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Rural town has right stuff to attract cyclists

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Katsuhiro Saito, third from right, and Kanami Saito, fourth from right, check out the runway at Iwami Airport in Masuda, Shimane Prefecture, on July 1.

By Koichiro Tateyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMASUDA, Shimane — About 50 road bikers zipped through lush greenery alive with chirping skylarks in a rural part of Masuda, Shimane Prefecture.

On April 29, a cycling event was held starting at the mouth of the Takatsu River in the city. The river had been certified as having the clearest water in the nation.

Participants biked along a course of up to 120 kilometers, visiting various places such as the river’s source.

Efforts to promote the development of the area through bicycling events first began in 2011 thanks to the firm resolve of one woman, a Tokyo-based designer of knitwear originally from Masuda.

Kanami Saito, 58, is involved in product development at a knitwear company in Masuda founded by her grandmother. On visits to her hometown almost every month, she gradually became drawn to the idea of attracting more visitors to the city.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Bicycles were the first thing to come to her mind. She had heard more people were taking an interest in local cycle events as a way to stay healthy and remain in touch with the environment, so she decided to hold an event of this kind.

Seeking the advice of a specialist, she met with former professional road racer Akira Asada, 49, whom she met through a mutual acquaintance. Asada, now a road racing coach, agreed to Saito’s request that he cycle through the city.

She then enlisted Katsuhiro Saito, 48, chairman of local cycling enthusiast group Masuda cycling circle, to give Asada the city tour.

Asada was enthusiastic about Masuda after cycling on public roads with few traffic signals over gently undulating hills. “It’s great — I cycled 100 kilometers without a single traffic signal,” he said.

Asada’s words convinced locals that — relying on the unique character of the sparsely populated area — they could revitalize the city by creating the nation’s leading cycling course.

With revitalization now within their sights, a nonprofit organization promoting Masuda city, Masudashi Machiokoshi no Kai, was launched in January 2012 with Kanami Saito and Katsuhiro Saito as the main members.

That August, the organization held Masuda Inaka Ride, an event that took cyclists along the sea and river and over mountains.

Since 2014, the event’s course has incorporated a unique stretch — the runway at Iwami Airport. Taking advantage of the low traffic at the airport — only two flights a day link Iwami and Haneda airports at normal times — the organization obtained permission from the central and prefectural governments to use the airport for a cycling course.

Many cyclists have taken an interest in the event for the chance to get closer to local townspeople, and vice versa.

Mutsue Ishikawa volunteered to make vegetable tempura for race participants at a rest area. “I’m glad to hear them say they want to come back next year,” she said.

Participants, for their part, are keen to interact with locals. “An old woman working at a farm paused and waved her hand,” one said.

A total of 522 cyclists attended last year’s event — more than three times the 163 that showed up for the inaugural ride.

Meanwhile, the local government has also responded positively to the bicycling boom. The municipal government made a bid in March last year to host the camp for cyclists during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Plans also exist to build a locker room at Iwami Airport so that bicycle lovers can cycle onto the course right after stepping off the airplane.

But attracting large numbers requires getting the word out about the cycling course and fully preparing to receive visitors.

“I want everyone who comes here to think that they made the right choice. That’s why each and every one of us has to put our heads together to make this work,” Kanami said.

Events related to cycling have been increasing, including full-scale road races for young cyclists and training camps for high school students. But the city needs to do more to publicize itself across the nation.

Event organizers hope to see their hometown filled with people enthusiastic over the chance to cycle on Masuda’s rural roads.

Masuda, Shimane Pref.

Located on the western edge of the prefecture, the city borders Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures. It had a population of 47,670 at the end of May, a drop of 7,000 from November 2004 when it was formed through a merger of three municipalities — the former Masuda, Mito and Hikimi.

Iwami Airport in the city has two flights a day to Haneda Airport.

The city is said to be where renowned ink brush artist Sesshu, a Zen monk in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), spent his last days, and it contains two gardens created by the famed painter. However, many tourists tend to travel to Tsuwano and Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture via the airport. Promoting tourism has, therefore, been a challenge for Masuda.

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