June 19, 2024

Miharu Journal: Japan’s Cherry Blossoms Bloom, but Nuclear Fears Keep Tourists Away

The town, however, may not be as resilient. The hundreds of thousands of people who come here each cherry blossom season to view the prized tree, one of the three oldest in the country and a designated national monument, are largely staying away this year, scared off by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, just 30 miles away.

“This tree has lived through many disasters,” said Masayoshi Hashimoto, 85, a local vegetable farmer whose produce has also been rendered largely unsalable by the radioactive plume. “It may survive the nuclear accident,” he said, “but the town may not.”

Sakura, or cherry blossom season, reaches its peak this week along the Tohoku coast, a region still reeling from the March 11 quake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Tohoku’s famous sakura trees usually draw hundreds of thousands of visitors, many from greater Tokyo, bringing precious tourist income to villages and towns that have little industry to speak of.

Even though many cherry trees in the disaster zone have survived, it will very likely take years to rebuild the tourism industry, officials warn. The troubles are many: severe damage to the tourism infrastructure, fears of heightened radiation levels in areas around Fukushima and an overall plunge in travelers in a country still shell-shocked by its worst disaster since World War II. JTB Corporation, Japan’s largest travel agency, said last week that it expected travel to fall 28 percent during a holiday period known as Golden Week, which starts this month.

Damage to tourism in the area adds to the woes of a local economy that has suffered severe blows: many fishing and farming communities were decimated in the tsunami, and many of the factories in the region are struggling to rebuild or restart production lines.

In Miharu, the weeping sakura has been an important source of income for an aging farming community. About 300,000 people descended on the town to view the 40-foot tree last year, spending generously at local inns and eateries, as well as on produce.

This year, the town expected the number of visitors to fall by about 80 percent. Though the town is not affected by the evacuation zone, which is now a 12-to-18-mile radius around the Fukushima plant, visitors “are playing it safe and staying away,” said Susumu Yamaguchi, a tourism official at Miharu’s town hall. “It’s a big blow for us,” he said.

In a bid to attract visitors, the town abolished its usual $3.60 viewing fee and went on a media offensive. “There won’t be any crowds this year, no traffic jam,” Miharu’s mayor, Yoshinori Suzuki, told a local paper last week.

Helped by sunny weather on Sunday, the tree attracted a larger-than-expected throng of visitors, though still far fewer than usual, according to officials.

Asuka Kimura, 29, a homemaker and mother of four from nearby Iwaki City, said that the thrill of an outing to see the cherry tree at Miharu had outweighed concerns over radiation. “I’ve had the kids play indoors for so long,” she said. “Today we’re spending the day outside, just for the day.”

The town has been desperate to protect its prized tree. Visitors were scarce during World War II, elders recall, but villagers still tended to the tree, preparing for the return to more peaceful times. Five years ago, when a blizzard threatened to overwhelm the tree, local farmers lovingly brushed off the snow and erected wooden supports to keep its branches from breaking.

They again raced to the tree after the devastating March 11 quake, which damaged some homes in the area. The tree remained intact and was far enough inland to escape the tsunami, but the bad news came the next day as the plant spewed radioactive steam toward the town. Local inns, which had been booked solid with reservations ahead of the sakura season, were inundated with cancellations.

Still, as the trees bloom, sometimes amid mountains of rubble, they have become symbols of resilience.

“These cherry trees blossom each year despite any catastrophe,” said Noriyuki Kasai, the mayor of Hirosaki, a city on the edge of the disaster zone, some 400 miles north of Tokyo. Though the city and its 2,600 cherry trees escaped the brunt of the damage, far fewer visitors are expected this season. “Like the trees, we will also recover,” he said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/26/world/asia/26blossom.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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