September 30, 2022

Local trading companies develop circular economies in two areas

Emi Maeda
Contributing writer

A concept image shows the tentative design of the completed Niseko Mirai housing development. | Niseko Machi

Minamioguni is a small town with a population of less than 4,000 located in the middle of Kyushu on the border between Oita and Kumamoto prefectures in the so-called semi-mountainous area. The town, nestled in the beautiful grasslands of the Aso Outer Rim and the headwaters of the Chikugo River, is famous for its clear waters and hot springs, including Kurokawa Hot Springs, which attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.

Playing the role of a regional trading company is SMO Minamioguni Co. Ltd., a public-private third-sector organization that is 99% owned by the town. The depopulation of Minamioguni over the past decade has prompted SMO Minamioguni to work to develop a sustainable community based on the citizens’ strong desire to preserve a high quality of rural upland satoyama activities, scenery and lifestyle. The town has established a regional tourism development corporation to further develop the Minamioguni Town Tourism Association and sales at the town’s store for traditional products, Kiyora Casa.

The company has four divisions: the Regional Trading Company Division, the Tourism Division, the Information Dissemination Division and the Future Planning Division. Each aims to maximize value through collaboration with the others and to “acquire and return capital from outside the region,” said Chihiro Abe, manager of the Future Planning Division.

The company distributes tourist information through its own media, SMOMO, and offers initiatives to ensure that visitors can continue to engage with the town after their visit. Moreover, it provides not only food products but also products that can support the local community, called “thoughtful return gifts” that it gives back to taxpayers. The company also has worked diligently with local businesses to develop high-value products, and tax revenues have increased significantly through such product development. Despite the coronavirus disaster, sales at the Kiyora Casa exceeded ¥110 million ($770,000) in fiscal 2020.

SMO Minamioguni has invested the capital accumulated through these activities into new resources. It has also offered internships letting young people in their 20s from other areas easily enter the region. In terms of giving back to the community, it has launched platforms such as the job sites Shigoto Convenience Store and Furusato Kengyo to help diverse people realize their desired ways of working and living. SMO Minamioguni aims to grow the economic cycle and capital for sustainable satoyama activities in the town.

SMO Minamioguni organizes valley charter trips as part of tourism measures to promote the area. | SMO Minamioguni

Kurokawa Onsen

Niseko, a sustainable town

Niseko Machi Co. Ltd. is a company that works to make the town of Niseko in Hokkaido a sustainable town with a circular economy rooted in the community.

The Niseko area is an attractive resort with a concentration of world-class high-end hotels. It straddles the three towns of Kutchan, Niseko and Rankoshi. Efforts to make it an environmental model have been ongoing since 2014. In 2018, the town of Niseko was selected as one of Japan’s “SDGs future cities,” a municipality that will make efforts and proposals for achieving SDGs. The town has been working on the development of residential areas, centered on the NISEKO Lifestyle Model Project. The project is based on living in harmony with nature while effectively utilizing tourism resources and considering the environment. In 2020, Niseko Machi was established through public-private investment due to the need for an entity to implement this project. “Our main focus is to create a new town from the three axes of a sustainable economy, society and environment,” said Kento Tanaka, director of Niseko Machi.

The company is creating the Niseko Mirai housing development for a maximum of 500 residents from scratch. This project works on “evolving community development” over the next 10 years by listening to residents’ voices and solving their problems with daily life. The plan calls for comfortable living even in winter, with low utility costs in energy-efficient housing complexes without burdens like snow removal. In addition, Niseko is a town with a gradually growing population and a low vacancy rate. Therefore, many people working there commute from outside the town. Resolving these issues is the background behind developing Niseko Mirai. Four construction zones in the development are planned, with the first building from the first construction zone to be completed in the next fiscal year.

Life in satoyama areas is about adding new value to things of natural origin, transforming them into sources of enduring economic benefit. It is hoped that local trading companies — key players in circular economies that are creating sustainable, recycling-oriented regions — will further develop the richness of satoyama areas.

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