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'Little Kyoto' Receives Sustainable Tourism Award for Castle Stay Experience

The castle stay offers sustainable tourism by channeling proceeds back to the community, supporting cultural preservation as well as economic revitalization.



The main keep of Ozu Castle, restored in 2014. Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture. (©Sankei by Koji Maekawa)

Ozu City in Ehime Prefecture became the first Japanese city to win the cultural and tradition preservation category of the Green Destinations Story Awards. The award honors sustainable tourism destinations worldwide. 

Also known as "Iyo's Little Kyoto" for its historical townscape dating back to the Edo period, the city was recognized for its efforts to attract tourists with the "Castle Stay" program. The program allows visitors to stay at the Ozu Castle's keep for ¥1.1 million JPY (about $7,500 USD). 

The initiative's proceeds contribute to the city's cultural preservation such as kagura (traditional Shinto music and dance) and its musket troop. This is achieved through collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors. The funds are also used to bring life to the old townscape, about half of which is in danger of becoming vacant. 

In December, a commemorative symposium took place in the city. It provided a platform for citizens and other participants to engage in discussions about past initiatives and the future trajectory of urban development.

Guests at Castle Stay enter the castle dressed in armor for a truly immersive castle entrance. Indeed, they can experience the feeling of being a feudal lord. (Photo provided by Kita Management)

In central Ozu near Ozu Castle, there is a district with samurai manors and commercial buildings from the Edo to Meiji periods. Ohanahan Street, featured in an NHK TV series, is a notable attraction. Another popular spot is the Ozu Red Brick Building, a facility converted from a Meiji-era bank. It is also known as the filming location for the TV series Tokyo Love Story. These characteristics add to the vitality of this tourist spot.

A Thriving Castle Town

The city has designated this area as a Landscape Planning Area, legally recognizing the need to preserve its existing landscape. There are approximately 100 historic traditional homes in the region, of which NIPPONIA HOTEL offers 26 as guest rooms for travelers. Cafes, various goods stores, souvenir shops, and other businesses founded by people from outside the prefecture and young local entrepreneurs can be found nearby. On weekends and holidays, large buses bring in local and inbound tourists, giving it the atmosphere of a thriving castle town.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of tourists has continued to rise. Inbound visitors in 2023 reportedly reached approximately 1.5 times the average number.

Yosuke Inoue, from the nonprofit organization Kita Management, is actively engaged in revitalizing the district. Reflecting on the early days of his efforts, he said, "When we started the project, the town was quiet, and we couldn't have imagined receiving such international recognition."


Preserving the Landscape

In fact, in 2017 when Kita Management was established, the preservation of such landscapes was facing a crisis. 

A city survey at the time revealed that about half of the traditional houses in the area were at risk of eviction or demolition. This was due to financial challenges related to inheritance and repairs. Some buildings had already fallen into disrepair, showing signs of deteriorating roofs and other issues.

Old homes have been converted into hotels and shops in Ozu, Ehime Prefecture. (©Sankei by Koji Maekawa)

Even before the establishment of Kita Management, the city had been working to preserve the historic cityscape by creating subsidy programs for housing repairs in the area. However, with an anticipated increase in the aging population, maintaining the cityscape became an increasingly challenging task for the government alone.

To address this, the city formed a study group on town planning in 2015, seeking private sector expertise. Inoue, who joined as a regional revitalization cooperation officer, and local institutions like Iyo Bank, played a role in exploring new approaches to cityscape revitalization and local tourism. The city was inspired by initiatives in Hyogo Prefecture that transformed traditional houses into hotels.

In 2016, the city collaborated with the operating company of such initiatives. Through a public-private partnership, a total project fund of ¥1 billion JPY (around $6,800,000 USD) was raised. This effort led to the birth of Kita Management, a regional destination management organization (DMO), and marked the beginning of the cityscape regeneration project.

The keywords of the project are "sustainable cityscape" and "tourism." Positioned as a catalyst, the concept behind the Castle Stay accommodation at Ozu Castle is to generate revenue through visitor influx and channel it back into the maintenance of the cityscape.

Live Like a Feudal Lord

Ozu Castle is believed to have been constructed in the early Edo period. The original main keep was dismantled in 1888 due to deterioration. However, the castle underwent the first wooden castle restoration in Japan in 2004. Its four turrets are designated as Important Cultural Properties of the country, serving as symbols of the city.

As part of the Castle Stay, concierges dressed as samurai attend to guests. During their stay, men can change into armor, while women can opt for traditional Japanese attire. Upon entering the castle through a ceremonial ritual with conch shells and war drums, guests get to experience the life of a feudal lord. It is complete with celebratory musket salutes and performances of traditional kagura dances.

First-floor bedroom of the castle's main keep. (Provided by Kita Management)

The accommodation fee for a two-day stay for two people is ¥1.1 million JPY (about $7,500 USD). Of the annual revenue, 60% covers personnel costs, 10% is allocated to facility usage fees paid to the city, and 20% is directed toward group payments such as kagura performances. This creates a mechanism that returns revenue generated from attracting guests back into the local economy.

Since the program started in 2020, its uniqueness has attracted significant media attention. In FY2024, over 40 groups are scheduled to stay, reflecting the flourishing popularity. The increased tourism has also attracted individuals interested in opening businesses in the area. Over the three years from 2020 to 2023, 22 new establishments, including cafes and miscellaneous goods stores, have opened in the region. This has created 132 jobs, including 23 for residents who relocated to the area.


Sustainable Cityscape and Tourism

The sustainable initiatives of Ozu City earned recognition from the Green Destinations in the Netherlands. The non-profit organization is a global certifier of sustainable tourist destinations. This recognition led to the city winning the first sustainable tourism award in Japan.

Kita Management's Representative Director, Kozo Takaoka during the symposium in Ozu, Ehime Prefecture. (©Sankei by Koji Maekawa)

At the award symposium, Ozu City and Kita Management presented their past initiatives. Students from Ozu Prefectural High School suggested community-driven actions for sustainable tourism. These included designing clear street signs for inbound tourists. They also shared the results of an experiment involving waste collection to create compost.

Kozo Takaoka, Representative Director of Kita Management, emphasized, "The future of tourism will increasingly revolve around the global keyword of sustainability. We want to further enhance the charm of the city, integrating with the community to attract tourists."


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Koji Maekawa

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