Disappearing Japan: Go Now While You Still Can

Japan has a problem. Outside of major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, it has a disappearing population.

Takahara, Japan, is a rural hamlet along the UNESCO sanctioned Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail on the Kii peninsula in the Hate Nashi Mountains. It is quaint, idyllic – and almost empty.

Once home to 100 households (with three generations living in each house), there are now only 40 people left in Takahara, most of which are over 80. There is now only one child left in a once robust local elementary school, and there are more scarecrows on the roads than actual people .

Walk Japan Kumano Kodo

Takahara is not alone, in fact it is is a prime example of what is happening all over Japan – a country facing a crisis of an aging society and the depopulation of not just its countryside, but country in general as the population decreases by 120,000 people year over year.

Miyoke Oe, 68, former financial administrator for the village, now cooks at the Takahara Kiri Nosato Hotel. She and her husband, a retired farmer, have three children, two in Osaka, one in Tokyo.

“They won’t come back,” she said. “I wish they would.”

But, until recently, all the jobs are in the big cities. There is a small movement of younger urban couples, buying small organic farms and opting out of the fast paced life in Tokyo, where 100 hours of overtime a month is not unheard of.

“My countrymen are working themselves to death,” my friend Tatsuro said. “Literally.”

The tourism boom is also providing a glimmer of hope.

One of the hardest things to do in Land of the Rising Sun this Fall is to secure a spot on a trek with the boutique travel company, Walk Japan.

The firm, started in 1992 by two Hong Kong University professors, Tom Stanley and Richard Irving, specializes in small group or individual walking tours across ancient, historical roads of Japan or through the urban centers of Tokyo and Kyoto. Led by guides who are intensively trained and knowledgeable, the tours attract people who like to learn, understand and appreciate the nuances of an intricate culture while they travel.

Related: Japan: 13 Weird Things to Know Before you Go

And they experience a Japan that most people, even the Japanese, have only heard or read about, but never get to see. The firm specializes in historical trails like the Kumano Kodo Trail or the Nakasendo Way – an ancient merchant walking route from Tokyo to Kyoto.

Walk Japan Kumano Kodo
A shrine along the Kumano Kodo Trail.

But it’s becoming harder and harder to book one of these tours.

In the past year, Japan has seen record numbers of tourists, especially ones who don’t want to stick to the same old routine. While Europe, the Middle East and South America have seen tourism plummet due to safety and Zika fears, in February, March and April alone, almost 200,000 Americans visited Japan – up 16 percent from last year. At the same time, adventure travel – described by the Adventure Travel and Tourism Association as a trip that involves “connection with nature, interaction with culture and physical activity” – has shot up 65 percent, per annum, since 2009.

A senior guide for Walk Japan, Jamie Dwyer, said, “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in interest and bookings. Almost all of our tours fill up months in advance now, especially for the cherry blossom season in the Spring, or when the leaves turn colors in the Fall – it’s truly spectacular to walk through that. You won’t find anything else like it anywhere in the world.”

Walk Japan Kumano Kodo
Bridge over troubled waters.

All of this is good new for Miyoki and others in Takahara who are hoping the tourism boom will save their town. Without a drastic increase in birthrate, or a loosening of the nation’s immigration policies, the population is forecast to fall to about 108 million by 2050, and to 87 million by 2060. By then, 2 out of 5 Japanese will be over 65 years old.

Thank you to Walk Japan for this life changing trip.

Check more beauty from this hike here:

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