Walk this way: Hakone

Written by BCCJ
December 14, 2022


Written by BCCJ
December 14, 2022

By BCCJ Member: Adam Fulford, Fulford Enterprises

I have long been intrigued by the kanji character 道 (path, way, The Way), which combines elements representing a head and movement. Rather than a physical surface that takes you from A to B, an East Asian path seems to embody an idea of dynamic sensory engagement with the environment.

What would life be like if our senses were perfectly in tune with the constantly changing stimuli that they receive? Might we then be more alert to signs that we are in fact straying from the path?

I’m already rambling myself, so let me put this in context. I recently spent three days hiking around Hakone, and it opened my eyes to potentially valuable business-related activities for BCCJ Members. Examples might include team building, executive retreats, leadership training, strategy sessions, and more.

But the topic that kept coming up — as we slogged up thickly wooded valleys, crested wind-swept ridges, zig-zagged down steep slopes, soaked in onsen, and ate delicious food — was sustainability.

Our guide, already a veteran of a thousand treks, was himself seeking guidance. He was looking for appropriate ways to enhance the presentation and appreciation of hiking in Hakone through the lens of sustainability.

Shin Kaneko was born in Hakone and received much of his education abroad. Where sustainability is concerned, he’s looking first and foremost for ways to support the community to which he has now returned, and where he is happily settled.

Our first stop was a workshop specialising in yosegi-zaiku, one of just three nationally designated traditional crafts in Kanagawa Prefecture. Hakone Parquet, as it’s known in English, is made by glueing together layers of different wood, and then using lathes and cutters to create a seemingly limitless variety of beautiful wooden toys, boxes, cups, plates, bowls, and even strikingly original trophies for the famous Hakone Ekiden relay.

Examples of yosegi-zaiku at Kanazashi Woodcraft in Hatajuku.

The craft began to flourish roughly two hundred years ago in Hatajuku, a “between” stop on the Tokaido highway that linked Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto and Osaka beyond. In those days, large groups of samurai were among the people frequently moving along the Tokaido on their way to and from Edo.

And there you have the seeds of Hakone’s identity. A timber-rich community hosting many travellers looking for a place to stop where they could also shop (before or after they dropped, from exhaustion).

Deep in the steeply rising volcanic mountains, little agricultural produce was grown. Hakone was a community that developed around the service industry, and specifically tourism.

Shin’s fellow walkers on this hike — one Japanese, one German, one American and me — engaged actively with the various themes he introduced from our different professional and personal viewpoints: a tourism marketing expert, a TV documentary maker, an Airbnb host.

As for me, when I’m not working on scripts for NHK WORLD-JAPAN TV programmes, I spend a lot of time in the Japanese countryside seeking paths to a brighter future in communities that are striving to cope with demographic change.

It was nevertheless a surprise to learn how quickly the population of Hakone, a hugely popular resort, has declined — down from nearly 20,000 in the early ’80s, which is when I first went there, to fewer than 11,000 now.

The number of visitors, meanwhile, continues to be impressively high. Following the significant drop in 2020 that afflicted tourism everywhere, Hakone started to bounce back in 2021. In terms of day-trippers alone, 11 million people went to Hakone that year.

A thousand visitors for every resident. And yet the town declines.

The interior of Hotel Indigo Hakone Gora.
Although Hakone’s population is declining, accommodation options continue to increase.

An hour or so later, still mulling these matters, we walked out of the sunshine and into the dark, smoky, evocative interior of Amasake Chaya, a large, traditional thatched house where exceptionally good amazake is served. For four centuries, tired travellers have been welcomed here by the Yamamoto family.

The current owner, Satoshi Yamamoto, has an interesting take on the longevity of the enterprise. Business slumps would have hit the family hard on many occasions, he says. But even if his predecessors had good reason to shut up shop, they never did.

Why? He believes it was because they felt they simply had to be there for the exhausted travellers who had finally made it past Women-Tumble Slope, Monkey-Slip Ascent, and the final soul-destroying Hill from Hell.

I was reminded of a tenet of old-fashioned community life: give guests a good welcome. Another is: walk everywhere. As our journey progressed, I added more of these traditional lifestyle axioms. Where do they come from? Professor Furukawa Ryuzo’s “44 Disappearing Lifestyle Values”, which he identified by conducting hundreds of hearings with people aged 90 and over about their early life in “pre-convenience” communities.

Prof. Furukawa’s contention is that the 44 Values bring out individual resourcefulness, which contributes to community resilience. I have been applying the 44-Value framework in community-based engagements whose aim is to generate win-win outcomes for all stakeholders, including representatives of visiting companies, and Hakone was rapidly shaping up as an outstanding location for various useful activities.

Shin Kaneko points the way.

Better still, I wouldn’t even need to be there! Shin Kaneko would be a perfect facilitator simply by doing what he does best: sharing his experience and listening carefully, making space for all of us to speak as together we walk, senses dynamically engaged with our surroundings, on the path to sustainability.


Top featured image: View from the rim of the main crater in Hakone. To the left, Lake Ashi. To the right, the Pacific Ocean.

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