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Japan mountain retreat anointed as new smart city

Mount Rokko woos tech startups and workers seeking refuge from crowded Tokyo

KOBE, Japan -- A picturesque vacation getaway in the western Japanese city of Kobe has been named the site of a planned smart city as the pandemic stirs interest in country living.

Mount Rokko is popular with wealthier residents of the greater Osaka region and was once home to hundreds of corporate recreational facilities. But many such buildings were abandoned after Japan's bubble economy burst.

Now, Kobe aims to turn the area into a bustling hub for such cutting-edge technologies as artificial intelligence and big data. The Mount Rokko highlands will be transformed into a smart city by 2023 under plans announced Thursday, starting with renovating abandoned recreational facilities into offices.

Drones will transport goods to recipients on the highlands under trials scheduled to begin soon.

"With the coronavirus outbreak, people are starting to feel the limitations of working in Tokyo," Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto said. "There's been more interest in a slower-paced life outside the confines of the city."

Kobe initially aims to bring 10 or so tech startups and design agencies to the area. The city will provide up to 30 million yen ($279,000) in assistance for each renovation project.

In addition, Kobe will let companies test ultrafast 5G wireless networks in the area and will plan special events to promote exchanges between businesses that set up shop there. The city is also interested in wooing foreign companies once COVID-19 is under control.

Applications open in June for businesses interested in promoting and spearheading the Mount Rokko project. An innovation lab will also be launched in the area by March of next year.

Kobe eased environmental protections in Mount Rokko late last year to pave the way for new offices in the area.

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