There sometimes seems to be a certain cynicism about tour companies’ involvement in charity. The news that a tiny proportion of your payment will go towards funding a school, or preserving an endangered creature, can seem little more than an incentive to make that final click on the button marked “book now”. Self-indulgence suddenly feels like benevolence. But some companies genuinely recognise a debt to the communities and environments in which they work, and without which they would have no business. So they either consciously plan development and conservation projects, or simply become absorbed into their communities in an almost accidental way, through a sort of osmotic sympathy. One example is Hong Kong-based Walk Japan, whose two-legged tours through the Japanese countryside may have come to a temporary halt but whose Community Project continues to follow the rhythm of the seasons. While elsewhere charitable work may have been the first victim of the pandemic-driven collapse in custom, here Covid-19 has unexpectedly brought extra support. Walk Japan’s investment in the Japanese countryside didn’t arise out of any business model, says former tour guide and now company CEO Paul Christie. “The reason it happened is that I wanted to live on the land, build my own house, grow vegetables and have a quiet life. But it didn’t work out that way because Walk Japan expanded rapidly. So what started out as a lifestyle choice for me morphed into being the Community Project.” Hong Kong travellers on their nightmares after quarantine rule change Christie had observed that the big cities’ bright lights, employment opportunities and an anonymity unobtainable in small countryside communities had drained rural Japan of its younger people. Around his own plot, sections of farmland were going unworked, farmhouses becoming abandoned and in the villages, schools were closing through a lack of pupils. So the company established its Japan base in the same northern Kyushu village as Christie’s home. It began taking over the management of land whose owners could no longer cultivate it, as well as acquiring plots and encouraging existing tenants to continue to work them, or bringing those that had been abandoned back to life. Using some of the profits from the business side, Walk Japan renovated farmhouses as offices, guest houses and accommodation for the young staff it attracted from the cities, some of whose children helped to keep local schools open. “Here, we’re allowing farmers to retire,” Christie says. “We’re allowing people who don’t know what to do with their land to sell it to somebody. Nobody else wants it.” The company is now farming rice, shiitake mushrooms and organic vegetables, as well as managing small forests and even planting new ones. “But farming doesn’t pay,” Christie says. Is there no direct benefit to Walk Japan’s bottom line? “There are some customers who perhaps appreciate the company for the fact that it has this commitment to a certain area of Japan, and perhaps that makes them lean more toward buying a tour,” he speculates. “But it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that some of the people who want to work for us do so because we have this project.” It’s nothing compared to what a tour can bring in, but it’s a sign that the Community Project might become more self-sustaining, and be here for the long-term Paul Christie, CEO, Walk Japan Where the company’s walks pass through the area, they include a chance to sit down in a farmhouse for tea and snacks with local people, who are happy to talk about lives spent working the land. There’s a casual, unplanned authenticity about these encounters that makes them a highlight for some walkers, and that matches the almost accidental air of the project as a whole. A documentary by Japanese television station NHK about the company and its community work four years ago did bring in a number of enquiries and profitable business connections, including involvement with Japanese airline ANA, which wanted to take Japanese people to try the local food and traditional onsen (hot spring bathing) to which Walk Japan was already introducing foreign visitors. Inevitably, the Covid-19 crisis has scaled back community activity, but the lockdown has also increased local interest and involvement in what the Japanese countryside is in danger of losing. Another recent documentary featured Walk Japan’s countryside work and was broadcast domestically several times. As a result the phone began to ring. “Locals here saw that and I think it brought home to them quite what we were doing, so they said, ‘We’ll help out. We’ll do this and we’ll do that,’” Christie says. “One older lady is quite entrepreneurial, so she’s been selling vegetables and the like that we’ve been growing, and earning income for us. “It’s nothing compared to what a tour can bring in, but it’s a sign that the Community Project might become more self-sustaining, and be here for the long-term.” From Taipei to Paris for love and marriage: three women’s journey Now Walk Japan’s 30th anniversary in 2022 will be marked by an 80 per cent expansion in the project’s paddy fields and the acquisition of an abandoned cedar plantation for conversion to a biodiverse area of native trees. That Japanese and foreigners resident in Japan have been showing up to volunteer during the Covid-19 slowdown has “given me optimism for the future”, Christie says.