Conwy’s iconic castle has undergone the first stage of an historic twinning link with the ancient Himeji Castle in Japan which featured in the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice.
The mayors of the two communities have signed an agreement in the form of an illuminated manuscript as part of an initiative which is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.
The Mayor of Himeji, Toshikatsu Iwami, and Conwy Mayor Samantha Cotton pledged to strengthen cultural and educational ties and promote tourism focused around the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
They put their signatures side by side on a Memorandum of Understanding in which they agreed to build and maintain a close friendship between the two destinations.
The signing took place at Conwy’s Guildhall and earlier in the day the Mayor of Himeji was taken on a guided tour of the town’s castle.
Cllr Cotton said it was an honour to welcome her counterpart and that the agreement would buttress an already strong, long-standing relationship between North Wales and Japan and promote new business opportunities in both regions.
In a second stage, finalising the twinning project, a Co-operation Agreement will be sealed in Himeji City next year when a North Wales delegation hopes to visit Japan as it hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Cllr Cotton said: “The twinning arrangement between these historic castles is a momentous achievement which we envisage will reinforce our friendship, enhance business opportunities and inspire both communities to engage in far-reaching shared cultural initiatives.”
Mayor Toshikatsu Iwami agreed it was a significant step forward. He said: “This is an important opportunity for younger generations to learn more about each other’s history and heritage, and to forge important links between our two communities long into the future.”
The of Conwy was bedecked with Japanese and Welsh flags for the special visit.
Mayor Toshikatsu Iwami and tourism representatives from Himeji City attended a civic reception at Conwy Guildhall. They were entertained by a musical performance by pupils of Ysgol Porth y Felin, and Mayor Toshikatsu Iwami was presented with a gift of photograph of Conwy and the Castle.
During a four day visit to North Wales the delegation from Japan has been touring the region’s tourist attractions, visiting a school, sampling traditional Welsh cuisine and tomorrow (Saturday, July 7) will be attending the Proclamation parade for the National Eisteddfod to be held in Llanwrst from August 2-10, 2019 and visiting Trefriw Woollen Mill in the Conwy Valley, where they will meet talented Welsh weaver, Gethin Ceidiog Hughes, who was commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales to create a commemorative tapestry representing the links between Conwy and Himeji.
Among the welcoming party for the Mayor of Himeji was Jim Jones, managing director of North Wales Tourism who has been instrumental in bringing the twinning agreement to fruition.
He has visited Himeji Castle which he described as one of the most breathtaking monuments in the world.
He said the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, backed by the Welsh Government, was of immense importance.
He said: “A lot of hard work and planning on both sides has gone into forging this arrangement and we are delighted with the way it has gone.
“The positive reception given by the community of Conwy to the Himeji Mayor and his party has been unanimous, with businesses and leisure groups throughout the area all keen to play their part.
“The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding is the start of something exceptional and we are all galvanised by the amount of enthusiasm shown for the project.”
Although twinning arrangements between international towns and cities are commonplace, it is unusual for such an arrangement to be forged between two castles. Mr Jones believes this to be the first in the UK.
He said: “There is great potential for local businesses, retailers and the hospitality sector throughout North Wales to benefit from this and, in a reciprocal process for the Himeji community to see more visitors arriving in their city from North Wales.”
It has been achieved because North Wales Tourism has forged close links with the Japanese tourism industry, greatly helped by Nakajima Takeharu, a Welsh Government representative in Japan, and a member of the Japanese delegation.
Nakajima Takeharu said: “The twinning project is one which we have been working on for a long time. It is a real cause for celebration by both communities.
“We believe this to be a most symbolic event. What is so remarkable is that both these castles were built as fortresses at a time when there were many wars. But today they have become iconic symbols of peace and friendship. Their twinning sets a great example for similar harmonious relationships to be achieved around the world.
“It is also a way for cultures from opposite corners of the world to celebrate their differences. Working in tourism I have come to see how people like to explore cultures and destinations different to their own and to find the threads that bind them. Our two castles are representatives of that fact. They are vastly different visually, but have a number of key similarities.”
Tourism Minister, Lord Elis-Thomas said: “The increased profile for Conwy and north Wales in Japan in recent years has been an excellent platform for us to promote Wales in a relatively untapped market and to spread the word on what we have to offer the Japanese market.
“The industry in North Wales has embraced the opportunity to attract more visitors from the market and the signing of the MOU is another step forward in developing these links even further.”
Work on constructing them both began 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.
Himeji Castle is a stunning five-storey wooden building. It is familiar to many cinema goers, having provided the backdrop for scenes in the 1967 James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice.
It attracts nearly three million visitors annually, all greeted by men dressed in traditional Samurai costumes. Last year it was named Japan’s top-ranked castle for the second consecutive year by TripAdvisor.
The medieval Conwy Castle, with its eight massive stone towers, is said to be a perfect example of a concentric design where the inner wall is higher than the outer and can be defended from it. It attracted more than 217,000 visitors last year, with many coming from Japan.
The twinning move is especially significant as it coincides with the creation of a new tourism route, the Road of Castles in Wonderland, which takes in many North Wales attractions. The route was created with Japanese holidaymakers in mind after a campaign to boost tourism numbers from the far eastern nation resulted in an 84 per cent rise in Japanese visitors to North Wales.
The Memorandum of Understanding promises to promote sustainable tourism at both sites, helping preserve them for future generations, to promote knowledge about the castles, their histories and the communities around them via educational projects, and to exchange skills and expertise through joint cultural and sports activities.