A once-thriving, desolate-looking "onsen" hot spring town in eastern Japan is undergoing a transformation through a project that could work as a promising model for enlivening fellow struggling resorts across the country.

Students of the Graduate School of the University of Tokyo are at the center of the project that aims to restore Minakami Onsen to its past glory as a tourism hot spot in collaboration with the local authorities and private companies.

The mountainous Gunma Prefecture town is located around two hours by car or train from Tokyo and known as a base for such outdoor activities as climbing, trekking, skiing and rafting.

Photo taken on Oct. 9, 2023, shows the defunct Ichiyotei Hotel (background), which is undergoing renovation work, and a model of the new proposal for the building in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. (Kyodo)

But the town's main hot spring district is scattered with derelict buildings and its view often perplexes visitors. It is indeed a view typically seen in many of Japanese resorts that had thrived with the rush of the hotel and inn construction during the country's high economic growth periods in the 1960s and 1970s.

The project team is aiming to bring those disused buildings back from the brink, freeing them from years of decay that encroached in the wake of the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.

Its current work has centered on refurbishing the defunct Ichiyotei Hotel, which once was one of the biggest facilities in the town. The seven-story, multi-winged building with two basement floors had a maximum capacity for housing 650 visitors.

The goal is to make the most of the facility as a tourism resource for up-to-date needs and, most importantly, to help revitalize the local community in its entirety.

Hana Hasegawa (2nd from R) and other students from the Graduate School of the University of Tokyo  working on the renovation of the Minakami Onsen resort in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, pose for photos on Oct. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

At an event held in the hot spring resort in October, photos and vignettes from the town's heyday were displayed, allowing visitors to reminisce about the good times while commiserating about its decline.

Some spoke about geisha whom they recognized in photos or when they were able to enter onsens free of charge as "a familiar face."

Takahiro Kawano, 51, who came to the event, said, "I am happy they are turning old buildings into places where people can interact." The two-day event exceeded expectations by drawing a total of 3,000 people.

Minakami Onsen developed rapidly as a tourist destination after the Joetsu railway line was fully opened in 1931, making access easier from Tokyo and its vicinity as well as the Niigata area.

And the postwar period of economic growth saw the construction of new hotels and inns or an expansion of existing facilities, largely targeting group travelers.

Supplied photo shows a festival being held at the Minakami Onsen resort in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, around 1986. (Photo courtesy of Minakami town)(Kyodo)

However, after the bursting of the economic bubble, the tourism industry of the town failed to shift its focus to attracting individual travelers, and the number of overnight stays there dropped from around 1.74 million in 1989 to about half that in 2005. By 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the figure had fallen to roughly 410,000.

Witnessing the town's slow decline as nature began to reclaim buildings and the population reduced, a group of individuals banded together to create the "Onsen Resort Revitalization Project."

The initiative went on to become a cooperative agreement signed in 2021 by the Minakami municipal government, the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Engineering, Gunma Bank and real estate firm Open House Group.

In their work to refurbish the Ichiyotei Hotel, its building was partially demolished and reduced in size to allow for an unobstructed and improved view of the adjacent Tone River.

An event promoting the revitalization of the Minakami Onsen resort in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, is held on Oct. 9, 2023, at what used to be a dormitory for employees of the closed-down Ichiyotei Hotel there. (Kyodo)

Ichiyotei's former company dormitory had been swallowed by the vegetation and its demolition was considered. But students involved in the project were inspired by its unique design, saying that it is a structure that is "not often found nowadays" and decided it is too valuable to lose.

The revitalization plan of Ichiyotei -- dubbed "From Ruins to Town Square" -- calls for the former employee space to be used for residents, featuring a road extension and plaza, based on an architectural model conceived by the students.

As part of the project, the collaborators are aiming to open a tourism center at Ichiyotei in 2026. The town intends to publicly solicit business operators for part of the building and explore the best uses for it in the coming years.

A student (R) from the Graduate School of the University of Tokyo explains renovation work on the Minakami Onsen, a resort in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, during an exhibition there on Oct. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

Hana Hasegawa, 24, a second-year graduate student at the University of Tokyo, travels to Minakami once or twice a month to hear local opinions. She often interacts with area residents by participating in the early morning warm-up calisthenics accompanied by popular Japanese music.

"The water is good, and skiing and rafting are also popular," Hasegawa said. "We want to convey the charm of the area and increase the number of visitors to this hot spring resort."

Takao Ishizaka, 50, head of the town's planning division, welcomes the students' initiatives.

"We get ideas that the government doesn't have, and the local people love it," he said.

Related coverage:

FEATURE: Married manga artists tell story about life with disability

FEATURE: French artisan's bright idea keeps passion for Suifu lanterns burning

FEATURE: "Dreamnight" program enables disabled kids to enjoy zoo visits