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The Healing Power of Nature

Promoting a healthy lifestyle to the area’s population, the Kaminoyama Onsen Kurort project is a wellness and leisure spot in Yamagata Prefecture that focuses on medical science-based healthy outdoor walks and invigorating visitors through local culinary and hot spring resources.

The town of Kaminoyama, situated in the southern end of the Tohoku region in Yamagata Prefecture, is about two and a half hours from Tokyo by the Yamagata Shinkansen bullet train, and sits in a valley that faces a popular ski resort destination, the Zao Mountain Range, to the east. The Kaminoyama area is also resource-rich, having a 550-year-old hot springs resort in the city’s center, and being surrounded by woodlands where the cultivation of fruit trees on its hillsides and rice crops on its plains flourishes. About eight years ago this small town with a population of just over thirty thousand began the Kaminoyama Onsen Kurort project, a venture meant to reinvigorate the region by enhancing public health and promoting the influx of nonresidents to the town.

“This project is proof of how widespread walking as a healthful habit has become among residents,” says Kei Sasaki of the Kurort Promotion Division’s Office of Strategic City Planning in the town’s government office. However, with a bemused smile, he adds, “The word Kurort is German, and it refers to a high-quality short-stay wellness and leisure area, but many seniors seem to think it refers to walking itself, and say, ‘Well, I’m going off on a kurort.’ ”

Germany’s Kurort are situated in areas that have good climates, views and clean air, and offer a range of facilities that provide natural medicine and natural rehabilitation programs under the supervision of medical specialists. They are subject to a strict system of national certification. Visitors usually stay for about two weeks as part of each Kurort program, with the key point being that their accommodations and treatment are covered by insurance.

The institution of a health promotion region through local resources was inspired by the regional situation in Kaminoyama. “In addition to our per capita medical expenses and average population age being high compared to the Yamagata prefectural average, we also experienced a downturn in our number of tourists,” Sasaki explains. The town faced the urgent task of curbing growing medical expenses for the elderly and creating a place in which they could live in health and comfort.

There was already a deep connection with Germany: noted poet Mokichi Saito, who had studied in Germany, was born in Kaminoyama. Inspired by German Kurort, the town initiated a project spearheaded by 68-year-old mayor Chobe Yokoto that combined Kaminoyama’s native hot springs resources, nature and seasonal food with medically-backed wellness walking techniques. And according to Sasaki, the mayor is actually the biggest practitioner of walking for wellness. Every morning he sets out on one of Kaminoyama’s walking courses and clocks in at city hall after washing up at his favorite local sento, or public bath.

Kaminoyama’s Kurort Wellness Walking program is characterized by its climatological and topographic approach to treatment, with participants measuring their pulse and body temperature while maintaining a certain desired speed and incorporating natural elements like the cold, air and sunlight to improve exercise efficiency while walking through the woodlands. A variety of walking programs are introduced throughout the year under the motto of “walking without trying,” where they aim to achieve a pace that is not too taxing. The town trains full-time guides to lead the tours.

In addition to elderly residents from Kaminoyama, participants include many repeat guests from outside the city, who come for both the tourism and the chance to ramble. Remarks one male senior citizen with a lively smile, “Since taking up walking, I now have to take less medication.”

Rich in agricultural products, Kaminoyama is also putting its energies into marketing the food it offers as part of its drive to become a premier wellness spot. The signature shop behind this effort is Orizuru, a restaurant that uses seasonal ingredients to serve intriguing takes on local dishes that are plated beautifully and are as healthy as they are delicious. After engaging in a stimulating walk, visitors eagerly anticipate the prospect of dining here.

In 2015, Kaminoyama received one of the first Japan Tourism Awards for building an unprecedented health destination that combines wellness, tourism and environmental considerations. Of future efforts, Sasaki says: “We aim to be a town where the residents can live healthily and vigorously for as long as they possibly can, which we hope will lead to both an increase in visitors and our establishment as Japan’s leading area for promoting human wellness.”