New life for old towns through sustainable tourism: Alex Kerr at TEDxKyoto 2013

New life for old towns through sustainable tourism: Alex Kerr at TEDxKyoto 2013

Translator: Akinori Oyama
Reviewer: Takahiro Shimpo You know, here in Kyoto,
in this lovely hall a lot of well-dressed people
carrying iPhones. Or, if you go to Osaka, you see people with their Louis Vuitton. Everything looks fine. And, of course, it is fine. Japan is a very wealthy country with one of the strongest
economies in the world. But there is a problem,
and it’s called depopulation. If you travel a little bit
outside of the cities, it’ll look like this. This is what we call
the shuttered towns. The farther you go into the country side, the more severe it is
because there is inequality. Japan is losing population,
but not equally. The big cities are actually thriving. Small cities are in big trouble. In fact, you see something like this, houses broken down,
streets with nobody walking on them. In the very little towns,
it’s quite severe. We did a styrofoam model of this little fishing village
in the Inland Sea. We painted the houses
where people are living in red where you can see
that this town is about to die. The Japanese government
has been aware of the problem, but unfortunately the policy
for 50 years was building things. “Let’s cover the country in concrete. Let’s do something about the rivers,
build highways, dams turn even small streams
into little shoots. Every year add another patch.” Here, you can see what happened last year
and what’s going on this year. Huge highways that are built
for no particular purpose. You can see on this one, which cost
billions of dollars, no traffic at all. (Laughter) It wasn’t just civil engineering. It was also monument building. The idea was if you could cover
the whole town in concrete, that would somehow make it
modern and it would thrive. They built museums like this one that drove this poor little town
into bankruptcy. Or, the Gold Tower
that nobody knows what to do with. (Laughter) And, I love this mosque-like…
This isn’t Iraq, this is Tsushima,
a little town of 1,500 people where they spent 20 million dollars
to build something like this. And, what happened is,
that in the meantime, sadly, it didn’t work. The people left the villages,
agriculture collapsed, forestry collapsed, and so then,
they poured more concrete in. Is there not another way? Here, I want to step back
and become a little personal. I came to Japan as a little boy
in 1964 with my family. That’s almost 50 years ago. And, then later, when I was in college
I hitchhiked all over Japan. Like a lot of young people,
I was looking for my Shangri-La. And, I was really lucky
because I found it. It’s this magic place called Iya, which is a very distant,
remote part of Japan. It’s in the mountains
of Shikoku. Shikoku to this day
is the least visited of the big four islands of Japan. Even within Shikoku,
Iya is deep in the hills. This is where the Heike warriors
escaped in the 12th century. It was so remote. Sometimes they call it
Japan’s Grand Canyon. I love this place and I noticed back in the 70s
that it was already depopulated. There were abandoned houses
all over the place. I thought, “Gosh, I’m a poor student,
but I could maybe own one of these.” So, I started looking around
and I found this which I bought in 1973. We named the house Chiiori. I talked to the villagers
and they sold it to me for 1,500 dollars. The land. The house was junk, worthless. So I got the house for free. But actually this house is 300 years old. And, it’s more than 300 years old. It’s actually thousands of years old,
the lifestyle here, it goes back before the Japan
we think we know, before tatami and before rice. You see these wooden floors. There’s a floor hearths,
the irori floor hearths, which is like having a camp fire
in the middle of your living room. (Laughter) But smoke comes out of it
and it turns everything black. So, even the ceiling is black. We re-thatched the house
over the years, but originally I had no money,
I couldn’t even afford thatch. So we got old thatch from a house
they were tearing down. And, you can see,
I look like I came out of… a sooty old thatch,
coiming out of a coal mine The thing about this house, though,
is that’s fast forward decades. We got tens of thousands of visitors. So much so that our prefecture,
which is called Tokushima, looked at their statistics and they said, “There are all these foreigners
coming to Tokushima. Why? Oh they’re going to Iya, but why? They are going to this place
called Chiiori. Where? What?” So, they called us up
and they said, “Why? You don’t have a big Gold Tower
and you don’t have a huge Kangei Hall. You don’t have a highway.
You don’t have all these great things. What do they come for?” And, I said,
“Well, it’s what I call the appeal of nothing special.” That’s actually pretty big. Actually our slogan
in Iya today is (Japanese): “There is nothing”. What that means is, for example,
if you’re traveling to go to Paris, of course, you want to see Louvre
and Notre Dame, but once you’ve done that,
the joy of Paris is walking in the little back streets,
taking in the air. That’s the true appeal of a place. And, of course, that’s
what people come to Iya for. This is the magic. I started thinking,
“My God, this country is covered with tens of thousands
of abandoned houses. Thousands of them
even better than Chiiori. Couldn’t we do this in other places?” So, I started
doing regional projects. One of the first ones I did
is in this little island called Ojika. Ojika is what I call the Iya on the sea because it’s even harder
to get to than Iya. It’s way off the coast of Kyushu. It’s so hard to get to that this is where
the Hidden Christians escaped. When Christianity was banned
they went on this island and built their little church
and hid there, practiced there for 300 years
until the banners left it. But this town is in terrible shape,
detoured, losing population. They’ve built museums and highways. They did all that and it didn’t work. So we got together with the town. We came up with a project to redo 7 old houses
and one restaurant. Of course, when we find the houses,
the floor is falling in, the roof is leaking,
they are a mess. But it can indeed be fixed up, as you can see from this,
restored Japanese traditional zashiki. But here is where I want to step back
for a minute and just say I’m not a curator, and I’m not a professor,
and I’m not trying to say “This is how it was in Edo.
This is how it was in Meiji.” I am not interested in making a museum. You know, some kind of a show-piece. What I want to do is bring
these houses into the modern age because that’s the only way
that they can live. What you don’t see in this photo
is under that tatami is redone wiring, completely redone plumbing, insulation, lighting, heating, cooling. All these things that make it possible
for modern people to actually be there. And, you have to do more than just this because modern Japanese don’t sit
on the tatami anymore, right? So how can you enjoy a beautiful house in a way that fits your modern lifestyle? Well, next to that tatami room,
we built this Western sunken living room. Which was maybe too successful
because people just hang around here and they never actually
go into that beautiful zashiki. And, the puzzles, always,
with these houses are, I was told, “Alex,
you can’t build the table here because there is this column.” Well, we built it.
(Laughter) The other thing I tried to do
is what I call a modern intervention. By that I mean
valuing the traditional space, but let’s do something
that’s completely new and modern about it and really make people feel that they are in the now
not just in the past. So here was the long room
that was going to become the restaurant. What we did was
we bought this 7 meter-long table. We call it a long table,
long table for a long room. You can actually sit under there,
you can put your legs down and sit. And it turned this place — although it’s
an old space — into a very new space. This is our restaurant in Ojika at night. Back in Iya, which has
exactly the same problems, we were doing a project with the town, and we are doing 8 houses there. We started with a hamlet called Ochiai, which is about a 20-minute drive
from my place. And it’s way up, you can get vertigo
just by standing there. Our very first house was this one, which is “you take one look
and want to give up really”. (Laughter) But it’s 200 years old
and has an incredible structure. So, what do you do? You had the leanings
and they had to be straightened. You take it down
to its original structure, rebuild the roof and rethatch. And here is another thing
I want to say, people think restoring these houses is “miya daiku”,
traditional carpentry all the way. But that’s not my approach. We’re using thatch because it’s part
of history and culture of Iya, but we are also using
water-retardant materials for the roof. This is what it looks outside. Here, you can see where the insulation
is going on the inside. When the house is done, you have this traditional Iya-type floor
with the floor hearth. You have the view,
this incredible view over that valley, but right next to it you’ve got a place
with a kitchen and a table and a chair. You can have your morning coffee. You can be at home. This is what we started with. This is what we ended with. You can see it’s the same house.
(Chuckles) (Applause) It took it from being unlivable
to being livable. In the meantime, I’ve done dozens of houses
all over this country. And, the funny thing is that my own house
was pretty much the last one. We finally got around to it last year. So, this is Chiiori as it had been. We took off the roof. We rethatched. We called in a thatcher. And here again,
we went from this, to this. And, I love my beautiful
new thatched roof, but I think what I love maybe more are my beautiful,
double-paned glass windows. Because what that means
is we can sit in this house and watch the snow coming down
and be in comfort. Here is the restored living room which looks exactly
like the old living room, but under those floors
is under-floor heating. We have a proper kitchen. We’ve put in proper toilets. This is maybe the most important
photograph you’ll see today. (Laughter) And the bath. And, the thing about it is,
why do all this? I am not really here to talk about, “Let’s fix up some pretty houses.”
That’s not really the aim. The aim is what can we do
about these troubled regional towns. We were told and we did it in Ojika
and we did it in Iya and they said, “Why would they?
People don’t come to these places. They won’t come.” I’m happy to say that this summer in both, Ojika and Iya,
we had 90% occupancy. It basically means
they were full all summer, which is even better than Kyoto. It amazed us, we didn’t think
that would happen, and especially because when I started
I was aiming at the foreigners because they said “Alex,
the Japanese don’t travel this way. They’ll never come.” So I said,
“Never mind. We’ll get foreign travelers.” But it turns out
that in Iya we’re at 70%, in Ojika almost 100% Japanese, which means, the Japanese would love
to see their natural environment. They would love to go
to these little towns, they just don’t want to suffer. (Laughter) But when it’s provided
they will come, and they do. So what this means,
is it creates a new industry. Toru, here, manages our project in Iya.
He’s from Shizuoka. The young guy lived hundreds of kilometers
from Iya, but he moved here. It was unthinkable. Young people
would never move into Iya. But not only him,
we’ve got others coming now. Miss Nakaishi,
she’s holding our Iya tofu. They call it “iwa tofu”,
rock tofu, because you can actually hold it
with a rope. Well, this was dying out. Nobody knew a use for it. Now, what happens
when you get tourists coming in? They want to try the local food. They want to take something home
as a souvenir. So, it’s come alive again. Back in Ojika, here’s our long table. First, the visitors had parties,
and the locals started having parties. And, all of this brings money in. It means that they’re not stuck, they don’t have to reach out
to the government again, and concrete another river,
and build another empty museum. There is a new industry for these places. Japan is so rich. The natural environment,
the fantastic traditional culture, the wealth of beauty
and materials, of sprit of lifestyle that you find in these old places. It’s there and it can be saved. And I think we found the way
to go forward. Thank you very much. (Applause)

38 thoughts on “New life for old towns through sustainable tourism: Alex Kerr at TEDxKyoto 2013

  1. Samuel Williams:  People come to experience Japan's natural environment, old houses, village life, the mountains and the sea.  And to see how these  houses and lifestyles can be brought into the modern age too.

  2. Not to step on Alex's toes — He was certainly one of our inspirations — but we have a company that does something similar and then rents out the homes for long and short stays — Anywhere from a day to a couple of months. Our model is not quite as, um, gorgeous, as what Alex does, but it is similar in that we keep the exteriors as authentic as possible (To the point where we talked with older people in the town to learn where the good clay was, went and dug our own, and then used that to restore the interior walls.) while integrating technology for weatherproofing, etc.

    Anyway, we like it.  🙂

  3. So simple, makes you wonder why it wasn't done before.

    Getting out of Tokyo was the best thing I ever did – Japan is such a naturally beautiful country.

  4. Wonderful !!!
    That is the way it should be in many places in such a beautiful country .
    Though in am a foreigner I live in a tatami room.
    Anyway it is a fantastic start and I hope that you will rebuilt many other houses like the ones I saw thanks to you a real dream comes true.

  5. brilliant. just finished Dogs and Demons and I loved Lost Japan (one of my all time faves). I'd never seen Alex on video, and this is a great talk. I didn't know about all this other work in restoration he has done, it's fantastic. what a hero!

  6. thank you so much for doing this. each time I take a train ride down to kochi and see the little hamlets high up on the hillsides, I think about how they will survive?

  7. come on man, your father and grand father were laughing and dancing when the two bombs were dropped (working for the military at that time , and your father worked on the Yokosuka american military base , and you fucking dare writing books or commenting about how japan has lost his identity .
    Please how hypocritical can one person be.
    You want Japan to get his culture back, you get the fuck out of the country, you make sure that you take those stupid useless american military bases filled with pedophile rapists along with you and then you can talk about giving japan its own identity back.
    All you care is making money, and Japan is richer than Bangkok so you know which cow to milk ,but you don't give a flying fuck about helping Japan , everybody knows it . You're like the kid of a nazi acting pro sionism , please man , you might have earned some money but you look ridiculous .

  8. your country bombed Tokyo and destroyed it to the ground , man who the fuck are you kidding
    your country forced japan into modern economy and the new world order banking system, making it a slave nation.
    Your country forced japan to abandon its culture , and you dare coming here and talk about helping japan .
    When you say that you came here with your family , why don't you mention that your father was a fucking scum of a soldier working for the Yokosuka base, the american military base that japan wants to get rid of , because the guys there do nothing except raping young girls, and you know i am right , the last guy raped and killed a 12 years old only 2 months ago .
    That's where you grew up, on this base surrounded with those pedophiles.
    You wanna help japan , why don't you make sure those bases are closed .
    Japan and Japanese do not need you to teach them how to make their country better.
    Why don't you fucking start with your own country . At least in Japan i can walk down the street with my girls and nobody carries a gun and my girls don't have do be scared of getting killed or rapped unless it is by one of your compatriots supposedly here to protect the country .
    Japanese have succeeded at keeping their country safe and with a better economy than your own. So really don't dare trying to tell Japanese how to take care of their culture and identity . What better advice to follow than your own , go back where you came from, and teach americans how to protect their culture, oops , you don't have any , you took the one from the natives, murdered them , perpetrated the biggest genocide in modern history , then brought slaves from Africa , destroying yet another culture and continent, then yes your country dropped two atomic bombs over Japan and your family worked for the military at that time, and now you come here and want to teach jJpanese how to live and protect their culture, how about you didn't destroy it in the first place .
    Man you are ridiculous .

  9. You are my inspiration sir Mr.Kerr. As Japanese I thank for your project you are endeavoring even though someone call you hypocrite gold digger or whatever. I hope our government put large amount of budgets on your next projects instead of pouring our tax payers money onto those useless vanity concrete ¥objects.

  10. That one model of the seaside town where only 1/10th of the houses are still occupied… what town is that?

    I'm looking forward to visiting a few Inland Sea towns next year – including Tomonoura and Mitarai – and I'm excited and curious, but also concerned about what I might find there. Sure, times change, and nothing lasts forever, but, to see these bustling medieval / early modern port towns disappear entirely, is terribly sad.

  11. यस्ता भिडियो हेरेर नेपालीले पनि लाभ उठाउन सक्नेछन् । विश्वका अन्यत्र ठाउँमा भएका पर्यटन, वातावरण र विकासका गतिविधि हेर्न र सुन्न "टेड टल्क" (#TED Talk) को भिडियो अति उपयोगी हुने कुरा मैले अनुभव गरेको छु । (Chet Nath Harit)

  12. I'm still wondering about financial part of this problem. Was it purely out of his private funds?

  13. Thank you for your inspiring work! I am very excited to stay at Chiiori in December! This is a model for anywhere in the world. I may consider doing something similar in Eastern Oregon.

  14. Very inspiring. Interesting to hear Alex speak after reading Lost Japan for the first time. Can't wait to visit Iya and Ojika one day!

  15. Taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo – the world's most advanced place – to Kyoto, a city frozen in time is an extraordinary experience! I've been to the Japanese countryside in both the Fall and Cherry Blossom Season (early Spring.) I hope that it's natural beauty is preserved but also hope that the cities continue to advance.

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