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Locals use big-city thinking to bring Gunma onsen town back from brink

29 Comments
By Mayu Iwasaki

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29 Comments
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You can’t bring back the bubble era. Those overbuilt mansion hot spring hotels have been abandoned with no money to tear them down.

10 ( +14 / -4 )

I was greatly disappointed in Minakami. The ads always show all sorts of river based activities, like rafting and canyoning, but when we went there during the week in September, the reality was completely different: deadsville. The local operators had either closed for the season or were not offering anything, even though the weather was hot and sunny. The natural features were great, but nothing to do there you couldn't do on the outskirts of Tokyo like Okutama or Chichibu.

Good luck with rebuilding the infrastructure, but it really depends on whether the local tourism operators will be willing to cater to visitors outside the national holidays, weekends and limited peak seasons.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

How long before they spend millions on the inevitable character mascot? Onsen tamago kun or slow creep towards death chan?

-10 ( +9 / -19 )

Locals use big-city thinking to bring Gunma onsen town back from brink

Make Gunma Great Again.

-4 ( +8 / -12 )

More “build it and they will come” logic. Throwing money at these kinds of problems doesn’t work. History has proven that over and over again.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

known as a base for such outdoor activities as climbing, trekking, skiing and rafting.

Tear it all down and plant grass.

Make it a campground where you can pitch your own tent or rent a tent.

Make an area with food stalls like at festivals and have some fireworks in the evening.

Add an outdoor stage for some music and it would be filled on weekends.

Climb, trek and raft.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Minakami is like lots of onsen towns. As the buildings in the center of the town (usually around the train station) become old and basically abandoned, new hotels keep getting built in the mountains a bit further outside the town. The sad thing is the town centers are not very interesting; people go there for the views and nature. Minakami is still a popular tourist destination.

More “build it and they will come” logic. Throwing money at these kinds of problems doesn’t work. History has proven that over and over again.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Well done, keep going..

4 ( +5 / -1 )

This is why tourism needs to utilise flexible, AirBnB-style rentals rather than hotels in new, declining or borderline areas. Hotels have to have a high occupancy to be viable. You either have lots of people or you have to close. At best that creates a season, and a changing climate mitigates against such things. It adds risk and creates eyesores when trade drops off.

It's great that different groups are working together to do something positive. You can often do a lot with a little money and some ingenuity. In the UK, local councils are happy to spend a £15m government grant on a 'hub', filling the pockets of local companies run by their mates, spending more than they need to on grand schemes that see little use.

Don't be so negative about this project. These folks are trying to help in a sensible way. Good for them.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Minakami still has the potential, I go there because it is close, has a ski area, has an onsen, and I can drive home afterwards. Not to mention they have a few onsen spots that you can enjoy together with the Mrs. It is a shame Gunma is not getting a lot of attention lately, but I do realize many older buildings are interfering with the overall scenery.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I do hope they can modernize the place and bring in more visitors. Many of the onsen towns have indeed faded from their glory years, but there's no reason they can't be popular again: both Japanese people and foreigners love onsen, and the weak yen means increased numbers of both.

I haven't been to Minakami but it's on my list. When in Gunma I generally go to Manza, and the crown jewel of onsen, Kusatsu, which is far and away the best water I've ever experienced. Gunma really is blessed with some great onsen.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

In the UK, local councils are happy to spend a £15m government grant on a 'hub', filling the pockets of local companies run by their mates, spending more than they need to on grand schemes that see little use.

I would not assume that Japan is very different. I would imagine the partial demolition of the hotel was publically funded and the work went to a company friendly with the government. Other projects will be the same.

Demographics mean there is no hope for formerly popular Japanese resorts. In fact, its going to get worse as the Japanese boomers head past seventy-five and stop travelling. However, Minakami probably has enough going for it to be left as one of the winners. My first advice, which has zero implementation cost, is to get rid of the bears in tiny cages at that nice mixed onsen down by the river. This is a huge turnoff for inbound tourists. Some will leave thinking "never again". To be successful, they probably need a mix of outdoor and non-outdoor (e.g. women in high heels) customers. Non-outdoor people will need some kind of gentrification, nice shops, nice cafes with actual views, glamping, ... There are far more non outdoor people out there than outdoor ones.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

I wish them the best, but it'll be an expensive and time-consuming venture. LIttle thought seems to have been put into the original designs of buildings like this, rendering them eyesores even before they were abandoned.

It's hard to count how many potentially beautiful onsen villages have been uglified beyond belief with hotels and other facilities slapped up in a hurry to make hay while the sun shone, but the number must be in the hundreds. For a country that likes to bang on internationally about the beauty of Japanese aesthetics, visitors who come to these towns from abroad to enjoy a soak must be crestfallen to say the least. Not to mention Japanese who visit them as well for a cheap onsen getaway. A few years ago we did a trip to one in Ishikawa and it was depressing. The hotel was half closed off, tired, and creepy in places - I was half expecting to see a scene from The Shining materialise.

5 ( +9 / -4 )

It's a shame about these kind of towns, but not uncommon. One my son and I visited in Kyushu was like one of those dust blown towns you see in old westerns. Practically expected to see a tumbleweed rolling down the street. We called it "ghostville".

The only onsen I have ever been to that when I got back to my locker it wouldn't open. Had to stand around naked except for my small hand towel while 2 staff ladies worked on it for about 20 minutes.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

It's hard to count how many potentially beautiful onsen villages have been uglified beyond belief with hotels and other facilities slapped up in a hurry to make hay while the sun shone, but the number must be in the hundreds. For a country that likes to bang on internationally about the beauty of Japanese aesthetics, visitors who come to these towns from abroad to enjoy a soak must be crestfallen to say the least.

True, Bad Haircut, but I am increasingly beginning to think that nobody actually notices the cheap ugliness, foreigners and Japanese alike. They just see what they expect to see and leave discernment at home.

-6 ( +4 / -10 )

Moonraker-I for one notice the ugliness. So many Japanese urban areas are totally aesthetic disasters. I have always said Japanese cities look nicer at night, because the darkness helps cover up the ugly urban design

4 ( +11 / -7 )

students of the University of Tokyo are useless, the key point is just the money to renew the town and the attraction of a younger population.

Those students have to stop with their pseudo-project..

who is financing those students and their polystyrene toys???

-13 ( +1 / -14 )

Some of these dumps, they couldn’t even give away, that’s how bad they are. There needs to be a Government department tasked with restoring the natural environment of these places. With so many eyesores to choose from, Japan could be a world leader in reversing the ugliness that blights its scenic places.

-3 ( +7 / -10 )

indigoToday 01:09 pm JST

students of the University of Tokyo are useless

Today's sweeping generalization brought to you by indigo...

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Those kind of places need fresh ideas and younger people - good for these students. But it is still up to the residents and authorities of allthe declining towns and villages in various parts of Japan to accept it's time to move with the future and not the past.

That includes non acceptance of so called animal attractions - bears in cruel cages, in Tokushima three monkeys in tiny cages separate from each other with no room to move or climb to name shocking examples. I couldn't do anything when I visited the monkey shrine in Tokushima because nobody would listen including city hall. These kinds of mindsets have to change.

Not sure if it will because the people in those declining towns, villages and areas don't usually have a tendency to change. Just look at the beautiful Tohoku region where the locals mostly distrust outsiders and in the case of foreigners doubly so. They need and want tourist money but don't really want tourists as they have to adapt and change their ways. I can't see things changing in those kinds of areas.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

To reverse the inevitable decline in these areas and to encourage more internal tourism in general, there needs to be an overhaul of the mindset here. Nostalgia is good but if won't save them. Nor will restoring bubble-economy era concrete monstrositiea.

First as others have said, pull those horrendous strucures down. Geeenify the places and put up wood cottages, encourage gramping and the like. Encourage people to live/work in these areas through telework initiatives and flexible work options. Being back a sense of community and put in hip cafes and little boutique shops and stuff that are actually attractive for all types.

Then get rid of Golden/Silver weeks, etc and give all employees 60 days fully paid leave per year and let them choose when to use those holidays.

There is so much potential here but the mindset remains rooted in the glorious past of bubble economy era . Japan needs to move on.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

i wish i had seen this news before I booked my winter holiday. I will go there next time.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

If people had more holidays, or were at least able to use the ones they are entitled to, and had higher salaries then these places would be salvageable. Serious investors wouldnt look twice at these places because the bubble burst a long time ago.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

True, Bad Haircut, but I am increasingly beginning to think that nobody actually notices the cheap ugliness, foreigners and Japanese alike. They just see what they expect to see and leave discernment at home.

Moonraker, you're probably right. I sometimes ask my Japanese wife why there are so many hideous buildings around, and she just says Japanese appreciate the inner beauty of them and don't worry about the exteriors. That answer might be easier to accept if they were much nicer inside than out, but experience tells me that's not often the case. Alas...

To be fair, I have noticed improvement in some recent buildings but the old habit is slow to change.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

@Bad Haircut. Most of the buildings, almost everywhere you go, were built as cheaply as possible with a very limited lifespan, which they have mostly reached the end of, and it was hardly worth maintaining them. So, there they stand, decaying in all their shoddiness. The countryside is especially blighted with such places, and where repaired at all, it was with corrugated metal or plastic, but there are plenty of city neighbourhoods like that too. "Refined sense of beauty", they say but no sense of ugliness. But, as I said, few seem to notice. And, rather in reverse of your good wife's rationale, it is a psychological truth that ugliness causes us to turn inwards to our small worlds (which does have political benefits too, I would think).

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

The most popular and utilized areas of the river where I live out here in the countryside are the campsites (w/ convenient facilities) along with kayaking, canoeing, and SUPing. And recently ziplining.

Like Peter Neil mentioned above, plant grass and trees and create shade and places for camping and outdoor activities. These bring in families, tours and single/couple travelers.

Outdoor activities has seen a boom in the last ten years and the many giant hotel/onsens of the 70s and 80s are out of place.

There's no need for nearly as many as they have now and sometimes they take up the best real estate next to the rivers, lakes and springs.

Replace them with campsites, small hotels/BnBs and combine them with riverside activity companies. They're the places that are pact and in high demand during the warmer months of the year here. Also make for easy transportation from the train stations to these sites along with English/Chinese/Korean signs.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

And, rather in reverse of your good wife's rationale, it is a psychological truth that ugliness causes us to turn inwards to our small worlds (which does have political benefits too, I would think).

I think that's true of a lot of places, but especially here in Japan. The life expectancy of a building here is something like, what, 20-30 years? Whatever it is it's pretty short, so there's little incentive to build anything to last. In a way I find it quite at odds with Japan's obsession with quality that their buildings are so shoddy, but then reconcile it with the love of the new and shiny.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

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