Tours that explore all life's possibilities

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Far from crowded scenic spots and bustling metropolises, Li Shengbo commonly uses Tsuwano-a little-known town in the southeast of Honshu, Japan's main island-as a tourist destination for his Chinese clients.

In 2016, Li was so impressed by the Japanese movie Little Forest that he quit his job at an internet company and couch surfed in Japan for three months.

He was touched by the scenes of rural life in the movie, in which a young woman leaves fast-paced Tokyo and returns to her hometown to live a self-sufficient life, sowing seeds and growing her own food.

When he returned to China in 2017, Li started his business with the intention of sharing similar experiences.

Unlike traditional tourist trips, in which people hastily take photos to impress friends on social media, the 31-year-old's tours are intended to provide cultural exchanges and nurture emotional bonds between visitors and Tsuwano's residents.

Featuring rural life and Japanese traditions, the tours offer a close look at the lives of the 7,500 local people, including an elderly ceramics artist, who advises the (mainly) young visitors that, "The idea is not to work hard to earn much more money for a better life, but to make the most of the money available to live life better."

The visitors also have the opportunity to talk with a group of new immigrants who have settled in the area to explore their love of country life or to revitalize Tsuwano, which has an aging population and lacks young people as a result of urbanization.

The newcomers have brought a fresh look to the town: a woman who was once an intern at the United Nations slaughters wild boars and sells the meat to Tokyo's top restaurants; a man who studied overseas works on educational innovation at the local high school; and a former computer programmer from Osaka has devoted 12 years to saving an abandoned school building by developing it as a library and attracting locals and tourists.

Li's initial visit to Japan was not the first time he had pulled himself out of a daily routine. In his third year at university in Beijing, he took a gap year and traveled around China alone. From February to December 2011, the junior student hitchhiked around the country, using more than 200 free rides to tour 18 provinces.

At the time, he was frustrated after a disappointing result in the gaokao, the national college entrance examination, and his life at college, which fell short of expectations.

When he saw how many of his peers wasted their time sleeping in and playing computer games, he was confused about how to live a better life and eager to find a way out.

The temporary derailment from his normal path benefited him a lot. Now, when people ask how he can firmly believe in what he is doing, Li says he owes his confidence to his gap year.

Inspired by his odyssey, Li has named his brand "Gap Trip", and lays great emphasis on stopping for a while to create enough time for self-reflection.

"People are often too busy to remember what they are busy for in life," he said.

Most people on his trips are young urbanites who are tired of their jobs, monotonous lives or tepid relationships, but either have no idea how to make a change or lack the courage to do so.

Since China and Japan face similar social problems, such as slowing economic growth, rapidly aging populations, falling marriage rates and greater urbanization, Tsuwano can provide young Chinese with a reference point on how to make good life choices, Li said.

In the short, well-designed trips visitors get a chance to take their own "mini gap year". Excluding visa fees and airfare, each visitor pays 12,500 yuan ($1,763) for a six-day stay in the small town, which is not cheap even for a trip overseas.

The tour group is usually small, about 10 people, to ensure in-depth exchanges between the locals and visitors and also between the travelers themselves.

The tours have promoted folk exchanges between China and Japan, with a group of Tsuwano residents paying a visit to China in 2018.

"Unlike simple worldly success, it is important to explore more possibilities in life as well as the topic of how to live a better life," Li said.

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