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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Communities hell-bent on tapping their spa resources for revival

Kyodo News

For Hideo Yasunami, a 60-year-old innkeeper in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, "jigokumushi ryori" — literally "hell-steamed cuisine" — was just a local dish of seafood and vegetables steamed in water from the city's famed hot springs.

News photo
Hot as hell: Tourists dig in to "jigokumushi" seafood and vegetables cooked with steam from the hot springs in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

"It's an ordinary recipe in the community. I never imagined it would be a resource for invigorating tourism," Yasunami said of the culinary method, which accentuates the sweetness of the ingredients thanks to the hot springs' steam that the locals liken to plumes from hell.

He took a chance and started serving jigokumushi dishes in 2001 at an open-air stall at his inn, Daikokuya.

Initially the dishes only drew older customers, and regulars at that. But as the reputation of jigokumushi spread, the inn was soon luring women in their 20s and 30s. Recently, the cuisine has even begun attracting people from other parts of Asia, Yasunami said.

Beppu has long been famous for its spa resources, comprising eight hot spring districts that together discharge the largest volume of thermal water in Japan.

In the 1990s, however, the city saw visitor numbers dwindle, particularly group tourists on expense accounts.

Alarmed local tourism officials turned to conventional approaches to drum up tourists — staging publicity campaigns for people in metropolitan areas as well as holding fireworks displays and other large-scale events. But these drew only tepid responses.

"Visitors won't come to an economically distressed town that residents themselves don't think is fun to live in," said Koichiro Tsuruta, head of the nonprofit organization Hatto Onpaku, the prime mover behind Beppu's revival efforts.

Tsuruta, 58, said this realization prompted efforts by citizens' groups as well as a large number of Beppu's residents.

"Hatto" stands for eight hot springs, while "onpaku" is short for hot springs exhibition.

Through trial and error, the city of 120,000 people eventually found its way out of the tourism doldrums as community leaders joined to develop attractions.

It was Hatto Onpaku that recommended to innkeeper Yasunami that he set up the jigokumushi stall.

The organization's revitalization efforts have since served as models for other ailing towns and villages.

Hatto Onpaku collaborated with several groups, including an association of female shop workers who double as tour guides, and a spa treatment study group composed of doctors and innkeepers. Through such efforts came the notion of using hot spring mud for aesthetic treatments.

This led to a tieup with Abano Terme, a hot springs resort in Italy, as well as a local international exchange project in which Asian home cooking is prepared with the involvement of foreign students in the city. The net result has been more visitors.

The Beppu model has raised hopes in other parts of the country where tourism resources have yet to be exploited to their full economic potential.

In April, Japan Onpaku was set up to offer help for communities nationwide by providing ideas based on the onpaku organization's expertise as well as its development of information technology.

Nine regions, including Hakodate in Hokkaido and Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, have joined up.

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