Japan has no shortage of tourists. But not every traveller takes the time to step off the so-called Golden Route, and explore beyond Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Going beyond the norm can be challenging. It’s harder to find information, to book accommodation, to communicate, to plan for dietary requirements, to know just where to go. Getting sorted to go somewhere a little unusual takes time and often needs local knowledge.

Tokyo-based startup Heartland JAPAN is working to solve this problem, to open up rural Japan and make the countryside more accessible to visitors.

Keiji Sawano, the founder of Heartland JAPAN, grew up in a small fishing village in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in western Japan. With a population of just 2,000, it’s fair to say it’s not a common destination. Bringing tourist to places like this means a boost both to the local economy and to small-town pride. And for the visitors, it means immersion in the local community and culture.

I met Keiji at a Japan travel event in Melbourne and in the middle of endless stands promoting ski resorts, his company and their mission stood out immediately. The next time I was in Tokyo, we got together to chat over iced tea in their Kagurazaka office.

(Side note, Kagurazaka is one of those wonderful neighbourhoods that you don’t often hear discussed during Tokyo chat. I spent time exploring the Akagi Shrine, which breaks down the experience of visiting a shrine with QR-code driven explanations.)

Japan is currently enjoying a massive influx of foreign tourists. What does this mean for rural Japan?

Tourists, especially repeat travellers, are becoming more and more keen to visit off-the-beaten-track locations. As a result, there is a slowly growing demand to venture out into rural Japan. However, in terms of infrastructure in getting to these regions and information about these regions, support is still lagging behind the typical tourist destinations.

It is only by also visiting local regions and meeting those that live there that one begins to grasp the 'real Japan'. Therefore, we are keen to take advantage of this opportunity to provide information and services that allow travellers to visit rural Japan.

Where did Heartland JAPAN come from?

There are many locations across Japan that are unimaginably beautiful and rich in culture but they simply aren't known to the world. Visiting these hidden gems means walking through Japan's myriad of natural landscapes, visiting historical sites, taking part in local cultural activities, meeting locals and hearing their stories.

What advice would you give first-time visitors to Japan?

Cities, of course, are part of the 'real Japan'. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima - these are all unmistakably Japan. It makes sense to visit Sydney when visiting Australia for the first time or Paris when visiting France for the first time ... but by combining these central locations with countryside destinations, a picture of the 'real Japan' becomes clearer and leads the way to understanding the country.

Photo by Jason Haidar (Tellus Travelers)

In the countryside the old traditions and customs are still abundant. There was relatively little damage to rural locations in WWII, so it's still possible to see significantly older historical and cultural sites than one can in metropolitan areas, as well as see a landscape and way of life that is reminiscent of what the whole of Japan was like before mass urbanisation.

What should people be prepared for when they visit rural Japan?

The three main challenges are transport infrastructure, the language barrier and the comforts expected by some travellers. Rural areas have infrequent public transport and English language support is lagging in comparison to urban areas. Furthermore, some areas may not have the comforts that a traveller would expect.

We look after our travellers with private transport and an English-speaking guide. We’re also careful about the accommodations and the places we go. And everyone gets a tailored information pack so that you can be fully prepared for your visit.

The crater of Mount Aso. Photo by Jason Haidar (Tellus Travelers)

How can people find an experience that matches their personal interests?

We’ve put together a variety of tours, focused on different areas and landscapes, and each with a different mission.  You can do the Aso Walking Tour, exploring life in the shadow of a volcano and recovery after an earthquake, the Tsuwano and Hagi-Okan Walk, to see life in a castle town and fishing villages or choose one of the more well-known routes like the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail.

Photo by Jason Haidar (Tellus Travelers)

Once you choose a tour, you have the option to add a wide variety of experiences, like Kagura theatre, touring sake breweries, and visiting craftspeople. We have many different unique experiences that are hard to find elsewhere.

Tourism is a hot topic at the moment, and it makes sense to think carefully about where your dollars are going. In rural Japan, they can make a big difference.  

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