Dispatch, Japan: Going forward

By Johanna Jainchill
JJ_SENDAI200x115Johanna Jainchill, Travel Weekly's editor at large, is touring northern Japan as a guest of the the local tourism authorities in advance of the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit.

MATSUSHIMA, Japan — Few Americans knew much about northeastern Japan before the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck this region one year ago.

Since then, few will ever forget it.

The indelible images of destruction that dominated news for weeks after March 11, 2011, were seared into the world’s conscious.

But contrary to how many of us picture this region, one year later, it is thriving, and almost entirely rebuilt.

The swift recovery is a testament to the determination of the Japanese to restore normalcy to an area that will never forget 3/11, but is resolved to move on.

Japan monksThat was the message of two Buddhist monks at the Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima, a city north of Sendai severely damaged by the tsunami. They held a sign declaring in Japanese, “Go Forward Matsushima”, in reference to the post-tsunami rebuilding, which coincides with the major restoration of the Temple, an 11-year project that began in 2008.

That message is also being embraced by a tourism industry that was battered in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Members of the industry here say tourism is still down about 50% all over Tohoku, the northeastern area of Japan’s main island, which encompasses several regions directly hit by the tsunami.

The bulk of foreign tourism to Tohoku has always come from Asian countries, particularly Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. But visitors have always hailed mostly from the rest of Japan.

The region is known for its natural beauty, seasonal festivals, spa retreats and Buddhist temples tucked into picturesque hillsides.

Japanese tourists make up the majority of tourists who have returned, but numbers are still way below pre-tsunami levels, especially in the Pacific Coast areas hit hardest by the tsunami.

As we traveled from region to region here over the last three days, local tourist board members continuously implored our small group of reporters from South Korea, Hong Kong, the U.K., and the U.S., to please tell people to come and visit the region, that it is safe and open for business.

They are eager to dispel the images of a region destroyed — as Osamu Arakida, an officer with Sendai's tourism department explained, he still gets asked if the city of Sendai, a thriving 400-year-old city of over a million people, "disappeared completely".

"Please, tell everyone to come and visit," Arakida said, explaining that the damage from the tsunami affected only the city's coastal areas and none of the central parts. "Sendai is safe, and Sendai is here."

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw. 
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