By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterFUKUOKA — “Olle” means a narrow path leading home in the dialect of Jeju, South Korea. But it also refers to a new style of hiking developed on Jeju island to encourage visitors to interact with nature, history and locals. The Kyushu region has imported the concept — and its very own olle are proving a hit with visitors from South Korea.
The Kyushu Olle consists of 19 courses, including two new paths that debuted in mid-February — the Izumi Course in Kagoshima Prefecture and the Miyama-Kiyomizuyama Course in Fukuoka Prefecture.
The Miyama Course includes visits to Zoyama, a historical site believed to be linked to the legendary Queen Himiko of ancient Japan, and Kiyomizudera temple, said to have been opened by Saicho (767-822), the founder of the Tendai Buddhist sect. About 600 people, including a number of South Koreans from tourism agencies and media outlets, taking part in the trek on the latest course when it opened on Feb. 19.
“Olle, which provide the charm of slow-paced trips but also have a narrative, are changing tourism,” said Seo Myung Sook, the president of the Jeju Olle Foundation, during the opening ceremony for the 19th Kyushu course. “[Our own program has shown that] even lesser-known tourist spots have a chance.”
Seo, a Jeju native and pioneering female journalist on politics in South Korea, developed her career mainly working for weekly magazines. She started the olle program on her home island a decade ago, having been inspired by the pilgrimage route for Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Olle hikes encourage people to walk on unpaved paths at their own pace. They visit not only tourist spots, but also places where they can glimpse local history and people’s lives.
The olle hiking style has proved a big hit on Jeju, a resort island that had been suffering from sluggish business. Its olle program has a sophisticated image thanks to the introduction of standardized designs for signposts and commercial goods. In turn, this has inspired a number of cafes and guesthouses to open. Tourists can also hike alone using the signs and maps. About 2 million people each year trek on the 26 courses, which form a loop around Jeju.
Kyushu Olle was developed in 2012 by the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization as a sister of Jeju’s. The aim was to attract South Korean tourists, whose number had been decreasing following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The organization signed a tie-up with the Jeju Olle Foundation in the summer of 2011 before starting its own four courses.
Relevant municipalities worked with locals to devise the courses. They researched old community roads and other areas before getting approval from the Jeju foundation to become an official course. Most trails run for about 10 kilometers and take four to five hours to finish.
“Kyushu is blessed with magnificent nature and onsen hot spring resorts that blend right into locals’ lives,” said Lee Yumi, a Seoul native who was involved in developing the Kyushu Olle program as an assistant manager at the Kyushu tourism organization. “Trekkers can come across the ‘real Japan’ on the courses, while also discovering residents’ affection for their area.”
In Kyushu, the number of olle hikers from South Korea rose to about 140,000 as of the end of fiscal 2015 — far greater than the about 80,000 Japanese participants. Although fewer South Koreans visited last year due to the Kumamoto Earthquake in April, their numbers are returning to levels seen in previous years. The organization has also received inquiries from municipalities outside Kyushu.
As part of its promotion drive, the tourism organization invited South Korean bloggers in November to stroll along the Beppu Course in Oita Prefecture and the Munakata-Oshima Course in Fukuoka Prefecture.
The Beppu Course, set on the outskirts of the famous hot spring resort, offers views of Lake Shidaka and Yufudake mountain, and trekkers can walk along a valley. The Oshima Course — set on Oshima island, part of the city of Munakata — takes in a spot where people can view Okinoshima, a sacred island dubbed the “Shoso-in on the sea” after the repository in Nara that dates back to the early eighth century.
The bloggers were moved by the magnificent views and the undulating Oshima Course.
“Along the Beppu Course, I was wowed by the majestic landscape of the mountain reflected on the lake,” said participant Jeon Eun Mi.
Yukako Irie, a special contract associate professor at Takasaki University of Commerce Junior College, said the olle program has an advantage over walking and hiking events because participants can stroll more slowly and even drop off a course without completing it.
“A broad range of people can enjoy olle, which also help vitalize local communities,” said Irie, who is also a health tourism expert. “I hope more Japanese people will learn about it.”
For details on Kyushu Olle, call (092) 751-2946.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d