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Matsushima’s Tourism Disaster and recovery | Kyuichiro Sato President Matsushima Tourism Association [Date of Issue: 28/February/2013 No.0216-0882]

Date of Issue: 28/February/2013

Matsushima's Tourism Disaster and recovery

Kyuichiro Sato
Matsushima Tourism Association

Protected by more than 260 islands, Matsushima has preserved its beautiful natural landscape. The early recovery of local tourism will aid the recovery of disaster-affected areas in the Tohoku region. Here we offer some information on Matsushima as a tourist destination that offers both safety and peace of mind, and also our gratitude.

1. Tsunami strike
At 14:46 on Friday, March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake—the largest in recorded history—with its epicenter 24 kilometers deep and 130 kilometers off the Sanriku coast east of Miyagi Prefecture's Oshika Peninsula. The earthquake caused huge tsunami waves that wreaked catastrophic damage along the Pacific coast of east Japan. Protected by more than 260 islands, Matsushima apparently suffered miraculously little damage, but nevertheless experienced an earthquake measuring just six lower on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale and tsunami waves with a maximum height of 3.8 meters (the second tsunami, which occurred at 16:40).

On the day of the quake, around 1,200 tourists were visiting the coastal area of Matsushima, which is a popular tourist destination. Tourist boats out sightseeing turned back to the pier as soon as the quake struck, and the second they arrived, staff who had been standing by guided passengers to high ground where they would be safe from tsunami waves. People strolling along the coast or in hotels and tourist facilities were also directed to safety. The aim was to gather everyone up on the mountains behind Zuiganji Temple and on Shintomiyama. Locals and tourists fled together, with traffic jams forming at one stage as so many people took to the roads, but the evacuation was successfully completed before the tsunami waves arrived.

Evacuees spent the whole day shaken by aftershocks, and then with snow falling as well, they were put up in the town's various hotels or in Zuiganji Temple. With power, water, phones, trains and other infrastructure down, almost all Matsushima's hotels took it upon themselves to look after the displaced tourists, and by March14, all tourists were sent safely home without a single injury.

While Matsushima may have suffered less than other coastal towns and cities, the damage was still extreme. While not directly caused by the tsunami, there were two deaths (one from the April 7 aftershock), three people seriously injured, and 34 receiving light injuries. Two square kilometres of land were flooded by the tsunami waves, 188 houses experienced flooding above floor level and 82 flooding below floor level, 216 houses were totally destroyed, 341 suffered major damage, and 2,493 suffered minor damage.

While the so-called ‘longlife’ hole (Chomei Ana) on Komone Island collapsed, there were no other major changes to Matsushima's many small islands, with the beautiful natural landscape remaining intact. Oshima, however, which is said to have been the origin of the place-name Matsushima, and which has had poetical associations from as far back as the Heian Period, lost its famous arched bridge to the tsunami, cutting off access to the island. Fukuura-jima Bridge out to Fukuura-jima Island had its posts pushed over, leaving it in a dangerous state. Even the sightseeing boats which take many tourists out among Matsushima's islands were affected, with 26 of the 73 smaller boats swept away along with the piers to which they were moored.

Other facilities were also damaged, with some ryokan and eating places abandoning business and taking down their buildings. The Belgium Orgel Museum, a popular tourist spot, was also forced to close.

Matsushima has a number of historical sites including the Zuiganji Temple, which is designated as a national treasure. Fortunately, the 400-year-old historical temple buildings were unaffected by the tsunami, but the earthquake left cracks in walls, collapsed plaster walls, and caused paint to flake.

Subsequently, salt damage from the tsunami killed a third of the gracious cedar trees lining the approach to Zuiganji Temple, and these had to be cut down.

2. Toward recovery
When the tsunami retreated, the Matsushima coastline was left covered with debris and thick black mud. Because Matsushima forms the heart of Miyagi Prefecture's tourism, restoring the area's tourism promised to have a significant ripple effect.
Clearing the mud from a carpark

Clearing the mud from a carpark

As our contribution to Tohoku's disaster recovery, we therefore raced ahead with restoration work to get Matsushima back on its feet as quickly as possible so that we would be able to host tourists and those involved in the recovery effort. One of our problems was how to remove the mud from the waterfront park area and from souvenir stores, tourist facilities and other areas with no power or water available. Just as we were pondering this, on 19 March, volunteers appeared from all over Japan to work alongside local residents and Zuiganji Temple's itinerant monks, turning black all over as they scrubbed and cleaned away the mud. The volunteers included Canadians who had hitchhiked up, and more than 750 people from around the country, particularly Niigata, Nagano and Hyogo. Thanks to their hard work, by early April almost all the black mud had been cleared from the Matsushima coastal area, enabling the various facilities to focus on restoration work.

3. Reviving Matsushima's tourism
Both the Zuiganji and Entsuin temples reopened for visits as of 10 April, a month after the disaster, and the Date Masamune Historical Museum and the Marinepia Matsushima Aquarium reopened as of 23 April. On 29 April, tourist boats started running again, with Matsushima patched up sufficiently that it was ready to receive tourists again before the Golden Week holiday began. By the end of July, four months after the disaster, 95 percent of souvenir shops, hotels and tourist facilities had been restored, and hordes of visitors came to Matsushima for the summer vacation. Visiting tourists were surprised at the peace and beauty, to the extent that you would think that there had been no tsunami in Matsushima.

With Matsushima suffering miraculously little damage, we were convinced that showing people the area's early reconstruction and recovery and sharing its vigor and dynamism would contribute to the recovery of the affected areas of Tohoku, and thanks to the efforts of all those involved with tourism, we have indeed managed to pull off a speedy recovery.

Mutoya-mae on National Route 45

Mutoya-mae on National Route 45

Mutoya-mae on National Route 45 today

Mutoya-mae on National Route 45 today

4. Matsushima's tourism: Current status and issues
Inbound tourism in May-June 2011 was around 25 percent of what we experience in a normal year, 55 percent around October, 65 percent in January-February 2012, and 75 percent in May-June, evincing a steady recovery. However, since that point, tourism has stalled at around 70-80 percent of normal levels. Where Matsushima normally receives 3.6 million tourists per annum, the figure for the 2011 calendar year was 2.24 million, followed by 2.65 million in 2012. One reason seems to be that people don't feel right going sightseeing in places affected by the 2011 disaster, while rumors of radiation from the nuclear power plant accident have also done some damage. To address fears of radiation, airborne radiation levels are tested in all parts of Miyagi Prefecture every day, and the results are posted on the Internet so that anyone can look at them any time that they like. Since the disaster, levels in Matsushima have consistently held at a safe 0.04-0.08 microsieverts, Miyagi Prefecture also releases inspection results for the foodstuffs used in hotels and restaurants, and everything local businesses use has been confirmed to be safe. With not a single tourist sustaining injury through the disaster, we will patiently continue to reassure people that Matsushima is a safe place that they can visit without concern. Tourism is closely linked with local agriculture, forestry and fisheries as well as with the shopping area, and has a major ripple effect. As such, we have been conducting a campaign to let people know that visiting Matsushima will help the recovery process, and we hope to see the number of tourists increase over time.

Many people from all over Japan have lent their strength to helping Matsushima recover, among them people striving to support disaster victims even while they too have been affected, people who have left their families at home to engage in volunteer activities, and people who have been sweating away at restoration work since the very day of the disaster to help effect a recovery. While the disaster may have caused a huge amount of damage, it also enabled us to experience the warmth and compassion of people's hearts, in itself an enormous treasure. Matsushima looks forward to continuing to contribute through tourism to the recovery of those coastal towns and villages that suffered catastrophic damage, and to remaining a tourist area that communicates its gratitude to those who take the time to visit.

(original article : Japanese)

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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