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2021.11.04

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Speaking with Photographer/
Writer Tom Miyagawa Coulton
Mitarai, its appeal,
and the revitalization of
the local community

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the town of Mitarai on Osaki Shimojima Island (in what is currently Hiroshima Prefecture) flourished as a port town where ships could drop anchor and wait for favorable tides and winds. In 1994, this idyllic harbor town was designated a historical preservation site and more recently was selected to be part of the “Setouchi Sound Corridor” an aspect of the Japan Cultural Expo to be staged this fall.

Mitarai has been a port of call for the “SEA SPICA” high-speed sightseeing cruiser since its launch in the summer of 2020.

Here, we speak with Tom Miyagawa Coulton, a photographer and writer of Japanese and English heritage. Tom and his wife moved from Tokyo to Mitarai in 2015, and they are involved in local revitalization efforts. Based on his insight and cross-cultural experience, we asked Tom to take us around Mitarai and photograph the local scenery from the deck of the SEA SPICA while telling us about the charms of the area and his own activities.

Tom and his wife decided to make the move from Tokyo
after being captivated by Mitarai’s beautiful coastal
scenery and the warm welcome from the locals.

– What prompted you to relocate to Mitarai?

Tom: My wife and I both longed to live somewhere rural closer to nature. Ideally, near the sea but within easy reach of the mountains. To learn more about the possibilities of moving to the Japanese countryside, we visited the relocation support center (furusato kaiki shien center) in Tokyo. They introduced us to Mitarai on Osaki Shimojima Island, and we decided to take a look. The beautiful scenery took our breath away and the local residents were so welcoming and friendly. The island is famous for its citrus fruits and we were lucky to time our visit right in the middle of the harvest. The taste of the mikan oranges was out of this world. In the end, just five months after that first visit, we relocated from Tokyo to Mitarai in the spring of 2015 and we haven’t looked back since.

– What type of work do you do in Mitarai?

Tom: My main income comes from photography, writing and multilingual content creation projects. We have also renovated a former post office building and turned it into an English tea shop we open on weekends. It’s called The Tea Cosy and we sell fine tea we import directly from India and handmade English scones.

in front of “The Tea Cosy”

Joining the Mitarai Design Kobo and working together
with other young locals to revitalize the town

– How are you involved in efforts to revitalize Mitarai?

Tom: In 1994, Mitarai was designated as a national historical preservation district. At the same time, the town set up a preservation society dedicated to conserving and promoting the town. The Mitarai Design Kobo is an offshoot from the preservation society, set up by myself and eight other younger local residents in 2017. The aim of the group is to work on new and innovative ways to promote and create more awareness about Mitarai and its historical significance.

– What types of projects are you involved in?

Tom: Recently, we created Mitarai’s first audio guide. There were fewer and fewer actual guides who could explain the historical and cultural background of Mitarai and its buildings. Also, because of COVID-19, there was a need to create new approaches to tourism that minimized direct contact between people. So we came up with the audio guides. At the moment, the audio guides are only available in Japanese but we are planning to release an English version soon.

Mitarai Design Kobo member Mitsushi Matsuura, of the Shinko Clock Shop (right): “Perhaps because I was born and raised here, it’s sometimes hard to see what people find attractive about Mitarai and the surrounding area. I rely on Tom and others who have relocated here to help us see the town through fresh eyes.”

– What other initiatives are the group involved in?

Tom: We have created ema wooden prayer panels for people to hang in each of the three shrines in Mitarai. Also, one of the group helps to clean and maintain the family graves for people who find it difficult to visit Mitarai regularly.

Mitarai Design Kobo member Akira Inoue of the Wakacho Cafe (left): “In collaboration with Hiroshima Prefecture, we created a project to promote Mitarai as a relocation destination. As it turned out, Tom and his wife were the first people to relocate to Mitarai. With his outgoing personality and vivacity, he has become a key member of the community in no time at all. He participates in the festivals, the local fire brigade and always has a lot of enthusiasm and intuition.”

Enjoying the local lifestyle while continuing to support
other people who want to make the move to the islands.

– You seem to have really found a home in Mitarai. You also seem to get on well with the local residents.

Tom: From day one, everyone welcomed us with open arms. My wife was the official rural revitalization officer employed by the local government. Through her work, we got to know Atsuka Uegami of the “Sun Fruits OkiToMo” group – a local group of old ladies dedicated to producing specialty jams and marmalades. Atsuka makes wonderful preserves from the citrus varieties she grows in her fields. My wife helped her redesign and develop her marmalade product and it ended up winning the bronze prize at the annual Dalemain Marmalade Awards in the UK. Atsuka continues to create mouthwatering jams and preserves while training her apprentice to take over after her. We see Atsuka-san a lot and she’s almost like family.

Atsuka Uegami of Sun Fruits OkiToMo (left): “With Tom’s wife Mai’s help and support, I succeeded in winning the international award for my marmalade. Tom and Mai are enthusiastic and are very active in the community. We work together a lot and spend a lot of time together.

– Are there any local SDGs programs here to attract new residents like yourselves?

Tom: In 2020, myself along with 10 other newcomers to the Tobishima Kaido created a volunteer group called Tobishima Life. This group is dedicated to helping other people considering relocating to places along the Tobishima Kaido like Mitarai. Because we all moved to the area, we are well positioned to understand the needs and concerns of both potential newcomers and the local community.

New journeys making the most of Mitarai’s land and sea access

– COVID-19 damaged Japan’s tourist industry. What’s the situation here in Mitarai?

Tom: I think Mitarai has fared better than other regions. In fact, visitor numbers increased slightly during the pandemic. A lot of visitors were attracted by the natural environment and the refreshing sea air. Although Mitarai appears difficult to get to, the bridges and the sea routes in and around the Tobishima Kaido make Mitarai surprisingly well connected. If you travel by boat or ferry in the Setouchi, the views are really special. I was surprised seeing all the naval ships in dock when we entered Kure harbor. I don’t think you can get so close to naval vessels like that anywhere else in the world.

– How can overseas visitors make the most of their time in Mitarai once the pandemic ends and overseas tourists return to Japan?

Tom: Most people traveling to Hiroshima make a beeline for Miyajima Island and the Atomic Bomb Dome. However, Hiroshima has so much to offer besides those two destinations. I personally believe a trip to Mitarai is an ideal way for visitors to get a real sense of the region and learn about its rich history and culture. You’ll see terraced citrus groves covering the mountainsides and people going about their daily lives at a leisurely pace, quite different from the cities.
Mitarai and other communities of the Setouchi thrived during the Edo period when the majority of trade and transport used sea routes. Although most people visit Mitarai by car via the bridges linking the islands, I recommend people come with the SEA SPICA. They can experience approaching Mitarai in the same way as those seafarers of old.

Tom, his wife Mai, and his son Will.

Mitsushi Matsuura

Mitsushi Matsuura was born in Mitarai and lived there until the age of 15 before leaving for higher education and work. He returned to Mitarai in 2012 to become the fifth-generation owner of the Shinko Clock Shop – the family business with a history of more than 150 years selling and repairing antique and luxury watches. He is also a founding member of the Mitarai Design Kobo and created the Mitarai Shimbun - a community newsletter reporting local events. Mitsushi’s father Keiichi is famous throughout Japan as a master watch repairer.

Akira Inoue

Akira Inoue was born in Hiroshima City. After graduating from university, he worked on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Just prior to turning 30, he moved to Kure City, his wife’s hometown. He first visited Mitarai as a volunteer guide and fell in love with the town. As well as the scenery, he is particularly captivated by the town’s atmosphere. In 2011, he renovated Mitarai’s old Edo-period boathouse and opened Wakacho Cafe. Since then, he has launched a steady stream of new enterprises including a souvenir shop, guesthouse and other businesses. Akira heads his own company Yosoro LLC.

Atsuka Uegami

Born in Kubi village on Osaki Shimojima, Atsuka Uegami moved to Okitomo village on the south of the island after getting married. She started making jams for her family using her citrus fruits. Soon she joined forces with other enthusiastic jam makers to create the Sun Fruits OkiToMo group in 2000. Their efforts paid off in 2017, when one of her marmalades was chosen among the 2,000 entries for the bronze prize at the Dalemain Marmalade Awards in England. Atsuka’s products are available online, at Tom’s English tea shop “The Tea Cosy”, at other souvenir shops around the island, and the AVANCE Ekie department store at Hiroshima Station.

Photographing the area with Tom
Photogenic spots in Mitarai and from the deck of
the SEA SPICA

Click here for more information about SEA SPICA

ART GALLERY

Through the efforts of the Mitalai Gallery, Mitarai currently boasts a number of gallery spaces housed in renovated historical buildings.
These galleries will form the Mitarai Artwork program in the Japan Cultural Expo.

The Japan Cultural Expo in Mitarai ~ November 20-28, 2021

Click here for information on the “Setouchi Sound Corridor” of the Japan Cultural Expo (Japanese Only)

Exploring Mitarai sightseeing spots with Tom

Former Kaneko Family Residence
This delightful teahouse and elegant garden was erected in the late Edo period and its original walls and ceiling have been carefully preserved and restored. This teahouse will be used for the traditional tea ceremony during the Japan Cultural Expo.

Wakaebisuya
This building, once a famous geisha house is today a community center. Before the local festival, the festival team gathers here to practice their drumming routines. The local geisha known as “oiran” were highly respected members of the local community.

Otomeza Theater
Built as a playhouse in the early years of the Showa period (1926-89), this structure was converted into a movie theater after World War II. The tatami mats make this theater feel very distinct from other venues. People can rent this out for events and I have personally used it for speaking events and other occasions. This theater will host a guitar concert during the Japan Cultural Expo.

Tom’s recommendations for Mitarai cuisine and dishes

Seafront Dining Shintoyo (fresh seafood)
https://mitarai-shintoyo.co/ (Japanese Only)

Miharashi Shokudo (ramen noodles)
https://miharashi.localmade.jp/ (Japanese Only)

Wakacho Cafe
(lemon flavored sweet red bean soup)
https://yosoro.com/wakacho/ (Japanese Only)

GUEST HOUSE KUSUSHI
(snow cones – only served during the summer)
https://hatagoya-kusushi.com/ (Japanese Only)

The Tea Cosy (English scones)
https://theteacosy.theshop.jp/ (Japanese Only)

The Japan Cultural Expo in Mitarai ~ November 20-28, 2021

Click here for information on the “Setouchi Sound Corridor” of the Japan Cultural Expo (Japanese Only)

Tom Miyagawa Coulton

Tom Miyagawa Coulton was born in 1981 in Tokyo. Of English and Japanese parentage, Tom lived in Japan until the age of six, and then moved to England. After graduating from university and working at a Japanese company in London, he decided to pursue his dream of being a documentary photographer. Tom returned to Tokyo in 2009, and in 2015 relocated to Mitarai together with his wife Mai. They renovated the old post office building and opened an English teahouse, The Tea Cosy. Working as both a photographer and a writer, Tom’s involved in a wide range of initiatives aimed at revitalizing the community together with his wife Mai. He is the co-director of Island Pictures LLC, a company producing media content in Japan for an overseas audience. Among his published writings is Organic Americans, a collection of photographs and impressions compiled from visits to organic farms across the United States.

This coverage and photograph was conducted in thorough compliance with contagious disease prevention measures detailed in the “Basic Policy for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Control” issued by the Japanese Government.

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※All photographs are for illustrative purposes only

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