Postcards from Japan: Revitalising Shikoku's rural areas through CrossFit, with Violet Pacileo

On the left: Violet, on the right: where CrossFit Otoyo Strength will be built

From the Japanese stock market to a rural town in the remote prefecture of Kochi, many things have changed in Violet Pacileo's life since last year - she is currently building a CrossFit retreat with her family and trying to revitalise her mother's hometown through this project! We had a chat about Violet's big move and why we all need to add Lonely Planet's favourite, Shikoku, to our future travel plans.


Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Hi, my name is Violet Pacileo, a British-Japanese, a wife to an American, a mother of three, living in the mountains of Otoyo, Kochi prefecture in Shikoku island. We moved here last year; my husband and children before the pandemic and I followed in August 2020. We are an international family, having lived in London UK, Portland OR, Los Angeles CA and most recently in Tokyo. I used to work in the Japanese stock market, and my husband was a medic and an executive protection contractor but we decided to move out here to live a more slow-paced lifestyle. When I moved here, I wanted to use my background to help revitalise this town. I typed out multiple business projections on my excel sheet for the various business ideas I had, and eventually settled on a small fitness retreat business in the mountains. I also work as a rural revitalisation consultant and host of NHK World’s Journeys in Japan TV show.

Otoyo

After a lot of networking locally and many hours spent in front of my computer, I was fortunate to win a COVID restructuring grant and I found a local Japanese female architect to work with. I like to emphasis the “female” here because the more rural you are, I have found that simple concepts such as gender equality are still little understood. I have always been passionate about gender equality; therefore, I try and play my part in making sure female professionals are chosen for their ability to perform a task rather than the default (common occurrence in the countryside) of seeking out a man to do a job. Japanese society, especially in these rural areas, still has a massive bias towards what women’s role should be in society. It’s not uncommon for me to be greeted with a surprised look and a kind word of advice from a man in the meeting about whether it is acceptable for a mother to have a job like mine. 

CrossFit Otoyo Strength's grounds

CrossFit Otoyo Strength is scheduled to open in June 2022 but I am running fitness tours and CrossFit classes for those who are willing to train outdoors until we fully open next year. The facility will be a scenic riverside mountain venue with 240sqm warehouse, separate changing rooms, BBQ space, tiny house accommodation overlooking the river and rice paddies, and fire pit. We’ll have sport e-bike rentals, SUP rentals and we plan to partner with local water sports companies for adventure sports in the town. Hunting for wild boars and deer is common here too and visitors will be able to order BBQ plates from a local hunter. 

Oboke Canyon

What drew you to the Japanese countryside? How did you find it?

Although I have never lived outside of the Tokyo region during my life in Japan, my Japanese mother grew up in Otoyo town in Kochi prefecture. We used to visit this area quite frequently to see my grandparents when they were still alive. My mother eventually came back here to look after her aging parents, as is customary in Japan, and she ended up inheriting the family land. I say “land” but with the demographic shift happening in Japan, rural areas are becoming more depressed and mountain land has little to no monetary value nowadays. Her wish was for her children to forfeit the land after she died but I felt somewhat responsible to make use of the land while she was still here to see it and at the same time help revitalise this town.

 Violet presenting to locals

I worked in the stock market for over 15 years, looking at and analysing the Japanese economy and industries all throughout my career. But unless you come and live in a place like this, you don’t realise how much trouble Japan is in. When you have young talent moving out of rural areas to big cities, who are then left to oversee these towns and businesses? Living in a big city, you become far removed from these pressing issues. It's going unnoticed and eventually the country is going to end up facing huge problems down the line. Yes, media loves talking about those high-end rural revitalisation success stories - like Hakuba and Karuizawa - but what about the ones that are getting left behind. There is a reason why these towns are distressed. I know that I alone am not going to change the economic devastation but I want to bring about change to this small region at least. 

Family hiking in Otoyo

The world is seeing a demographic shift where aging population and low birth rates are now prevalent in all the developed countries. Japan is leading the pack, and Otoyo is leading this trend which makes us THE global leader in this shift. I want to create a "best case scenario" that other countries can use on ways to create a sustainable community even in times of rapid population decline. We went from having 20,000 people here in the 1970’s to just over 3,000 in 2020. Population forecast here in 20 years times is expected to be 825. It’s frightening. Unless something is done, this town will not have enough tax revenue to sustain its dwindling community.

What inspired you to build a CrossFit retreat on Shikoku?

First and foremost, I love CrossFit. I like the community. I like to keep fit and healthy. I want to live a long and healthy life. I hope for the same for my family. My husband also likes to keep fit, and his various past professions kept him physically strong throughout his life. We have three active children. My business idea came about because I wanted my next career to be a family business. I looked at whiskey distillery and craft brewery, both of which were my hobbies during my life in the city, but after moving to the countryside, I wanted to get away from my bad lifestyle choices. Having an alcohol related business felt like I would be sending my body to an early grave. Separately, this town of Otoyo is known for water sports. Yoshino river, famous for white water rafting, kayaking, canoeing, SUP and canyoning, runs straight through our town, where it hosted the World Rafting Championships a few years ago before the pandemic. The Japan rafting team trains here all year around as well.

Elderly in a CrossFit class

The world famous Iya Valley and Oboke canyon in Tokushima is only a 20 minute drive from us so a small fitness retreat was a no brainer. Also CrossFit industry is still in its infancy in Japan, the first facility opening in 2008 and in 2020 there were only 40 facilities across all of Japan. I think after the pandemic, people will be shying away from city holidays to more active countryside getaways. We are located in a perfect spot for that. And the best part of this will be that tourists coming here will be using their holiday money wisely on sustaining the community. Everyone wins. There are limitations, however, to my CrossFit project. Otoyo is a marginalised town meaning you won’t see your usual city comforts here. There are no bars, no restaurants, no cafes. It’s going to take many years to build a small community around my CrossFit facility but my 5-year vision is to have a tourist friendly hamlet with shops and cafes as well as a larger accommodation for an athlete training camp, all in short walking distance.

On the left: kayak, on the right: Yoshino River from above

What’s your favourite spot to visit on Shikoku and why?

I am perhaps biased because I want to promote my town. Having said this, Shikoku has been voted as the best place to visit to experience the real rural Japanese countryside. Many places still have the charm of post war Nippon. Otoyo, for example has Burakuji Temple, a Japanese national treasure, built in 724. Unlike other national treasure temples in Kyoto and across the rest of Japan, this one here is open to visitors and you can get a free inside tour by the kind priest there if you call in advance. Otoyo is a mountain town so places like Yutorisuto Park and Kajigamori lookout are great spots to visit to see the panoramic views, sea of clouds early morning or gaze up at the stars at night. We have many hidden hiking trails off the beaten track, which are not even on google maps. If you want to get away from the pollution, and crowds, this is a perfect place to visit.

Yuzu season

We are also one of the top Yuzu producing towns in Japan and during harvest season in late Oct-Nov, you’ll see farmers driving their trucks full of yellow Yuzu citrus all around town. Segake festival is held every summer during the August obon season where they light a 10 meter high bamboo boat with lanterns to send off suffering spirits. This particular custom is rare and is said to be only practiced in our town. Water sport season is from April to November so if you love adventure sports, warmer season is great to jump into the pristine river. The water here is so clear, you can see the bottom of the river which is rare. Lastly, Otoyo is located bang in the middle of Shikoku, which means we are only an hour drive from centre of all four prefectures. Otoyo is a great base if you want to see the whole island. 

Yutorisuto Park

Do you have any advice for people who want to explore rural Japan?

Many rural towns lack the resources to properly promote things to do and things to see. If you google places to go to in English, the results will be a list of those towns that are already famous to international visitors. I think if you are the type of person who wants to see and experience the real Japan, you have to be willing to go deeper and stay in rural areas. Our CrossFit Otoyo Strength will be a perfect place to stay if you are in search of an active holiday while experiencing the traditional Japanese countryside.  

Make sure to check out Otoyo Strength's website and Violet's Rural Revitalisation Consulting. You can see what she's been up to on Instagram, or see how CrossFit Otoyo Strength is coming along. 

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