meals featuring local ingredients from nearby farms and wild game trapped in the local forest. Guests can also taste locally-brewed beer, too. The large building houses several simple but comfortable guestrooms for overnighters. The facilities are modern with a traditional design, and the English support provided by the staff makes a stay here smooth and relaxing. Their meals have an excellent reputation, so much so that their restaurant also serves lunch to locals and day-trippers.
A stay at Kaya Yamanoie provides guests a chance to stay close to nature and experience beautiful Yosano village like a local. From hiking trails to outdoor barbecues, there is plenty of nature in the area that is sure to act as a claiming respite from the city. The inn can also arrange for lessons in local pottery techniques and traditional wood-fired rice cooking. For those who really want to rough it, camping equipment and tents are provided for a fully outdoors stay. The owners of Kaya Yamanoie push a low waste / high return approach to life in the countryside. By spending the night at this inn, guests are sure to discover an appreciation for the sustainable revitalization spirit of the area.
Address: 1401 Atsue, Yosano-cho, Yosa-gu, Kyoto
Room without meals 5,500 yen (4,400 yen), breakfast included 6,600 yen (5,500 yen), with half board 11,000 yen (7,700 yen), group rates available, please inquire.
(Prices in parentheses are for elementary school students and younger, please inquire for infant charges)
Booking information here: https://kaya-yamanoie.com/
A bit farther south in Ayabe – only an hour’s ride from Kyoto Station – is Ichiju Issai no Yado Chabu Dining, another countryside inn that offers a rewarding experience. The feeling here is one of a farm homestay, with guests enjoying their own large bedroom in the home of a charming couple who run the farm. They moved here from Tokyo in 2019 to escape the city, and while they admit it was a bit intimidating at first, they’ve grown to love their slice of countryside paradise.
The traditional farmhouse with more than 100 years of history sits among rice paddies and vegetable gardens, allowing guests to partake in outdoor work as they like. There’s always something happening year-round, from planting rice in late spring to harvesting chestnuts in autumn, and the hosts are happy to instruct guests in traditional farming techniques in English and Spanish.
As much as possible, the farm is self-sufficient. Not only do they grow their own organic food, but even the sponges used in the inn’s cozy outdoor bath are grown on the premises. Meals here are farm fresh and vegetarian-friendly (vegan available upon request), served in the ichiju issai style. This means one soup and one side dish (plus rice, which goes without saying in Japan). A meal like this is simple, so it needs to focus on key flavors and still be filling. The delicious dishes at Chabu Dining are enhanced by homemade ingredients like miso and pickles, as well as organic rice grown mere steps from the dining table.
The simple yet cozy farmhouse is a delight to experience. A number of the items in the home – like furniture and tableware – are family antiques or upcycled from community members, giving the farmhouse a highly atmospheric feel. The sunken hearth in the dining room ties the house together perfectly, and is a rare chance for overseas travelers to see one of these traditional fireplaces in operation, whether it be for cooking or heating. Chabu Dining is a great choice for guests who want the thrill of a sustainable rural homestay experience in north Kyoto.
Ichiju Issai no Yado Chabu Dining
Address: 40 Jodoji, Nishisakacho, Ayabe City, Kyoto
A one-night stay with breakfast and dinner is 16,500 yen per adult (for single occupancy: 18,700 yen), 8,250 yen per child (age 3 to 12). Free for children under age 2 (without meals).
Booking information here: https://chabudining.com/