Alex Robertson finds his feet in the perfectly preserved historic silver-mining town of Iwami Ginzan.
Mr Arime stands outside his shop in Iwami Ginzan, the Unesco World Heritage silver-mining town at the heart of Shimane Prefecture. He’s beaming with pride, holding a 2018 calendar open at September, where a photograph shows a sleek state-of-the-art car sitting outside a beautiful wooden building.
It’s his shop in the picture, where he sells lollies handcrafted from soya beans in a centuries-old practice. He offers a sample and they are surprisingly good: sweet, salty and crunchy, or flavoured with plum and other fruits that populate the valley.
It’s a perfect image of modern-day Japan: a people immensely proud of their heritage, tradition and history, but with both feet firmly planted in the 21st century.
It’s the preservation of their culture that most visitors to Japan come to see. And they are coming in their droves: from 8.3 million in 2008 to more than 28.6 million in 2018 according to the Japan Tourism Board.
Most are going to the tourist hotspots of Tokyo, Kobe and Kyoto but with 350 per cent growth in 10 years, tourism numbers are a bit of a problem in the already crowded centres.
With more tourists expected, especially in the next few years as the Rugby World Cup (2019), Tokyo Olympic Games (2020) and World Masters Games (2021) encourage even more visitors, the search is on for the less-visited areas that offer the full Japanese experience, but without the crowds.
Heartland Japan, a tour company founded by 30-something entrepreneur Keijiro Sawano, aims to do just that.
Sawano hails from the Shimane Prefecture in Japan’s southwest — the oldest settled area of Japan, according to archaeological discoveries — but has settled in Tokyo after travelling across the globe, establishing a tour company specialising in getting travellers off the beaten track. Iwami Ginzan is off the beaten track for foreigners, but once suffered from tourism pressure with more than 800,000 visitors to the town in one year until cars were banned in 2016. Visitor numbers have since dropped to 300,000 a year, enhancing the visitor experience.
The town, Omori, grew up to service the silver mine over the 400 years of its existence. It was extensively rebuilt after a fire destroyed nearly all the buildings 200 years ago and remains beautifully preserved, nestled in a valley forested with a huge variety of trees that change with the seasons and offer a multi-coloured backdrop to the picture-postcard-perfect wooden buildings that line narrow streets.
Yunotsu is a well-preserved town of historic wooden buildings and shrines, the flickering glow of electric lights seemingly the only nod to present day as day fades into night. That is until the bus arrives to take us back to the ryokan — the 21st-century visiting the past.
Mr Arime would be proud.
Heartland Japan offers a range of tours in Kyushu, Chugoku, Kinki and Tohoku, suitable for different levels of fitness. For more details, see heartlandjapan.com
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