The Zero-Waste Town of 100 per cent hospitality

A resident sorting her plastic waste.

A resident sorting her plastic waste.

THE bus driver gave me a confused look as I hovered at the door.

“You want to go where?” he asked.

I repeated my destination in an accent as Japanese as possible: “Zero Waste Academy.”

He furrowed his brows.

Taking a deep breath, I tried again: “Gomi suteshon — (literally, rubbish station.)”

His enlightened face was a relief. Smiling, he told me to take a seat while we waited for other passengers.

I was at a bus stop in Yokosenishi at the edge of Katsuura Town in the southeastern region of Tokushima Prefecture. It took me an hour and half to get here by bus from Tokushima City, and to continue on to my destination, I had to switch to a hop-on, hop-off bus service.

It might have sounded odd that my destination was the rubbish station but that was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit the rural town of Kamikatsu.

I had read about Kamikatsu years before I finally set foot there last autumn. I am sure most people would have read about it too. It is a small town with an ambition as lofty as its location deep in the mountains.

With a population of around 1,700, it aims to be zero waste by 2020.

It was another 30 minutes by bus into mountainous countryside before I alighted in front of Zero Waste Academy, the recycling facility in Kamikatsu.

In a previous online correspondence with the person-in-charge, I was told I could freely look around the facility but there would be no guide on a Sunday. I was also advised to stay out of the way if there were residents around in order not to be an inconvenience.

With that in mind, I entered through the gates. The austere wooden building stood quietly. There was no one in sight.

This was the place where waste got sorted into an incredible 34 categories. I gawked at the several bins and baskets located outside the building, all properly labelled with the types of items to put in. There were different categories for cans and bottles. In another section, there were baskets for different bottle caps.

Inside the building, there were more sections for waste separation.

Everything that could be recycled and things that I never thought possible for recycling were here. At the back of the building was a shop for reusable items where residents could leave or exchange things still in good condition.

Some residents arrived. Remembering not to be in the way, I stood aside while watching them taking out their trash and placing items into the various bins by category.

One lady, noticing my presence, gave me a smile and asked if I needed assistance. I told her I was just visiting and was really awed by the recycling effort of Kamikatsu. She laughed, saying it was something that they had gotten used to.

Leaving her to her sorting, I decided to exit the facility. It was nearly noon.

Locations within Kamikatsu were spread out. I realised it would be impossible to walk to the other destinations I had planned to visit, especially the picturesque rice terraces that earned Kamikatsu a spot among ‘The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan’.

Feeling dismayed and hungry, I pondered my next move. It would be sometime before the next bus arrived.

It was then I remembered passing Ikkyu Chaya, a farmers’ market and café. I decided to make a beeline for it, reaching in mere minutes on foot. I was greeted warmly by two female shop assistants.

The local produce on sale was much cheaper than in the city. Seasonal fruits and vegetables were in abundance, and so were Kamikatsu’s specialty products such as rice and Awabancha, a type of fermented tea.

The café was on the upper floor. It had huge windows, providing views of Lake Bishu of the nearby Masaki Dam. I ordered the set lunch and sat near the window with a spectacular view of the lake in the distance. The dishes, according to the waitress, were made from fresh seasonal vegetables.

In savouring the food and the scenery, I failed to notice the time. After I was done, I went downstairs to shop for persimmons and tea before heading to the bus stop nearby. I was all ready for the next part of exploring Kamikatsu.

Checking the schedule for the bus that would take me deeper into town and closer to the famed rice terraces, I was horrified to discover I had just missed the bus at 12.51pm by few minutes. To my further horror, there would be no bus until 5.50pm. All other bus services in between did not run on Sundays.

Resigned, I thought I should just call it a day and head back to the city. Looking at the Yokosenishi-bound schedule, I was in for another shock. There was also no bus service until 4.43pm!

I went back to Ikkyu Chaya. The younger employee Nakano-san confirmed the obvious. I was stranded for the afternoon. Calling for a taxi would be financially damaging, and even the shop assistants advised against the idea. Nakano-san was quite sympathetic with my situation, and told me I could wait at the seating area outside Ikkyu Chaya for the next bus out.

Within the next hour, I kept myself occupied with several purchases of drinks and snacks, and chatted to the occasional friendly customers. The temperature dipped even as the sun was still shining bright.

At 3pm, Nakano-san suddenly came to me, saying a regular customer would be heading back to Katsuura and he could drop me off at the Yokosenishi bus stop. She thought it would be a good idea as the weather was getting chilly.

Wary at first, but seeing how genuinely concerned both Nakano-san and the customer Matsushita-san were, I accepted the offer.

For the first time in my life, I hitched a ride with a total stranger with his credibility vouched for by another stranger.

The elderly Matsushita-san was curious why I was in Kamikatsu. During the 30-minute car ride, he spoke about the town and the local farmers’ products. He pointed out that infrequent bus services proved problematic for visitors and advised me to rent a car to go around town. I took mental note of that.

Soon, we reached Yokosenishi bus stop. Thanking Matsushita-san profusely for his kindness, I bade him goodbye.

A city-bound bus was already waiting. It would be a long journey back to Tokushima City, but I had my thoughts to keep me entertained.

Although my itinerary for the day did not go according to plan, things still turned out interesting.

I was not just sightseeing but I had experienced the true hospitality of rural Japan, where everybody seemed to know everybody, and where the locals would not hesitate in offering help to visitors.

I would certainly return to Kamikatsu someday to see where it is headed with its zero-waste effort and to visit the other sightseeing spots that I had missed.

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