National

Japanese tourists return early from visit to Russian-held islands off Hokkaido

Kyodo

Japanese visitors returned to Hokkaido on Saturday from a shortened trip to two of four Russian-held islands claimed by Japan due to expected bad weather.

“The nature was fantastic and it was an enormously valuable experience,” said Mamoru Takahashi, a 79-year-old Tokyo resident who with 43 others, including government officials, arrived at the port of Nemuro in eastern Hokkaido. The trip began on Tuesday.

The excursion — part of a trial project aimed at building trust and resolving the long-standing territorial dispute between the two nations — to sightseeing and other spots on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands was initially scheduled to run through Sunday.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, which organized the trip, it was the first time since the end of World War II that members of the Japanese public have officially visited the islets under a special visa-free program originally intended for former residents of the islands and certain officials and experts.

During the trip they visited a museum, Japanese graves and a hot spring. An overnight stay had been planned on Etorofu, but the visit to the island was shortened to around two hours.

“The weather tends to get rough during this time of year so we need to consider a more appropriate season,” according to an agency official.

The trip was part of a pilot project aimed at promoting joint economic ventures on the islands targeting five areas including tourism, waste reduction and aquaculture. The arrangement was agreed to by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2016.

Tokyo hopes the joint ventures will pave the way for resolving the territorial dispute, which has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a postwar peace treaty.

Collectively called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, the disputed territories also include Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.

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