This article was written by: Yusuke MIZUSAWA (Megurun Sustainability Coordinator) And edited by: Timothy BUNTING (Megurun Project Manager) and Richard ERDMAN (Megurun Participant Outreach)

Transformational Tourism in Yamabushi Country 

Since becoming a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in 2020, our team, team Megurun, has worked hard to make real changes to the sustainability of Tsuruoka, a mountainous city in Northeast Japan. In this article, we will tell you more about who we are and how the GSTC Criteria work in our region.  

Tsuruoka city has played a crucial cultural role as the gateway to the Three Mountains of Dewa. These mountains have served as a sanctuary for Shugendo, mountain asceticism that took root over 1,400 years. Residents living in the foothills of the mountains have passed down the traditions to the present day.

Our team wishes to preserve these traditions through a variety of methods, and GSTC sustainability criteria are a big help to our mission. One of those methods is by providing self-improvement training programs “yamabushido” based on the practices of Shugendo to English-speaking guests.

Sustainability in Touge, JapanLike many parts of Japan, this area has suffered from the effects of an aging population and simultaneously depopulation. This has, at the very least, affected local religious and cultural events irrevocably, in some severe cases even leading to the loss of customs, and an accelerated economic decline of the region. The lack of manpower and financial resources dedicated to managing mountain paths has also threatened the existence of the centuries-old cedar trees on one of the Three Mountains, Mt. Haguro. Alongside local stakeholders, we recognize the importance of firsthand sustainable destination management and held a GSTC Training in Tsuruoka in November 2023. 

The three-day GSTC Sustainable Tourism Course was held in Toge Village, a small yet extremely important community at the base of Mt. Haguro. This training was held as part of the «Sustainable Tourism Promotion Model Project» publicly promoted by the Japan Tourism Agency. We also had sponsorship from Tsuruoka City as a sustainable tourism destination. The training involved owners of Shukubo pilgrim lodges, officials from the Ministry of the Environment, prefectural employees, and individuals from the tourism industry. For three days, lectures, fieldwork, and group work were conducted.

In the concluding session of the training, participants focused on the theme “The Sustainability of Toge 20 Years from Now”. Drawing on the knowledge acquired and insights from the field, participants collaboratively created and then presented ideas that would be appealing to both tourists and residents.

Sustainability in Touge, JapanThe training helped clarify sustainable tourism for all present. For many, when they hear the words “sustainable tourism”, only vague ideas come to mind. Following the training, feedback from local stakeholders included remarks such as, «Sustainable tourism was a vague concept, but now I can envision specific steps on implementing it”. Our team, based on collaborations with local stakeholders and the administrative office, aims to continue progressing regional development through faith and tourism in line with GSTC Criteria in the future as well.

Another highlight is the contribution to the economic sustainability of this destination. To achieve this, we make efforts to pay above the national average wage to the mountain ascetic guides, interpreters, and other locals working behind the scenes, and to generate economic activity. We believe experiencing the spirituality and culture of the Dewa Sanzan through our programs is intertwined with sustaining the region. Our methods, which we hope to publish more about in the future, contribute to the conservation of local nature and culture. 

We hope the above serves as an excellent showcase for the sustainable management of sacred sites not only on the Dewa Sanzan mountains but throughout similar locations in the world. Through sustainable tourism, our activities aim to contribute to the preservation of unique cultural, natural, and social aspects that have been passed down for over 1400 years. By adhering to the GSTC Criteria in our management practices, we hope to contribute to the protection of the distinctive cultural heritage, natural environment, and social fabric that have been maintained over the centuries in these sacred places.

[Note: This article was written by Megurun Inc. GSTC Members since 2020. The content of the original article has been condensed for brevity and clarity.]

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Statements expressed in this announcement are presented for informational purposes only and should not be taken as an endorsement or recommendation by GSTC, unless clearly stated.