Mission accomplished for Japan’s Travel Volunteers?

Mission accomplished for Japan’s Travel Volunteers?

Or, how to stage a marathon trek across Japan and be home (almost) in time for Christmas
Travel Volunteer Project
Day 1: Heading from Kanazawa Station to the first destination, Tomiyama.

As we reported back in November, the Travel Volunteer Project, which reached the finish line just over two weeks ago at the end of 2011, was one of the more ambitious and far-ranging PR-driven travel schemes we’ve yet come across.

The brainchild of a travel agency in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, the Project recruited two Britons who had never before set foot in Japan to travel the country’s 47 prefectures in 100 days, posting daily blogs from the road.

Its goal? To tell the world that Japan is as safe and fascinating as it ever was, regardless of the awful events of March 11 last year.

Of the 1,897 applicants from 85 different countries, photographer Katy Morrison and writer Jamie Lafferty were chosen to undertake the mission.

The couple embarked on their journey on September 15 from Kanazawa Station, returning there to complete the circuit on December 23, just two days before Christmas.

Defrosting the inbound industry

Travel Volunteer ProjectKaty Morrison and Jamie Lafferty heard of the Great East Japan Earthquake on the news while traveling in Bolivia.

Magellan Resorts & Trust and its Real Japan-branded travel agency in Kanazawa was behind the road trip of a lifetime.

The company began offering domestic tours for overseas customers (“inbound tours”) five years ago. Just when its inbound operations finally stabilized last year, March 11 saw one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit the northeast of Japan.

News channels showered the world with continuous footage of the tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and reports on the Fukushima nuclear accident. Many believed all of Japan to be in a state of disaster and foreign tourists essentially stopped coming.

When his staff suggested the Travel Volunteer Project, Magellan president Hiroshi Kuchiki didn’t take long to approve it. “I felt we needed to do something bold like this to draw people’s attention,” he tells us. “Otherwise, nothing would change.”

Once word of the Project got out, far more people applied than expected.

Aya Kihara, supervisor of inbound operations, explains: “We didn’t know what the response would be. We were surprised by the number of people who applied and reassured that Japan had not been abandoned as a tourist destination.”

After a rigorous selection process, the two winners were announced in September 2011 and the journey began -- including the unenviable task of getting the logistics in place.

Seeking support

“When we launched this scheme, we went to the Japan Tourism Agency for some support, but they had no interest or even saw the point of the Project and rejected it,” says Kihara.

“Then we went to METI -- Japan’s trade and economy ministry -- which at least thanked us for taking such an initiative to bring tourism back.

“They supported the Project (unfortunately not financially), so it at least that helped us talk to potential sponsors.”

In other words, the Project was tough going from the very beginning, before the first blog post, tweet or press story aiming to remind the world what an alluring tourist destination Japan remains.

“Of course, some places helped us the very day we opened our site and interpreter supporters also gave us their individual assistance, but it’s hard to put into words how we felt about the difference in the degrees of support people showed," says Kihara.

Yet, the situation had changed for the better by the end of the marathon trip.

大勢のマスコミを前に記者会見。

“Never before have so many reporters converged upon Kanazawa Station,” says Kihara.

At the start of their journey, only those involved with the Project gathered to send Katy and Jamie off, but on the final day dozens of reporters gathered at Kanazawa Station, crowding into the press-conference room.

Through word-of-mouth from all those who assisted Katy and Jamie in the various regions they visited, blogs and local newspaper articles covering their progress, it seems the general public came to recognize the true value of the Project just before the mission came to an end.

Symbolically, perhaps, even the Japan Tourism Agency had a change of heart and turned up at Narita Airport to present a certificate of gratitude.

More on CNNGo: Travel Volunteers: Around Japan in 100 days

Christmas Eve in an evacuation tent

手作りのクリスマスパーティに参加

On the morning Katy and Jamie left Japan, they looked back on their last night on the Project -- a Christmas party for tsunami evacuees in Ishinomaki the previous evening.

“We attended a party with about 50 people, hosted by a local group of volunteers. I gave handmade paper hats my mother sent me from England as presents and we played games,” says Jamie.

“In recent years, Christmas, while a time to be together with family, has become a shopping season as well in England. Last night, I felt that this was what Christmas is really all about. It even snowed.”

Ishinomaki was one of the places Katy and Jamie had previously visited on their trip. While there the first time, they had a memorable encounter.

“A calligrapher had come as a volunteer,” they wrote on their blog. “We thought he must have a lot of free time, but to our surprise we later heard he had left his family behind in Kyoto to come and help.”

Katy spoke of the beauty of Japan’s fall foliage. “This trip was also a seasonal pursuit of the changing autumn leaves,” she wrote.

“Everywhere we went people apologized to us, saying ‘The fall colors this year aren’t that impressive,’ but to me they were the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. Next time I want to chase after the cherry-blossom front.”

Reading Katy and Jamie’s blog entries, many Japanese people responded along such lines as, “I didn’t know about such interesting places” and simply, “Thank you.”

Katy and Jamie’s response? “We wrote our blog so that foreigners could learn about Japan. We were very happy and honored that we could introduce its beauty to the people of Japan as well.”

Mission accomplished?

Travel Volunteer ProjectWe'll be back ...

So how do the couple feel now that their mission is over? “From the time I was chosen as a travel volunteer, I approached the trip not as a vacation, but as work,” says Jamie.

“To be honest, it wasn’t easy to travel nonstop for 100 days, meeting people and updating my blog every day, so a part of me is relieved it’s over.

“But, at the same time, I enjoy traveling and I met many different people, so I’m very sad it’s ended.”

Katy and Jamie’s blog has been organized into a digital book, which Magellan is tentatively planning to distribute soon. The firm is also considering a variety of related projects that remain to be seen.

One thing is for sure, though -- it won’t be long before Katy and Jamie visit Japan again, even if it is only through the mountains of photos and hours of travel writing on their lovingly compiled Travel Volunteer blog.

More on CNNGo: Japanese tourist industry breathes seasonal sigh of relief