Tucked away up in the mountains of Nara, a mere one-hour drive southeast of the Osaka metropolitan area, the small town of Yoshino is facing the same problems of abandonment and financial decline as many other rural areas in Japan. It’s a story that’s been repeated many times over the last 150 years or so: the younger generation leaves the countryside to seek a better life in the big city, leaving the burden of running the local businesses, farmland and workshops to their parents and grandparents. A town of approximately 10,000 people, Yoshino is a very popular tourist destination because of its proximity to Yoshinoyama, a mountain planted with thousands of cherry trees, offering one of the best cherry-blossom spectacles in Japan. In fact, its cherry trees were planted at different altitudes so that they would blossom gradually, allowing hikers to marvel at the blossoming trees for days as they climb its slope.
Meanwhile, last August, and some 8,600 kilometres to the west, Airbnb co-founder and CPO Joe Gebbia launched Samara, an internal design studio for the San Francisco-based hospitality brand that researches and experiments with new ways of how we as guests interact with the spaces that we visit. Samara’s first project was a wooden cottage designed in collaboration with Tokyo-based designer Go Hasegawa, which was revealed at Kenya Hara’s House Vision exhibition in Tokyo last summer. The cottage itself was made from cedar wood sourced from Yoshino, and was built by the town’s carpenters, in an attempt to show how new forms of travel and architecture can revitalise rural communities. After the exhibition, the cottage was permanently installed in Yoshino, where it is now a fully bookable Airnbnb property that is managed by the community. This way, travellers to Yoshino can choose to spend the night in an innovative new property that was made by and supports the locals in a very direct way. Hopefully Samara’s new initiative will travel to more countries, and use Airbnb’s vast network to benefit small communities like Yoshino’s.