Over a year after the earthquake that devastated swathes of Japan, the branches of Tohoku region’s cherry blossom trees remain bare. Layers of snow, metres deep, line the mountain roadsides. A bitterly cold winter has meant the hotly anticipated sakura season has come late this spring. Although Japan’s recovery is underway, the late blossom is a symbol of a region still struggling to attract the foreign tourists upon which it relies.
Each year tourists flock to see the blossoms appear as spring sets in, but this year international arrivals plummeted. Domestic tourism has bounced back, as has the business sector, but international numbers are staying away still, worried about radioactive risks and general damage to the region.
Last March’s earthquake killed more than 15,000 people and displaced 340,000 more as their homes were destroyed or rendered dangerous by the combined impact of the quake, the subsequent tsunami and the damaged nuclear reactor at Fukushima.
The country’s wounded economy is struggling to recover. The winding lanes of Zao ski resort in Tohoku’s Yamagata prefecture are almost deserted. Taking in views of the mesmerising snow dusted mountains, only two solitary black dots dart expertly down the otherwise empty slopes.
It’s a stark contrast to the months just before the earthquake when arrivals to the Tohoku region from Japan’s number one ski market, Australia, hit new heights, rising 451 per cent on the year before to 8120.
Figures are yet to be confirmed for the full year following the earthquake, but Yamagata prefecture tourism chief Yasuhiro Nagasawa told New Matilda that this winter, the region’s ski resorts have been virtually abandoned by Australian tourists.
Even those still tempted by Japan’s famed powder are heading to better known Niseko and Nagano, far from the perceived damage of Tohoku, he says. People are still worried about radiation risks from the nuclear reactor at Fukushima.
Last year saw foreign visitor numbers to the Fukushima prefecture plummet 77 per cent to 20,190, Nagasawa says. The government has now introduced 2,700 Geiger counters across the Fukushima prefecture’s tourist attractions and public spaces to reassure visitors that there is no nuclear threat.
Fukushima tourism department executive Nozemi Takeda admits the measurements showed the area directly surrounding the plant remained in the danger zone, but she insists that other parts were considered safe with readings well below worrying levels. Some areas have actually recorded levels lower than some of the major cities in the world, she claims.
"Please tell everyone in Australia that Japan is safe," she says.
Meanwhile, the devastated Fukushima and Miyagi provinces remain barren. Much of the debris has now been cleared, leaving a wasteland with little sign of life. The people whose homes were damaged by the quake have now been absorbed into other areas.
Tour bus driver Michio Takahashi’s home in Yuriage, the most damaged area of Natori City, was written off after the first floor was wrecked by the tsunami.
On the night of the quake, he was unable to get back to his home because the roads were closed, so he and his family took shelter in one of the buses from his work. They lived there for 10 days before the family was rehoused in a rental apartment.
He received financial support from the Japanese government, but it came nowhere near the cost of a new house. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic.
"At least I have a job," Takahashi told New Matilda.
"We had always known about tsunami but we never imagined that could be so big — it was beyond our imaginations."
Japan’s tourism officials admit the road to recovery will be a long one, despite progress made in the 12 months. The Japan Tourism Agency concedes reconstruction over the last 12 months had been "not easy" due to the extent of the damage to Tohoku’s coastal regions.
But it insists that advances are being made. The government has allocated a budget of 18 trillion yen to the recovery effort, and has created a reconstruction agency headed by a dedicated minister.
However, foreign tourists remain wary of visiting Tohoku, plenty are still keen to travel to Japan. Instead of heading for the northern region of Honshu, they are instead heading to destinations further South and to the West.
In the west of Honshu, Japan’s former capital Kyoto remains a popular choice for tourists. While the city tourism department expects visitor numbers to have been impacted by the quake, down around 20 per cent on the previous year, it insists that international visitors are now returning in droves because of its rich and diverse arts scene and perfectly preserved historic district, Gion.
Maiko, a young girl in training to become a Geisha, performs in a velvet-lined theatre in Gion. A mixture of Japanese and western tourists continue to attend the girl’s flawless performances.
In contrast to Tohoku region, the cherry blossoms are already wilting along Kyoto’s Kamogawa river — a sign that life goes on. As are the tourists that are returning to the region, stuffed with noodles and wandering in search of a sake bar.
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