As summer rolls in, and for once seems firmly here to stay, so our thoughts often turn to travel. And as with many of us on this ethical journey, this may the first time you’re wondering about the best ways to do so sustainably. When we arrive somewhere new it’s important to consider how we can engage as responsibly as possible; respecting traditions and cultural values whilst ensuring our dollar goes into the pockets of local economy, not some multinational that’s opened up shop next door. Having lived in London for seven years I definitely know the frustration of trying to find alternatives to overcrowded tourist attractions (or just taking other routes to try and avoid them all together), but seeking true authentic experience is often easier said than done when we don’t know the lay of the land.
I’m a big proponent of supporting small businesses and shopping local (it’s a big reason why I moved to a smaller town), but sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to do this when we’re in a foreign country. Luckily, new company Detouur is here to help you access genuine local culture. They connect the conscious and curious traveller with meaningful experiences that celebrate local traditions and communities, at the same time actually channeling investment into the right places.
Detouur began in Japan, growing out of the understanding that the best memories are often made when we wander away from the tourist hotspots and leave room for organic moments of connection to happen. We can often be blocked from these experiences by language or cultural barriers, so Detouur was founded in 2017 to bridge this gap, both increasing awareness of experiences that are off the beaten track and helping travellers enrich their stays in a sustainable way. There has also been a decline in traditional crafts and art forms in Japan in recent years, and Detouur also works to play a part in supporting these artisans, championing their knowledge and skill by preserving and promoting centuries-old arts, local spots, and communities.
Essentially with Detouur you can learn new skills, support the legacy of traditional crafts, and meet the real creatives of Japan. Their vision is to eventually expand this service globally, working as a platform through which you can authentically connect with local cultures, celebrating the right people and protecting myriad traditions across the world. Currently you can find experiences in Tokyo, Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto) or Rikuzentakata (a quiet coastal town that was relatively unknown before experiencing devastation after the 2011 tsunami. It’s currently still rebuilding, and Detouur offers a special experience of true Japanese countryside living through partnering with locals there to provide unique travel experiences). The options vary widely; from food and drink, dance, martial arts, samurai swords, music, and a host of crafts including weaving, natural dyeing, and kintsugi. There really are so many options, both showcasing how much there is to explore beyond what we’re easily given as tourists, and showing there really is something for everyone to enjoy in immersing ourselves properly in local culture.
How does it work?
Detouur use their expertise and local knowledge to find experiences taught by highly trained artisans and artists, many of whom have devoted their lives to their craft and are continuing on multi-generational family businesses. They make their selection based on the following:
Authenticitity: whether or not Japanese locals would themselves respect and be interested in what is offered.
Locality: Introducing you to experiences that could only be found in that particular place, meaning that workshops are taught in areas that are known for their expertise in that art form, helping you get to the roots and heritage of each experience.
Sustainability: Offsetting the negative effects of irresponsible tourism, which can damage local communities and infrastructures. Instead they funnel investment into the local economy, support artisans in the continuation of their practice, and maintain positive relationships with practitioners by listening to their needs to make sure that hosts are taken care for just as well as guests.
Hospitality: Working with hosts that are hospitable and welcoming; unphased by cultural barriers in their teaching of skills, and connecting with people regardless of nationality, background or skill level.
I’ve been somewhat connected to Detouur since they first started; their content director Jeweliann used to work further North for Megumi Project in Onagawa, and I stayed with her when I visited both this organisation and Nozomi Project in the neighbouring town of Ishinomaki (they’re two ethical fashion initiatives that I wholeheartedly love, FYI). Upon moving to Detouur Jeweliann told me to reach out whenever I came back to Japan, neither of us knowing I’d be back again in under twelve months with my dad. They offered me a free experience while I was in Tokyo and, after some serious deliberation, I chose Kintsugi, bought my dad an accompanying ticket and got ready for my authentic experience!
Many of you will have heard of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, as it has become increasingly popular in the zero waste and sustainability community. Developed in the 15th century, it gives second life to cracked pottery across Japan by repairing it to be easily used again, and perfectly symbolises the Japanese value of ‘wabi-sabi’, the acceptance of imperfection as part of beauty which has its origins in Buddhist philosophy. It’s symbolic in both highlighting the beauty that can come from brokenness through using gold in the repairs, and in producing pieces that are truly unique to their owners.
My entire experience with Detouur was incredibly easy. After booking online you receive a detailed itinerary via email, with the location of your workshop and travel details (very helpful when you go off the beaten track in Japan!), as well as recommendations for other local spots to check out in the area. We headed up to Suginami and, after a spot of vintage shopping nearby, found ourselves at Kuge Crafts, a small ceramic studio occupied by wonderful Yoshiichiro and Yoshiko Kuge, a married couple who have been teaching ceramics and kintsugi for over 30 years. We were treated to hot apple tea, slices of cake and various Japanese snacks to try whilst we chatted about their studio and ceramics experiences. Nearby a young Japanese student was hand building a small clay sculpture based on a wooden carving he had made, in the middle of the lesson a local woman came by to chat about whether her broken wooden bowl could be repaired with kintsugi, and at the end we toured the space next door where pieces could be glazed and kiln fired, examining in-progress pots that were ready to come to life in a few days. The small, cosy studio was alive with the real lives of the local community. The door was open, and laughter and conversation were never far away despite our language barriers.
After picking the piece of pottery we wanted to repair from a lovely selection (Yoshiko picks them up pre-chipped from local antique stores) we were guided through our Kintsugi class by Yoshiichiro. He delicately and clearly demonstrated each step before we copied (teaching craft doesn’t always require language after all) stopping intermittently to help us or further explain when needed. I didn’t realise how many steps it actually takes to do kintsugi correctly, each demonstrating the length of detail and care that the true art form requires, something which is often lost when westerners try to recreate the practice without having been taught by experts.
We left with our newly repaired pieces of pottery that evening. They’d be ready to use about two days after our repair, but they already carried the memories of fun, love and learning that could truly not be replicated elsewhere. On our way out we were given an equipment list written out in Japanese, we were able to take this into a craft store a few days later and pick up all the pieces for continuing on with our kintsugi journey. Yoshiichiro and Yoshiko were also enthusiastic about the idea that I should teach a class here in the UK, passing on the skills they’ve been honing and love to share, and teaching people the correct way to continue this Japanese tradition. Nothing I own here has chipped yet, so I don’t feel I quite have the experience or practice under my belt to start teaching myself, but now I have all the materials it’s something I plan to continue doing the right way. It truly was an experience I loved and will never forget. A time when I learned and connected like never before, and this was my fifth time in Japan! It just goes to show there is always more lying beneath the surface to discover, and some of the most enriching experiences in our lives often won’t be the ones you’re expecting.
If you’re passing through Japan anytime soon, I highly recommend you look up Detouur and book some experiences for yourself. In fact, I have a new dream where I just go to Japan and do them all over a few weeks!