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Hanamaki City’s Tourism Industry Current Status, Recovery and Regeneration | Shin Takagi Director Commerce, Industry and Tourism Department Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture [Date of Issue: 31/January/2013 No.0215-0878]

Date of Issue: 31/January/2013

Hanamaki City’s Tourism Industry
Current Status, Recovery and Regeneration

Shin Takagi
Commerce, Industry and Tourism Department
Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture

As one of the centers of Tohoku tourism, Hanamaki City receives more than two million visitors every year. Here we look at the impact of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake on Hanamaki City’s tourism industry and the situation today, as well as our tourism strategy for the years ahead, and a regeneration strategy inclusive of reconstruction of the disaster-damaged areas.

Flower Roll Chan

[Official character]
This is Hanamaki City’s official character, Flower Roll Chan. She appears on tourist information boards and road signs throughout the city.

Hanamaki City serves as the gateway to the northern Tohoku prefectures of Aomori, Akita and Iwate. It is a provincial city enjoying an abundance of nature, including the Towada Hachiman National Park and the Hayachine Seminational Park.

Tohoku's largest river, the Kitakami River, runs through the middle of town, with the city streets forming around its banks. Not far out of town, primeval beech and other forests rise out of the landscape, and a chain of 12 hot springs that lie along the edge of the Ou Mountains form the Hanamaki Onsenkyo Village.

Amidst this beautiful natural landscape which the poet and fable writer Kenji Miyazawa, who was born in Hanamaki City, called 'Ihatov' ('utopia'), the city is forging a harmonious balance among agriculture, commerce, industry and tourism as it grows.

Of these, tourism in particular is a key word in terms of expanding the non-resident population in the face of the expected decline in the resident population, and in boosting the city's economic dynamism. To that end, we have developed a strategic tourism concept called 'Tourism-Driven City Ihatov Hanamaki' as the basis for our efforts to create an attractive tourist destination and foster local hospitality.

Great East Japan Earthquake

The Great East Japan Earthquake which occurred in March 2011 shook Hanamaki City with tremors of an intensity of just under six on the Japanese seven-stage seismic scale. However, there was fortunately limited damage, and while the city had no power for several days and had to cope with the inconvenience of shortages in gasoline and other fuels, food and commodities for two long weeks, people were able to get their lives back to normal at a relatively early stage. I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone from in and beyond Japan for their many warm words of encouragement and their generous donations.

As of immediately after the disaster, Hanamaki City served as a wide-area hub for disaster rescue and relief operations because of the limited damage here, our location as a nodal point between the tsunami-struck coastal area and the hinterland, our solid transport infrastructure in terms of airports and expressways, and our strong accommodation options, including the Hanamaki Onsenkyo Village. We became a conveyance base for police, volunteer groups, Self-Defence Forces planes, fire engines and other emergency services from all over the country to deploy rescue, relief and support activities out to the affected areas.

Deer dance

[Deer dance]
A traditional Hanamaki folk entertainment with a 1,200 year history. There are various forms of the dance within Iwate, and during the Hanamaki Festival, lots of teams gather to dance together.

Impact on the tourism industry

These rescue and relief activities continued for three months after the disaster, and naturally over that time, the hot springs area and other accommodation facilities were packed with support personnel and people who had fled from the coast. This took our focus from tourism to relief activities for a while, but that side of things gradually scaled down, and by the middle of summer we had almost returned to the same state as before the disaster.

Tourists were not as quick to return, however, due to wariness about tremors and unease about radioactivity following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and numbers remained well down for a long time. The radiation-related rumor damage was particularly serious, and while airborne radiation levels and food radiation in the city were far below reference values and had absolutely no effect on people's lives, the image of 'contaminated Tohoku' circulated widely and became a major hindrance to the recovery of tourism.

Erasing rumor damage accordingly became an important issue, but it was no easy task and we came to realize acutely quite how difficult it was to convince people of safety. We came up with a whole range of schemes, but in the end, the only effective strategy was the slow and steady path of explaining patiently and repeatedly that Hanamaki City was just as it had always been. Recognizing that this would inevitably take time, accommodation facilities, tourism associations, the city and other involved parties shared information and worked to convey that message of safety.

Current state of the tourism industry

In July 2011, we received the uplifting news that Hiraizumi, which lies around 50 kilometers south of Hanamaki City, had been registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with signs of a recovery in general domestic tourism finally emerging. In addition, with the March 2011 disaster again calling attention to the spirit of Kenji Miyazawa as exemplified by his poem 'Be Not Defeated by the Rain', the number of tourists visiting areas associated with Miyazawa began to climb steeply, and we were surprised to realize that since the beginning of fall 2011 Hanamaki was actually enjoying an even greater influx of tourists than before the disaster.

That boom continues today and, aided also by the effect of the Destination TOHOKU Campaign operated by the Japan Tourism Agency since March 2012, the Iwate Destination Campaign run by the JR Group and the municipalities of Iwate Prefecture as of April, and the events which Hanamaki City itself has organized, the figures for both overnight visitors and day tourists have lifted around 10 percent above pre-disaster levels.

Issues do remain. One is the deeply-rooted rumor damage. The number of general tourists from within Japan may have recovered, but foreign tourists and graduation trips and other educational trips, both of which fell away precipitously following the disaster, are still very low. Foreign tourist numbers in particular remain around 70 percent down, with no sign of recovery.

Another issue is drawing people downtown. Because Hanamaki encompasses a broad area, accommodation facilities and tourist spots too are dispersed relatively widely, so that while overnight- and stay-based tourism is becoming increasingly common, it isn't really being felt by city residents. To use a growing non-resident population to bring greater dynamism to the region, we will need to be more strongly aware of attracting tourists to the center of town and other downtown areas.

Cherry trees line the paths within Hanamaki Onsen

[Path lined with cherry trees]
Cherry trees line the paths within Hanamaki Onsen. Cherry, plum, peach and other trees all flower at once, so for a short period of time, the whole city takes on a cherry tint.

Mt. Hayachine seen from Mt. Koshiozan

[Mt. Hayachine seen from Mt. Koshiozan]
Mt. Koshiozan was a place beloved by Kenji Miyazawa, and the Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum now stands there. Mt. Hayachine is the mountain symbol of Hanamaki City, and is known for mountain worship. The whole range closely resembles the European Alps.

Wine Chateau Ohasama

[Wine Chateau Ohasama]
This is the Hanamaki winery Edel Wein, which wins prizes every year in international wine competitions. This year too, all nine of the products entered in the International Wine Challenge won silver medals or seals of approval, and the company also took a gold medal in the Japan Wine Competition in the experts category.

Tourism strategy for the years ahead

To repeat my earlier statement, the tourism industry is a major growth and strategic area that will underpin the local economy in the years ahead. Hanamaki City has a diverse range of hot springs ranging from resort-style hotels to historical spas, as well as many spots associated with luminaries such as Kenji Miyazawa, Kotaro Takamura and Inazo Nitobe. We are also blessed with numerous tourism resources, including local sake and wine brands, the unspoilt 'Ihatov' landscape, and a natural beauty that unfolds across the four seasons.

We need to brush up and package those tourism resources to boost the attractiveness of our region as a tourist destination. As one strategy to attract tourists downtown, as noted above, we have been working since last year with the people of Hanamaki to bring a Kenji Miyazawa flavour to our city so that visitors can experience his spirit everywhere.

Attracting foreign tourists

Attracting inbound foreign tourists will be a key element in achieving major tourism industry growth. Hanamaki City currently has international sister and friendship city agreements with Hot Springs and Rutland in the US, Berndorf in Austria, and Xigang District in Dalian, China, with which we are developing reciprocal personal and economic exchanges. Our next challenge will be to develop a new tourism strategy that utilizes this foundation of international exchange, and to develop internationally congruent infrastructure to make it easier for people from other countries to visit.

Future City Milky Way Railroad Mural

[Future City Milky Way Railroad Mural]
Painted on a wall close to JR Hanamaki Station in invisible UV-reflective paint, this mural is illuminated by blacklight at night. The mural was inspired by Miyazawa’s Night on the Milky Way Train.

Recovery and regeneration

Determined recovery efforts continue in the areas affected by the March 2011 disaster, which lie some 90 kilometers away from Hanamaki on the coast. With the opening of the whole length of the Trans-Tohoku Expressway, on which work is currently proceeding apace, that will only be just over an hour's journey. As an inland local authority in an affected prefecture, it is Hanamaki City's role and duty to provide robust support in the recovery and regeneration of the hard-hit coastal areas.

While we have already provided a range of material support, the next step will be to provide vitality, including economic activities. We also need to expand exchange to ensure that as many people as possible visit the affected areas so that memory of the disaster does not wear thin.

To that end, we hope to take advantage of the tourism incentives that Hanamaki City offers to strengthen our support, including initiatives already underway such as running antenna stores from the affected areas and advertising tourism packages that include volunteer tours, working actively with the affected areas to restore tourism across the region.

We welcome your continued support.

(original article : Japanese)

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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