An historic agreement to twin two ancient castles – one in North Wales and the other in Japan – will help attract more visitors from the Land of the Rising Sun and boost the economy.
The arrangement to partner Conwy Castle and Himeji Castle, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating back to the 13th century, is believed to be the first of its kind for the UK.
The Mayor of Himeji, Hideyasu Kiyomoto , travelled to Conwy yesterday (Thursday, November 7), as part of a return two-day visit after the formal signing ceremony in Himeji last week in the shadow of the castle that provided the backdrop for scenes from the 1967 James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, in Sean Connery’s fifth outing as 007.
Following a tour of Conwy Castle, Mr Kiyomoto was being taken to see the Smallest House in Britain on the quayside before attending a civic reception at the town’s Guildhall where he was entertained by singing schoolchildren from Ysgol Porth y Felin and Conwy Jester Erwd Le Fol.
Accompanying Mr Kiyomoto as part of the high-powered delegation were Himeji City Council chairman Masato Ayama, Kaneaki Okada, executive director of the Himeji Cultural and International Exchange Foundation, and Eisaku Yanagita, the city’s director of Tourism and Culture.
Mr Kiyomoto said: “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship and I am going to tell all of the citizens of Himeji what a beautiful place Wales is, and about its proud history.
“After I go back I am going to explain what a fantastic castle you have here in Conwy and then many tourists from Japan will get to know that Wales is a such a nice and great country. I love it here.
“Japanese people love their history and want to know much more about Wales.”
The initiative has the backing of the Welsh Government and the ceremony in Himeji coincided with Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup.
The twinning came about after North Wales Tourism, which represents more than 1,500 members, forged close links with the Japanese Association of Travel Agents to promote the region.
As a result there has been an 84 per cent increase in the number of Japanese visitors, with 4,400 of them coming via travel agencies that have not previously had North Wales on their itineraries,
It’s estimated the additional Japanese visitors have spent more than £4.4 million between them during their time here.
One of the reasons for the boom has been the creation of a new tourism route, the Road of Castles in Wonderland, which takes in many of North Wales’ main attractions and was designed with Japanese holidaymakers in mind.
According to Jim Jones, the managing director of North Wales Tourism, the new bond that’s been created with the twinning of the castles will attract even more Japanese visitors to the region.
Mr Jones said: “I believe we can make Conwy and North Wales one of the most recognised visitor destinations in the UK for the Japanese market.
“The twinning agreement is complete and the work starts now in terms of maximising the opportunities and making the best use of our relationships to raise the profile of Conwy and North Wales in Japan and especially in Himeji, establishing links with community groups and schools.
“There are a huge abundance of opportunities waiting to be discovered. This visit enabled our visitors to see Conwy and meet local people and businesses as well as get a feel for the communities they are going to be working with for the foreseeable future.
“What we have done is very unique and obviously the legacy of the twinning will continue and work will start in earnest. It’s an exciting time for both Conwy and Himeji.
“We provided a very warm welcome to show everybody exactly what Conwy is all about including the people and the businesses which make it special.”
Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas, the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, said:
“ I’m delighted that we can welcome the delegation from Himeji back to Wales following the official twinning ceremony in Himeji last month.
“The twinning of such great castles is an excellent way celebrate our differences and deepen our cultural understanding.
“This twinning will further reinforce our friendship as well as enhance business, tourism and cultural opportunities between our two countries – and will also be an opportunity to repay the welcome and interest shown in Wales by our Japanese friends during the Rugby World Cup.”
Cllr Goronwy Edwards, Mayor of Conwy, added: “I was very honoured and privileged to be in a position as Mayor to go out and be part of the twinning ceremony. They made us feel extremely welcome.
“It was a very high profile event attended by representatives from high levels of the Japanese government. Himeji is a city of some 600,000 people and it was a privilege to witness how well they organised the ceremony – they had really gone to town with the arrangements.
“We visited two schools while we were there which had excellent facilities. Education is very much a priority in Japan and they are keen on expanding their knowledge of our culture and educational opportunities as we are theirs and we will continue to build on that relationship.”
Also there was former Conwy mayor, Cllr Bill Chapman, who said: “This latest visit to Conwy is a celebration of the twinning of the two castles and cements our burgeoning relationship.
“This partnership will give people access to a completely different culture to their own but we also believe it will contribute to increasing tourism in both directions. In fact, it is already as there is a continued growth of visitors from Japan, specifically from the Himeji area.
“It is a very special and unique agreement and I do not know of anything like it in the UK. The castles are very different. Himeji’s castle has been built up over the years and lived in in recent centuries while Conwy has not but both castles have their own charm.
“This project has taken a long time to put together but it has been a remarkable success. Our ties are going from strength to strength.
“In the long-term, we want to see organisations in both areas working together including schools and the voluntary sector and so on.”
Remarkably, work on constructing the castles commenced within 50 years of each other. The Norman king, Edward I, made a start on Conwy Castle in 1283 and the construction of Himeji Castle began in 1333.