An increasing number of foreign visitors are taking part in farm-stay programs in Japan to get a taste of typical country life in areas without any particular sightseeing spots.
The popularity of stays in traditional farming villages, which has helped attract some overseas travelers away from big cities such as Tokyo, is expected to help revitalize local communities amid the growing overall number of visitors to Japan.
The annual number of foreign travelers to Japan has already reached the 30 million milestone for the first time in 2018 and the country aims to welcome 40 million foreign visitors by 2020.
In late October, when tree leaves began to take on autumnal colors, two workers for Chinese travel magazines were having fun harvesting vegetables such as carrots and green peppers at a farm in the Takeshi district of Ueda, Nagano Prefecture.
At night, they enjoyed eating tempura made from the vegetables they had picked earlier in the day, and sat up late playing “hanafuda” card games and enjoying other Japanese traditional pastimes at the farmhouse.
“We had a good time chatting with farmers, something that we can’t enjoy at ordinary sightseeing places,” said Jin Qiyang, 34, one of the two Chinese visitors.
“Chinese people are curious to understand Japanese culture deeply. I suppose there is a strong demand for farm stays,” Jin added. The two were invited to the area by the Japanese government, Nagano prefectural government and a local tourism promotion body.
Tranquil mountainous farming communities like the Takeshi district, about 150 kilometers northwest of central Tokyo, or about a three-hour drive, can be found across the country.
“At first, it never crossed my mind that so many people would come here all the way from other countries,” said Ichiro Kobayashi, 67, president of Shinshu Seishun-mura, a local firm operating farm-stay programs in Takeshi.
The company has accepted Japanese students on school trips at contracted farmhouses in the area since 2002 and foreign tourists since 2005. The number of overseas guests has been on the rise, hitting 2,322 and accounting for about 40 percent of total visitors in 2016.
Charging 8,000 yen ($71) per person per night with dinner and breakfast included, overseas travelers from 20 countries and territories such as China, Taiwan and Australia have joined the company’s programs.
According to a survey on farm stays in Japan by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. conducted in December last year, 66.2 percent of 71 program operators that responded to a question about foreign visitors said their number is “on the upward trend.”
By contrast, 43.3 percent of 104 respondents to a question about Japanese participants said their number “remains flat.”
Municipalities in other prefectures are also attracting many foreign tourists with their farm-stay programs.
In the town of Minakami in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, visitors can try planting and reaping rice and kneading dough to make “udon” wheat flour and “soba” buckwheat noodles, with 195 ordinary households accommodating them as of 2016.
Some farmers of mandarin oranges, one of the specialty products of Tanabe in the western Japan prefecture of Wakayama Prefecture, are trying to attract visitors with a fruit-picking program.
“It’s important for business operators to offer services and items that cater to what the overseas visitors want,” said Kazunobu Tsutsui, a Tottori University professor studying farm tourism for foreign tourists.
“It would be hard to keep the tourism industry running unless the agricultural business itself remains commercially sustainable. Amid a decline of farmers (due to aging), it will be vital to secure successors through the migration of younger generations” to farming communities, Tsutsui added.