Tourism revival bypasses Fukushima spa area

FUKUSHIMA - While the number of tourists to three prefectures severely hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake in the Tohoku region is on a recovery trend, Iwaki-Yumoto onsen, a historic hot spring resort area in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, still suffers flagging popularity, apparently because it is near a wrecked nuclear power plant.

Iwaki-Yumoto onsen is a traditional spa resort area thought to date back to the Nara period (710-784). About 50 kilometers from Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the resort area has yet to recover from a sharp drop in the number of visitors after the crisis at the nuclear plant started in March 2011. While the total number of tourists to the three prefectures--Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima--is increasing, hotels in Iwaki-Yumoto still face a difficult situation, pining for the days before the crisis.

"Oh, not again...I guess our reputation will continue to suffer until the nuclear reactor is decommissioned," said Akio Kusano, 57, head of the Iwaki Yumoto Onsen Ryokan cooperative, when TEPCO announced on July 22 that contaminated water from the plant had leaked into the Pacific Ocean.

With about five tons of hot water gushing from the ground every minute, the spa area is well known for its quality water, which is said to be good for keeping skin healthy and soothing backaches. It received 590,000 visitors in 2010, but less than 430,000 in 2012.

Shortly after the quake, an influx of nuclear plant workers staying at local hotels made up for the deficit of tourists. In the summer of 2011, about 2,000 workers stayed in the Iwaki-Yumoto spa area each night. But the number at hotels is now down to 200, as the workers have been moving into lodgings newly built in neighbouring municipalities including Hirono.

Meanwhile, the hot spring area is still waiting for tourist numbers to recover. One problem is that the hotels cannot serve local seafood specialties, such as mehikari (a kind of lizardfish) and monkfish, because the fisheries cooperatives in the city have voluntarily stopped fishing.

None of the 26 member hotels of the cooperative Kusano heads has closed, as TEPCO agreed to pay compensation for lost business. In fact, many hotels are depending on the compensation.

'Painful' situation

"It is painful that we have to explain that our monkfish is from Aomori Prefecture," said Masumi Oba, 59, who runs the Iwaso inn in the Iwaki-Yumoto spa area. "To keep my spirits from sinking, I look for something that can bring a spark of revival to our spa area."

Fukunoyu Ryokan, a Japanese inn marking its 90th anniversary this year, has about 70 per cent fewer guests now than in the days before the nuclear crisis. Emiko Hosokawa, 65, who runs the inn, said: "If just one person in a group worries about radioactivity, a reservation for a hundred can easily be cancelled. I want the central government to do more to get the message out that it is safe here."

Some inns in the area are reportedly looking into remaking themselves as economy hotels for business travelers.

There is some good news. In July, Iwaki city fisheries cooperatives released young abalone in coastal areas for the first time since the nuclear crisis. In September, on a trial basis, they plan to begin offshore dragnet fishing at depths of 1,500 meters or more and inshore fishing with two towboats. If the catch is confirmed safe, the cooperatives plan to bring 16 kinds of fish back to market, including mehikari, giant Pacific octopus, spear squid and whitebait.

"The leak of the polluted water was a great shock to us. But when mehikari and other fish are back, we can mount a huge PR campaign," said an official of the cooperatives.

Recovery as whole

According to sources including the Japan Tourism Agency, a total of 119.44 million people visited Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in 2012, a jump of 20 per cent from the previous year.

Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, whose many tiny islands are traditionally recognised as one of the three most beautiful views in the nation, was visited by 2.65 million people, also an increase of about 20 per cent from 2011. As this increasing trend continues this year, a mambou giant ocean sunfish went back on display in March at Marinepia Matsushima Aquarium.

Hotels and sightseeing facilities in the Sanriku coastal area also have resumed operations after being severely damaged by tsunami. The area saw about a 50 per cent increase in the number of tourists from April to June in comparison to the same period of the previous year.

Tourists have begun to flock to Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, thanks to the popularity of NHK's morning serial drama "Ama-chan," which is filmed in the city, and to Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, where NHK's taiga period drama series "Yae no Sakura" takes place.

Kuji had about 310,000 visitors in the first half of this year, a greater than 70 per cent leap past the figure in the same period in 2010, a year before the great earthquake. There are so many visitors to the Kosode coast, a main location for the morning drama, that the use of private cars has been restricted.