Homestays can benefit enquiring tourists, says Silver Travel Advisor managing director Debbie Marshall

Japan is one of this year’s trending destinations. The Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics are generating huge media coverage. Those of us lucky enough to attend Abta’s convention in Tokyo last month discovered a nation of beauty, charm and impeccable manners. Who could forget the pristine white gloves worn by taxi drivers and train guards, or trying out the public (and naked) hot spring bathing and finding ourselves in the eye of typhoon Hagidis.

Tokyo is a sprawling city of over 60 million residents, its youthful population living in small apartments and working hard. Outside of such conurbations, however, there’s a very different story. Japan has the fastest-growing ageing population in the world, with more than one third of its people aged over 60 and is home to one fifth of the world’s centenarians.

Young people tend to move to the cities for work, with the result that there’s a rural society of older people in farming communities, many sustaining themselves with smallholdings of paddy fields. These villages are characterised by diminishing populations, low income and often loneliness and low morale.

Homestay hope

One such example is Hagi, a former castle town in the countryside of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Once capital of the powerful Mori Clan in the feudal age, today its economic picture is bleak, its most famous industry being the Hagiyaki Pottery. Its 50,000 population today is half what it was in the 1950s.

However, a bold new initiative is looking to change this. Hagi Homestay Association is a meet-the-people tourism initiative organised through the Planeterra Foundation and now offered to international travellers through G Adventures. Travellers stay with 15 local farmers and other senior hosts who have been trained in English‑language skills and everything they need to prepare them for welcoming Western guests.

This year, G Adventures brought its first travellers to stay with Japanese farmers, to experience the community and culture, and thus to support elderly local people. For guests and hosts alike, it has been a stimulating and emotional experience. Guests are fascinated to find out about Japanese cooking, customs, culture and lifestyle, while the Hagi hosts are equally interested to learn about Western equivalents.

Community tourism

The unique insight afforded to homestay travellers is easy to understand, but how does Hagi’s older generation benefit? Quite apart from an increased sense of happiness and purpose (known as ikigai), Hagi’s older residents are becoming more active themselves as they interact with guests and seeing income for themselves and local businesses. And, by generating new economic opportunities, they now have hope that some of the next generation will buck the trend and choose to stay.

Community tourism – the notion of giving back when you travel – is on the increase. It’s about sharing the natural resources of a community for its sustainable benefit while respecting its way of life. The Hagi Homestay project is an inspirational example and one that we hope to see mirrored in ageing rural communities in other countries.