- - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

MATSUSHIMA, Japan — Japanese tourists are flocking to Matsushima, a fabled destination that escaped the wrath of the March 11 tsunami.

Widely considered one of Japan’s “three great views,” the seaside resort town of Matsushima in Miyagi province, with pine trees studding 260 islands in a majestic bay, has long been known for its esoteric powers.

Japanese poets as famous as 17th century haiku master Matsuo Basho have found inspiration here.

While nearby towns and cities remain devastated, Matsushima, which sits in the heart of a 300-mile-long swath of wreckage, is already welcoming a third of normal tourist arrivals, according to local tour operators.

Many visitors are amazed to see the town’s hotels, seafood shops and thousand-year-old temples relatively unscathed. Small islands in the bay bore the brunt of 50-foot high tsunami waves from the open Pacific.

Train services have resumed from the nearby city of Sendai, and hotels this week were fully booked with domestic tourists, as well as aid workers and reconstruction crews who park cranes and other heavy machinery in resort parking lots.

The “natural miracle” that saved Matsushima was a mixed blessing for Kengo Doi, who works on a sightseeing boat taking tourists around the bay. The tsunami washed away 40 out of 120 houses on his native island of Katsurajima, including his home.

“My island was like a wall protecting the Matsushima tourist resort from the tsunami,” he said, as tourists took photos during a cruise past devastated islands villages on a scorching summer afternoon.

“Fortunately, we all fled safely to high ground because we are highly conscious of the power of the sea.”

Thanks to Katsurajima and other barrier islands, the weakened tsunami was only about six feet high as it swept over the main dock in Matsushima, dockworkers said.

Thanks to volunteers efforts to help locals clean debris off the dock area, the tour operators are now back in business during the peak summer season.

“The economy is very bad in Japan, and we have almost no foreign tourists at all,” Mr. Irakawa said.

“We can’t say when the tourism industry will recover in full. The tourism business is only a third of what it would normally be at this time of year, but at least we have a third.”

Compared with last year, the total number of foreign visitors to Japan decreased by roughly 60 percent in April and 50 percent in May. Tourism dropped 36 percent in June, when only 430,000 tourists came to Japan, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.

Small traditional hotels, often run by senior citizens, have suffered more than larger nationwide chains catering to the Japanese business crowd.

After 47 years of hosting international backpackers paying about $64 per night, Shozo Okihara, the owner of the Sansuiso hotel in Shinagawa ward of Tokyo, was hoping the increase of international flights to nearby Haneda city airport would bring more guests.

But Mr. Okihara, 88, said no foreigners came in the four months after the March 11 disaster, and only five backpackers stayed in July.

“Our business cannot survive if the current situation continues,” he told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The Foreign Ministry and the Japan Tourism Agency are planning to help the Japanese Inn Group, which has 81 members nationwide including Sansuiso, to launch a campaign on Facebook to tell potential visitors about discounts in Japan.

The United Nations has also tried to help Japan by recently granting World Heritage status to Chusonji temple and other historical sites in Hiraizumicho in the hard-hit province of Iwate.

The number of daily visitors to the temple, in the mountains outside the disaster zone, has recovered from 200 after the March 11 quake to about 4,000 recently, a 30 percent increase over last year.

The tourism industry in Fukushima province, however, has suffered greatly from the destruction of a nuclear power plant caused by the tsunami.

In Matsushima, the local tourist association said the number of visitors has rebounded from almost zero in March to about 30 percent of an average year.

Though frustrating for many business owners, the minor recovery is at least providing badly needed jobs for locals such as Mr. Doi and his neighbors on Katsura island.

Using money earned in the tourism industry, they have reinstalled an intricate network of oyster traps in the waters around their island. They hope to have a good harvest this winter, even amid fears of cesium contamination from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors.

“Even if the government decides to ban the sale of oysters this winter, we locals will eat them,” said Mr. Doi.

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