The changing colors of the autumnal landscape prompt travelers to venture far and wide to soak up the seasonal scenery.
It is a time of year that is widely anticipated by the tourism industry; but not in Fukushima Prefecture this year and perhaps not ever again.
Ryokan Japanese-style inns and hotels in once-thriving hot spring resorts there are now contemplating a future when they are no longer listed on tourists’ maps.
Evacuees who took refuge at these facilities immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March have mostly left to live in temporary housing or apartments, often in another prefecture.
Tourists have been scared away by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
As a result, hot spring inns and hotels are deserted.
In high seasons, hot spring resorts like the time-honored Tsuchiyu-Onsen brace themselves for a torrent of tourists. But now there is only a trickle.
Some ryokan have already gone belly up.
Both the local tourist industry and prefectural authorities are struggling to find ways to save the endangered spa business.
At the end of August, Hiroko Abe, the 68-year-old owner of a souvenir store in the Tsuchiyu-Onsen resort, a 40-minute drive from central Fukushima city, was visited by the manager of a local ryokan.
“We can no longer manage to stay in business,” the inn manager told Abe. “Thank you for all the help you have given us over years.”
According to Abe, the manager said he had considered closing immediately after the March 11 disaster but thought twice and kept the inn open. As evacuees were leaving, however, the manager told her that he realized the time had come to close up shop once and for all.
Several days later, Abe learned that the ryokan two doors away from her shop had also gone out of business. When she went to see the couple who had been running the facility, Abe came upon a notice attached to the entrance door saying the owner would soon file for personal bankruptcy.
“I wonder where the owner and his wife have gone,” Abe said. “It is sad and truly a pity.”
“We now see few tourist buses around here,” says Kazuya Ikeda, a senior official at the Tsuchiyu-Onsen Tourist Association. “Fukushima has become synonymous with radiation, and there aren’t many people who dare to come to the prefecture for sightseeing, much less for soaking in a hot spring bath.”
Of the 22 inns and hotels in the hot spring resort, five have closed their doors -- two immediately after the disaster and three more in September. Most of them are large facilities. The situation is mirrored across the prefecture, where rooms for 50,000 guests per night are available, according to a business association of inns and hotels which has 614 member facilities.
After the March calamity, some 18,000 evacuees were put up at lodging facilities in the prefecture. But the figure plummeted to around 2,500 by late September following a decision to close the evacuation centers.
The central and prefectural governments have together been providing up to 5,000 yen per night for each evacuee staying at a hotel or inn. But the facilities which accepted evacuees usually charge 8,000 yen, and even nearly 20,000 yen, for an overnight stay with two meals. Many of them provided three meals a day for the evacuees.
According to a survey of member facilities by the association in August, hotels and inns in the prefecture expect to have 50-percent lower occupancy rate for the next year or so.
Facilities in the Hamadori region of eastern Fukushima Prefecture, where the crippled nuclear plant is located, are bracing for a plunge of more than 60 percent.
The prefectural government is frantically trying to resuscitate the moribund hospitality industry.
As part of the efforts, it has stopped charging tolls on three key roads connecting the prefectural capital with the Inawashiro and Aizu areas, both popular destinations for tourists.
The Banda-Azuma Sky Line, the Bandaisan Gold Line and the Banda-Azuma Lake Line offer stunning views of the changing autumnal landscape and Lake Inawashiro.
“The number of cars traveling on these roads has increased,” said Masaru Saga, chief of the tourist section at the prefectural government. “We are now waiting for tourist buses to return to our prefecture.”
The prefecture has also allowed inns and other tourist facilities to post information about their services on the government’s website.
The Dake-Onsen hot spring resort in the city of Nihonmatsu is pinning its hopes on the scheduled resumption of a shuttle bus service between Koriyama Station operated by East Japan Railway Co. and the resort on Oct. 1. The service has been suspended since the March disaster.
Some inns are trying to attract tourists by offering to donate 500 yen from room charges for each guest to assist disaster victims. The city’s annual chrysanthemum doll exhibition, opening Oct. 15, will be made an admission-free event to attract tourists.
The Tsuchiyu-Onsen resort plans to organize an event to place garden lanterns along a recovered promenade in late October.
(This article was written by Kana Yamada and Atsushi Takahashi.)
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