This mountain-ringed city in Japan’s Tohoku region has long been proud of its reputation as a producer of top-quality Yonezawa wagyu beef, world-class Yonezawa-ori fabrics, sake, hidden onsen, and its historical association with the Uesugi clan. Now, this gem of southeastern Yamagata aims to spread the word about its hitherto under-the-radar charms – starting by telling their story through their unique "Furusato Nozei" products and making the system more accessible to Japan’s international community.
An “Asiatic Arcadia” is how intrepid 19th-century explorer Isabella Bird describes the plain of the Yonezawa basin in "Unbeaten Tracks," her account of her travels around Japan at the end of the 19th century. Much may have changed in the two centuries since Bird’s visit, but, looking out over the fertile fields that stretch to the snow-capped mountains that surround the small city of Yonezawa, you can still see what she meant.
In Bird’s time, Yonezawa was a thriving “smiling and plenteous land”, thanks in particular to its position as a center of textile production. But this had not always been the case. The city owed its prosperity to 18th-century leader Uesugi Yozan. Unlike the great warrior Uesugi Kenshin, who used military prowess to put the clan on the map, Yozan made his mark through forward-thinking economic and social reforms, rescuing the tiny domain from the brink of bankruptcy and laying the foundation for growth. His approach to statecraft was much admired by U.S. President John F Kennedy and he has been a source of inspiration for many of Japan’s top business leaders.
Today, like many areas in Japan, Yonezawa faces the challenges of declining birthrates and rural depopulation, but a new generation, instilled with Yozan’s can-do spirit, is taking the reins of family businesses and coming together to build a new future for their town. Many of Yonezawa’s legacy businesses have been running for a century or more. The young business leaders participating in this initiative can therefore leverage the wisdom and strength of generations of business acumen to carry their hometown into the future.
Tourism is one pillar of their revitalization plan, and the recently launched Yonezawa City DMO is taking a novel approach to raising awareness about the area. The long-term strategy is to use big data to develop tourism policies. But, as part of the initial phase, the DMO hopes to reach the international community via Furusato Nozei with their specialty items. They hope this will inspire people to take a trip to the “other side of the mountain” to enjoy its mountain hot springs, back country hiking, fascinating history, and snow sports, including skiing and snowshoeing.
Japan’s Furusato Nozei “Hometown Tax” program allows tax-payers to use a portion of their income and residence taxes to support independent producers in rural areas around the country. The idea originated from a hope that city-dwellers would eagerly redirect their taxes to their hometowns. However, people can select other areas as well, and receive unique and sought-after products in exchange for their contribution.
Yonezawa produces some of Japan’s most highly rated Japanese wagyu (Yonezawa beef), boasts the 13th oldest sake brewery in Japan, world-class Yonezawa-ori textiles and much more. There is even a special gelato made with locally grown beans! All of these products are included in the Furusato Nozei program. Yonezawa’s DMO hopes that, in addition to raising awareness of their city, it will support local producers and begin to attract a steady stream of international visitors to the charming city.
Yonezawa DMO hopes that international residents of Japan, most of whom don’t have a strong “hometown” affiliation to any particular locale, will take advantage of this opportunity to discover Yonezawa from the comfort of their own homes. The team is confident that a taste of Yonezawa beef or the area’s top-class sake at home will prompt many residents to hop on the shinkansen for the approximately two-hour ride from Tokyo to this hidden gem, and make Yonezawa their furusato (home town) away from home.© Japan Today