SENDAI – When the Japan National Tourism Agency flew in more than 100 students and journalists from Singapore earlier this month in a bid to woo tourists back to the country, it focused on Tohoku, the region hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
And for good reason.
Tohoku is a place of great scenic beauty, but one that is relatively unexplored by foreign tourists, who typically visit stalwarts Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hokkaido.
Tourist brochures tout exotic attractions ranging from picturesque castles of a bygone era to mountain ranges with ski resorts and elegant traditional hotels. Yet only 3 to 4 percent of tourists who come visit the Tohoku region each year, according to JNTO data.
The Aug. 2-9 trip for Singapore students and journalists was part of the JNTO’s plan to restore confidence in travel to Japan.
Sponsored mainly by the government and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Singapore, the trip was also intended to put Tohoku on the map for foreign tourists.
The whirlwind media tour, comprising 11 journalists from Singapore, covered all six prefectures in the region — Miyagi, Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata and Fukushima — while the group of around 100 students visited four of the prefectures, spending time mingling with local university students and doing volunteer work.
The trip has already created a buzz among the students, who were selected from among 160 who applied to become a “Youth Ambassador for Tohoku.” Mostly avid fans of Japanese culture, they have since blogged about the trip and put up photos on Facebook and movies on YouTube.
They were struck by how life has returned to normal for the greater part of Tohoku, and how most of the region was untouched by the disaster that primarily affected the east coast.
“We are very pleased. It’s important for people to come here and see what it’s really like,” said Shuhei Sakamoto, director of the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization in Sendai.
And while the students were charmed by the beauty of Tohoku, they were sad to see the devastation wrought by the twin disasters.
In the coastal city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, they took part in a half-day of volunteer work helping to remove debris from collapsed homes.
“It was very heart-wrenching,” said Tan Pengru, 23, a Singapore Management University student. But later, at the Tanabata Festival in Sendai, “we learned from the Japanese mind-set to put our sorrows behind us,” he added.
“I think Japan is still very safe and life is back to normal,” he said.
Student Por Han Ting, 29 from a Canadian university said his apprehension was misplaced but that the damage was depressing.
“To be honest, I was very worried at first. But since I came here, I haven’t felt any tremors, everything is normal. “But it was very sad when we got to the volunteer site. I can’t express how I felt when I got there.”
To be sure, Japan remains an alluring holiday destination for its Asian neighbors impressed by advanced technology, hip pop culture, natural scenery, distinct seasons and enduring traditions.
Tourists from Asia accounted for about 70 percent of the record 8.6 million travelers who visited last year.
The journalists were enthralled by Tohoku’s rich natural splendors of waterfalls and crystal-clear streams, beech forests bursting with the orchestra of cicadas and hot spring resorts.
But besides being impressed by the landscape, they left the country struck by the orderliness of its society as exemplified by the calm lines at train stations and streams unpolluted by litter.
Arriving at the small rail station in the quiet coastal town of Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, home to what is widely regarded as one of the three most scenic views in Japan, one could not help but feel transported to a magical land.
The air was surprisingly fresh and cool, despite the summer heat elsewhere, with the aroma of grilled, freshly caught seafood wafting up from the window of tiny street shops facing the coast.
The cruise in breezy Matsushima Bay was exhilarating, with the spectacular sight of dozens of small islands and big flocks of seagulls, their distinct cries often piercing the chilly air as they closely followed the ferry, eagerly swooping down to grab a bite of prawn cracker snacks from people’s hands.
And with Tohoku’s summer festivals — famed for being celebrated in big ways — the spirit of camaraderie was in full swing. The Singaporean students took part in the Hanabasa Festival in the city of Yamagata, performing a dance under the banner “Youth Ambassador for Tohoku” before hundreds of spectators who had lined the streets to watch the parade of dancers wearing brightly colored outfits.
Another highlight of the trip was the Sendai Tanabata Festival in which locals gathered in the city’s arcade area under a sea of colorful, flowery decorations attached to bamboo poles, with live stage performances in the evening and a fabulous fireworks display.
The sheer sight of scores of people on the streets to take part in the festivities was a clear sign to the foreign visitors that the nation is recovering its spirit in the wake of the disasters.
The journalists ended their trip to Tohoku by spending a night at a hot spring resort in Fukushima Prefecture.
“What happened at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is causing anxiety, but Fukushima is really big and a lot of areas are not polluted,” tour director Sakamoto said.