© Oku Japan / The Oku team helps out with annual maintenance along the Nakasendo Trail.

Oku Japan Focuses on Empowering Communities Through Sustainable Initiatives and Hands-On Support

24 May 2024

Oku Japan, a leading Kyoto-based tour operator specializing in sustainable and culturally immersive travel experiences, makes it a priority to support the local communities it operates in as much as the travelers who partake in one of the company’s many guided and self-guided walking tours. Oku has implemented a variety of initiatives aimed at supporting residents, local economies, and preserving local cultures. 

One of its key initiatives is its deep commitment to working with locally owned accommodations, restaurants, and activity providers. By partnering with local businesses, Oku ensures that a significant portion of travelers’ spending directly benefits the communities they visit, helping to support livelihoods there and preserve traditional ways of life. However, beyond the support that comes by way of its tours, Oku routinely works with the people who make up these businesses to provide indirect support designed to assist in their long-term success. So far this year, this has included various community sessions organized by Oku to help business owners feel more confident in dealing with English speakers, including reviewing common phrases, cultural differences and norms, and ways to navigate them. 

“It was nice to do this for the community, to see them get something out of it and feel more at ease in their ability to connect with foreign guests in the future,” says Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Oku Japan’s General Manager, commenting on the company’s recent sessions.  

The Oku team also assists annually with maintenance activities along the Nakasendo Trail, which is minimally funded and quickly becomes an issue if it isn’t maintained. Gathering volunteers from its Kyoto office and Kumano Kodo branch, the Oku team clears overgrown branches, trims back grasses, and cleans signage along the trail. The same applies to controlling the growth of the bamboo in the region, with April bringing with it the start of the growing season. For the first time this year, at the request of the community, the Oku team is assisting the village of Tsumago in trimming back and removing bamboo to help maintain the landscape, as well as assist in harvesting the shoots, which are then given to the community to use in a variety of ways, from textiles to cooking.  

“Bamboo needs to be controlled,” says Kawaguchi. “People see the beautiful landscapes but don’t realize the work that goes into keeping it that way; bamboo can easily take over everywhere.” 

© Oku Japan / Part of the trail maintenance involves cleaning up signage.

On the cultural side, Oku Japan has also stepped in to assist with the preservation of long-held traditions, specifically the Shishi-mai lion dance that is part of yearly harvest festivals among communities along the Kumano Kodo. Thanks to its deep ties with the communities here, and particularly in the village of Chikatsuyu where camaraderie and trust have been built up over the years, members of Oku's branch office have participated in the dance, assisting village elders in keeping the tradition alive.

The team also volunteers a couple of days every week to keep service running and the doors open on the Toganoki-chaya teahouse, which is located about an hour’s walk from Chikatsuyu and close to Tsugizakura-oji on the Kumano Kodo. 

"Our goal is always to support these communities in the preservation of traditions and culture," concludes Kawaguchi.

These initiatives are just a few examples of Oku Japan’s deep commitment to the local communities and to responsible tourism practices overall. To learn more, visit Oku’s Responsible Tourism page here.

© Oku Japan / The Shishi-mai lion dance is performed by a member of the Oku team.

About Oku Japan
Oku Japan is a Kyoto-based tour operator specializing in sustainable guided, self-guided, and custom tours exploring remote regions of Japan. As the first travel brand to offer self-guided walking trips along Japan’s ancient pilgrimage routes, Oku continues to honor its passion for Japanese culture by fostering meaningful community partnerships, encouraging cross-cultural connections among locals and travelers, and forging new adventures in Japan’s still-undiscovered territories. For more information, visit www.okujapan.com.

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