TWO YEARS ON: Fukushima's 'Samurai City' struggles to recover lost tourists

March 09, 2013

By AKIRA KUDOCHI

AIZU-WAKAMATSU, Fukushima Prefecture--Nestled in the picturesque western mountains of Fukushima Prefecture, Aizu-Wakamatsu is rich with the history of feudal and modern Japan.

It was here in 1868 that samurai warriors loyal to the abdicated Tokugawa Shogunate unsuccessfully tried to hold off the invading army of Emperor Meiji as Japan lurched from the feudal era into the industrial world through civil war.

First constructed in 1384, Tsuruga Castle was the military and administrative center of the Aizu region for centuries, and has since become a popular tourist spot in this city of 125,000 that bills itself the "Samurai City."

But these days, there are only a handful of tourist groups a day at Tsuruga Castle. On a weekend visit in early March, the parking lot was devoid of tourist buses. A nearby downtown shopping district was practically deserted.

"The people refuse to come because of the name 'Fukushima,' " said a frustrated business operator in the prefecture.

Aizu-Wakamatsu is located about 100 kilometers west of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Not much has changed here in the lives of the residents because the radioactive fallout since the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake has effectively had little impact on conditions in the area.

According to the central government, airborne radiation levels measured on March 5 in 151 locations in the city were well within government safety standards, with some even lower than levels in Tokyo.

Still, tourists have been staying away in droves.

In fiscal 2011, visitors to the city’s seven major tourist facilities were about 400,000, down 45 percent from fiscal 2010.

The trend did not change in fiscal 2012. During the months between April and December, the total number of visitors dropped 27 percent from 2010.

The number of foreign tourists, in particular, dwindled from 9,103 in fiscal 2010 to 1,199 in fiscal 2011. The prospect of improving the situation in the year ending in March looks dim.

Students on school field trips from outside the prefecture have also sharply dropped. The number of schools bringing students to this city plummeted from 841 in fiscal 2010 to just 100 in fiscal 2011. In fiscal 2012, things were slightly better--students from 210 schools visited the city on field trips.

City officials said that attracting students is crucial to reviving the Samurai City's tourism industry.

But even two years after 3/11, they said, many still wrongly believe that Aizu-Wakamatsu suffers from radioactivity contamination because it is in Fukushima Prefecture.

Hiroshi Takahashi, who is in charge of school trips at the Aizu-Wakamatsu tourism association, recently spoke to parents of Niigata Prefecture elementary school students and told them that conditions were safe in the city.

Still, a concerned mother at the meeting told him that she was afraid her children would become sterile if they visited Aizu-Wakamatsu.

Takahashi went on to explain that measurements of airborne radiation and food contamination in the city were all within government safety standards. Still, he felt trying to convince the parents was a lost cause.

“I understand that parents are worried about their children,” he said. “But it is sad to face a reality where Aizu-Wakamatsu is looked at that way, two years after the Fukushima plant accident took place. In Fukushima (Prefecture), children and adults alike have been living normal lives.”

But there have been some schools that understand that it is safe in Aizu-Wakamatsu, and they have brought their students here to encourage disaster-stricken people who evacuated to the area from areas near the Fukushima plant.

Students from Kurodahara Junior High School in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, visited the city on a field trip in April 2011, and presented the city with banners, including one reading “Kizuna, Ganbaro Fukushima” (Bond Between Us--Let's Work Together Fukushima.”

The banner is now in a prominent position at Tsuruga Castle.

Despite the downturn of visitors since the onset of the nuclear accident, one traditional Japanese inn actually succeeded in regaining lost customers.

Mukaitaki, a ryokan established in 1873, initially had practically no customers after the onset of the nuclear disaster.

“At one point after the disaster, I thought I had no choice but to close down,” said proprietor Yuichi Hirata.

But never one to give up, Hirata booted up his computer and got busy.

He used the Internet to post frequent updates on radiation levels and other goings-on regarding conditions in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

His efforts paid off as customers began coming back. Mukaitaki’s sales in 2012 increased 20 percent over those in 2010--the year before the disaster.

“Customers no longer ask about radioactivity,” Hirata said. “I'm glad I sent information directly to my customers.”

Businesses in Aizu-Wakamatsu are hoping some of Hirata's good fortune will rub off on them. And things are slowly starting to turn around, thanks to Aizu-Wakamatsu's rich historic past.

In January, Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) began showing a drama based on real people and events from the Edo Period (1603-1867) to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in the Samurai City. Viewer ratings were so high that Aizu-Wakamatsu saw an increase in the number of visitors in January and February.

With spring right around the corner, residents and businesses are now eager for tourists to return in large numbers for cherry blossom season in late April.

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Akira Kudochi is a staff writer at The Asahi Shimbun Chinese digital edition.

By AKIRA KUDOCHI
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Tsuruga Castle, the most famous and popular spot in Aizu-Wakamatsu, sits blanketed in snow. (Akira Kudochi)

Tsuruga Castle, the most famous and popular spot in Aizu-Wakamatsu, sits blanketed in snow. (Akira Kudochi)

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  • Tsuruga Castle, the most famous and popular spot in Aizu-Wakamatsu, sits blanketed in snow. (Akira Kudochi)
  • Banners bearing messages to encourage Fukushima people were made by students of Kurodahara Junior High School in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture. (Akira Kudochi)
  • Visitors enjoy the view of Tsuruga Castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, lit up with images of cherry blossoms on March 8. (Hiroshi Kawai)
  • Yuichi Hirata stands in front of Mukaitaki ryokan. (Provided by Yuichi Hirata)

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