Tohoku struggling to get piece of Japan’s tourism boom

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Japan may be experiencing a swell of foreign tourists, but not all areas of the country are reaping the rewards.

The Tohoku region is still struggling to carve out a slice of the growing tourism pie, leading tour operators and local businesses to take new steps to elevate its name recognition.

While the region, whose international reputation was damaged by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster, has begun to see signs a tourism revival in recent years, businesses in Tohoku worry that the increase is not enough, and that the area falls short compared to Hokkaido and other popular travel destinations in Japan. New strategies are needed to revamp the disaster-stricken region’s reputation, tourism stakeholders believe.

Asami Shirai, a worker at Kutsurogijuku, an inn in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, noted that “the March 2011 disaster halted the previously growing trend.”

Around 100 tourists from overseas stay at the inn every year, accounting for around 2 percent of the total, Shirai said, adding that “more efforts are needed to promote Tohoku.

“Most tourists wouldn’t consider Tohoku as their first choice of a travel destination in Japan. People who decide to visit Tohoku are usually those who have already been to Japan.”

Hiroyuki Ishii, a municipal government official in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, said residents need to make improvements to respond to the changing business environment.

“Tourists coming during the fishing season or to see cherry blossoms in spring, or the summer festival Nebuta Matsuri (in the city of Aomori), have difficulties in finding a place to stay as hotels and inns are not yet prepared for a large number of tourists,” Ishii said. “Foreign tourists may also face other troubles, and the language barrier remains the biggest problem. Not many people can communicate in English here.”

Ruth Jarman, originally from Hawaii, has spent around 30 years in Japan and worked in public relations for tourism agencies. She attributed the region’s lack of popularity among foreign visitors to insufficient promotional efforts in the past.

“Tohoku was always a place where Japanese domestic travelers went so they (service operators in Tohoku) never promoted themselves outside of Japan, like Kyoto (has),” Jarman said.

“This may sound impolite but it’s really hard to grasp what Tohoku has to offer,” said Taiwanese Chei Yi Mei, 29, one of 105 foreign nationals who participated in a February event in Tokyo that showcased recent efforts by tour operators to boost Tohoku’s recognition. Participants were invited to evaluate programs designed by travel agencies for visitors from abroad.

“Honestly, there’s not much information available on Tohoku,” said Chei, who has lived in Japan for over three years. “In areas like Kyoto, you know you can experience traditional Japanese culture. … But it’s hard to imagine what you can expect to see in Tohoku.”

But tourism ministry data demonstrates there is reason for optimism.

The yearly number of overnight foreign guests in Tohoku for 2017 exceeded 1 million for the first time, an encouraging sign for the region. The data also shows the number of foreign overnight guests surpassed pre-disaster levels for the first time last year in all six of the region’s prefectures — Akita, Aomori, Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima and Yamagata.

Fukushima Prefecture’s tourism numbers plummeted after the 2011 megaquake, but 94,000 foreign guests stayed at inns and hotels in 2017, finally topping its numbers from before the disaster.

Ishii noted that Hirosaki saw a threefold rise in the number of overnight guests, totalling 38,132, in the city in less than a year, growth attributed to the creation of a new flight connection between Aomori and China’s Tianjin in May 2017.

“Tohoku has a rich history, so it’s important to offer a glimpse into the region’s culture and its historical background,” said Takahisa Yuge, vice president of Diamond-Big Co., which publishes the top-selling Globe-Trotter Travel Guidebook series and won a government-backed competition that was part of the February event in Tokyo. The firm’s program for non-Japanese tourists allows tourists to hear stories of Japan’s very few remaining matagi (traditional bear hunters), whose history is said to date back to the Heian Period (794-1185), in Yamagata Prefecture.

Other Tohoku tour companies offer custom services tailored to their clients’ interests, including a visit to a traditional sake brewery, a theme-park style factory of cast ironware, or an opportunity to participate in a marathon race or go fishing.