After the destruction: cherry blossom blooms again: rolling out a pink and white carpet for tourists
Tourism is important in Tohoku, the northeastern enclave of Honshu Island. Originally one of the poorest parts of Japan, the area's fabulous apple harvest and iron ore have provided great cash crops while latterly its breathtaking display of cherry blossom, its rugged mountain countryside and its thermal baths and astonishingly good food and hospitality have proved powerful local tourist draws.
A deep love for the natural world and an appreciation of good food are characteristics of Japanese life and no more so than in Tohoku where each season represents an opportunity for a massive party (with, of course massive feasts!). And the biggest party of all starts the year with a swing - cherry blossom time brings literally millions of aficionados to the best and most bounteous glorious white displays. Vast audiences watch the ‘Cherry Blossom Front’ on national TV moving north through Japan until it reaches its most natural showcase - Tohoku.
The Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festivals are curtain-openers for further festivals, later in the year there are great warm summer festivals in turn give way to wild autumn harvest festivals and, finally a startling winter wonderland exposes Tohoku in a glittering garb of icy jewels celebrated by snow lantern festivals - just everywhere.
So, on the morning of March 11 last year, people all over Tuhoku were looking forward to welcoming the cherry blossom and planning to host the annual spring pilgrimage of millions of visitors as the start of the festive year when doors would open to tourists and the cash tills would ring to bring economic benefits to Tohoku businesses and local communities.
In Hirosaki the castle park with 2600 cherry trees was cleaning and painting ready to welcome its annual (over 2 million) visitors while the display of magnificent floats was being tidied up at the local Tsugaru Han Neputamura
At the charming Akita Nairiku local railway carriages were being polished, stops cleaned, whistles buffed.
At Lake Tazawa the lake’s gilded maiden statue checked, shops prepared for business and the Komagatake Kanko Hot Spa Hotel was going through its hospitality-training.
The Samurai village of Kakunodate was preparing its unique houses, museums and craft centres ready for business.
The enormous agricultural enterprise at Koiwai Farm was preparing its grounds cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlour for hungry guests and the fabulous World Heritage Zen Monastery of Chusonji Temple was making sure that all paths were clean and bells shiny.
By the sea at the bay of Matsushima boats were being prepared for pleasure cruises around the picturesque islands, the local Samurai house readied for tea festivals and the fabulous Entsuin Buddhist temple readied for visitors.
At the castle city regional HQ of Sendai , the final touches were being put to the year’s tourism action-plan.
By the afternoon all plans were swept away- one of the strongest earthquakes on records (level 9) hit the Tohoku Region, triggering up to 40 metre high tsunami waves that caused massive destruction and loss of human lives in areas along the Pacific coast. TV news around the world showed heartbreaking scenes of homes, cars and humans tossed around as if they were puppets on massive, powerful walls of water.
As this was happening local tourist guide Michiko Takahashi wrote "I live in Miyagino-ward, Sendai, Miyagi and Miyagi is the prefecture the earthquake and tsunami hit most devastatingly, and some area of Miyagino-ward is one of the areas where the tsunami washed away almost all of communities. Probably you have seen the TV footage showing the area. The inundated area still remains as it was hit by tsunami and now we are worried about whether not all the deceased can be found and cremated. In Japan, it is illegal that you bury a body but now the government said OK to bury bodies altogether.
The situation is beyond my imagination.
Next day, we had to queue three hours for water. Fortunately, we found a usable oil heater in back shed and cooked rice by using it. The next day, we remembered that we had BBQ set and broiled dried fish on the stove. Since no shop opened, we could buy nothing.
We could not flush. We had to endure the color and smell. We could not take a bath for nine days. Of course, no shower. Electricity came back day 4, water day 6. Now sanitary situation is good. But gas has not yet come back, so still I am enjoying cooking extraordinarily fantastic survival meals. We have still shortage of oil and gasoline. But so what?
Look at the disaster victims on the coastal area. Considering the unbelievably terrible situation they are in, my family and I are feeling like as if we are in heaven."
After the disaster the locals set to clearing up the chaos in their own inimitable understated way. The 15854 dead were buried, the 26992 injured were treated, the 3155 missing were searched for, the million damaged and destroyed buildings begun to be rebuilt.
International tourism had taken a real beating in 2011 - Sendai city staff said that even though it was not official, the statistics showed that in 2010, there were 90,000 nights in which foreign visitors stayed in Sendai, but 2011 saw only 9,000 nights.
Now tourism is set to begin again in Tohoku, the quality of food, accommodation welcome undiminished.
A recent trip to the area re-affirmed that the cherry blossom is now again in full bloom and tourists are ready to be welcomed to this tear-jerkingly beautiful area with such an unbelievable wealth of natural and cultural heritage, good things to do and see and mouth-wateringly good food and drink.
Above all this year’s crop of tourists will receive a heart felt welcome from a people to whom hospitality is a way of life.
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