G8 interest and apathy swirl around the ‘Tower of Bubble’

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo

Tomihisa Akatsuka has lived his entire life on a plateau farm in southwestern Hokkaido raising cattle and growing potatoes.

But the wrinkled, gregarious man has never stayed in the luxury hotel up the road and has only been inside once, when a previous owner invited him and other locals for a tour.

The Windsor Hotel Toya Resort & Spa — which boasts commanding views of a caldera lake, the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains — has recently been named the main venue for the 2008 Group of Eight summit.

For Akatsuka, the closest neighbor to the hilltop hotel 4.4 km away, the prospects of the world’s most powerful leaders passing near his farm are neither exciting nor interesting.

“I don’t think it will have an impact on us. We have nothing to do with it,” the 75-year-old said, adjusting a worn red cap embossed with a farm cooperative logo.

But for officials in the hot-spring resort town of Toyako and in struggling Hokkaido, big money and reputation are at stake, and they are determined to make the event a success.

“It may be true that some businesses may suffer as the summit will keep ordinary people from coming to this area,” said Toyako Mayor Yoshio Nagasaki, 77. “But the effects of advertising Lake Toya will be immense. They will reverberate into the future.”

Yoshihiko Maekawa, a senior Hokkaido official in charge of summit preparations, stressed the prefecture can help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe get his messages across to other G8 leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States.

“I have concerns about every aspect, but we are ready to offer a summit that suits his ‘beautiful nation’ concept because our nature is unmatched elsewhere in the country,” he said.

Sweeping aside other candidates, such as Kyoto and Yokohama, Abe picked Toyako as the host in late April, mainly because of the security and scenic beauty it offers. The area “is the most appropriate to show ‘Japan, the beautiful nation’ to the world,” he said.

Toyako is a scenic town of 11,000 facing the Bay of Uchiura on the south and Lake Toya on the east. Between them is Mount Usu, an active volcano. Tourism is the town’s biggest industry, with most of the inns and souvenir shops clustered on the lake shore.

A volcanic eruption hit the lakeside resort in March 2000, blanketing it with ash and mud. Residents were forced to stay away for months. The signs of the disaster are still evident today, with the area’s main street dotted with closed inns and shops.

The resort hotel, near the top of 621-meter Mount Poromoi, is 14 km or 20 minutes from the town. Opened as a members-only hotel in 1993, it was soon forced to close after its main lender went under in 1997 in the aftermath of the collapse of the asset-inflated bubble economy in the early 1990s.

The Windsor remained a relic of the wayward era and was caricatured as the “Tower of Bubble.”

It was not until 2002 that the hotel reopened after a group firm of Secom Co., the nation’s largest security company, acquired the property for about 6 billion yen — roughly one-eleventh of its total development cost.

“We were Hokkaido’s negative legacy,” said 59-year-old Tetsuo Kuboyama, president of Windsor Hotels International. “We reopened hoping to be one of the leading hotels, and I feel the day has come earlier than we had planned.”

The Hokkaido Economic Federation recently estimated that the G8 summit will generate economic effects worth 37.9 billion yen for the region in the five years following the event.

Local businesses are ready and eager to cash in on the event and the hype it is expected to generate.

“For us merchants, this is a God-given chance, and there is no passing it up,” said 62-year-old Yoichi Wakasa, who heads a group of tourism businesses in the town.

The “summit effects” have already been felt in the town; cars went through the area in droves to take a peek at the Windsor during Golden Week, an inn owner said.

But a 24-year-old waitress in an ice cream shop who provided only her first name, Emi, is skeptical about any economic gain for the town. “I’ve heard someone say more people will just end up passing through town,” she said.

That is not the only concern.

Heavily indebted Hokkaido is expected to shoulder the costs of security and other host services. That is why Gov. Harumi Takahashi was reportedly reluctant to declare the prefecture’s candidacy to host the summit.

The local business federation estimated the event will cost the nation about 18.5 billion yen, but it is unclear how much of that total Hokkaido will end up covering.

Security is another concern. The Windsor has been picked as the main venue chiefly because it of the security afforded by its isolated, fortresslike location, but some residents are concerned about the impact security measures will have on their lives.

“Rumor has it that police are going to search us home by home. I don’t like that idea,” said Tsuneo Shimizu, a 62-year-old man who lives by the lake.

A local police official dismissed that rumor as unfounded, but said, “No slip up can be tolerated, ever.”

Ken Sato, a biologist who chairs the Hokkaido Nature Conservation Society, says it is “ironic” that a meeting expected to focus on environmental issues will be held at a hotel that has spoiled the area’s scenery.

“The Natural Parks Law stipulates that one shall preserve the scenery that nature offers, but an alien structure can be seen from inside the national park,” he said.

The event should serve as an opportunity for Japanese to rethink their way of life, Sato said. “Japan keeps logging trees while warning against global warming. We must think about these inconsistencies on this occasion.”