While foreign visitors are continuing to avoid the disaster zone, Japanese tourists are coming back to Matsushima, a fabled destination which locals say miraculously escaped the wrath of the March 11 tsunami.
Considered one of Japan’s “three great views”, with pine trees studding 260 islands in a majestic bay, the seaside resort town of Matsushima in Miyagi province has long been known for its esoteric powers, which inspired Japan’s haiku master Matsuo Basho in the 17th century to write “Ahh, Matsushima. Ahh.”
Despite the devastation of nearby towns and cities such as Ishinomaki, Matsushima, which sits in the heart of a 300-mile long swath of wreckage, is already welcoming a third of normal tourist arrivals, say local tour operators.
Many visitors are amazed to see the town’s hotels, seafood shops and thousand-year old temples relatively unscathed, because smaller islands in the bay bore the brunt of 50-foot high tsunami waves from the open Pacific. Train services have resumed from nearby Sendai city, and hotels this week were fully booked with domestic tourists, as well as aid workers and reconstruction crews who park cranes and other heavy machinery in resort parking lots.
The “natural miracle” which saved Matsushima was a mixed blessing for Kengo Doi, who works on a sightseeing boat taking tourists around the bay for 1400 yen per person. The tsunami washed away 40 out of 120 houses on his native island of Katsurajima, including his home. “My island was like a wall protecting the Matsushima tourist resort from the tsunami,” he says, as tourists take photos during a cruise past devastated islands villages on a scorching summer afternoon. “Fortunately we all fled safely to high ground because we are highly conscious of the power of the sea.”
Thanks to Katsurajima and other barrier islands, the weakened tsunami was only about 6 feet high as it swept over the main dock in Matsushima, dockworkers say. Koji Irakawa, a senior official overseeing tourism boat operations, says Matsushima lost 30 smaller boats, but the larger sightseeing boats survived intact. Thanks to volunteers efforts to help locals clean debris and mud off the dock area, the tour operators are now back in business during the peak summer season.
“The economy is very bad in Japan and we have almost no foreign tourists at all,” Mr. Irakawa told the Washington Times. “We can’t say when the tourism industry will recover in full. The tourism business is only a third of what it would normally be at this time of year, but at least we have a third.”
Compared with last year, the total number of foreign visitors to Japan decreased by roughly 60 percent in April, 50 percent in May, and 36 percent in June, when only 430,000 tourists came to Japan, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.
Small traditional ryokan hotels, often run by senior citizens, have often suffered more than larger nationwide chains such as Toyoko and Tokyu hotels catering to the Japanese business crowd.
After 47 years of hosting international backpackers paying 5000 yen (about $64) per night, Shozo Okihara, the owner of Sansuiso ryokan in Shinagawa ward of Tokyo, was hoping the increase of international flights to nearby Haneda city airport would bring more guests, according to a report in the Asahi newspaper. But Mr. Okihara, 88, said no foreigners came in the four months after the March 11 disaster, and only five backpackers stayed in July. “Our business cannot survive if the current situation continues.”
The Foreign Ministry and Japan Tourism Agency are planning to help the Japanese Inn Group, which has 81 members nationwide including Sansuiso, to launch a campaign on Facebook to tell potential visitors about discounts in Japan.
The United Nations has also tried to help Japan by recently granting UNESCO World Heritage status to Chusonji temple and other historical sites in Hiraizumicho in the hard-hit province of Iwate. The number of daily visitors to the temple, in the mountains outside the disaster zone, has recovered from 200 after the March 11 quake to about 4000 recently, a 30 percent increase over last year, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.
The tourism industry in Fukushima province, on the other hand, has suffered greatly from fears of radioactive fallout in the air and food. Large and small resort operators even more than 50 miles away from the seaside nuclear reactors are reporting almost no tourist arrivals, though their rooms are often filled with “nuclear refugees”, especially children who aren’t allowed to play outside in towns closer to the plant.
In Matsushima, the local tourist association says the number of visitors has rebounded from almost zero in March to about 30 percent of an average year. Though frustrating for many business owners, the minor recovery is at least providing badly-needed jobs for locals such as Mr. Doi and his neighbors on Katsura island.
Using money earned in the tourism industry, they have reinstalled an intricate network of oyster traps in the waters around their island. They hope to have a good harvest this winter, even amid fears of cesium contamination from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. “Even if the government decides to ban the sale of oysters this winter, we locals will eat them,” says Mr. Doi. “We know what we are growing, and we don’t want to waste what we’ve worked hard to make.”