08:40 9 March 2017
FEATURE: Tsunami-hit Japan city taps home-stay tourism to move forward
By Mai Iida
RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan, March 9, Kyodo
Six years after a huge tsunami ravaged Rikuzentakata, the coastal city in northeastern Japan is moving on to rebuild tourism with a unique home stay program, as it believes benefits to be brought by deeper exchanges between visitors and locals are not just tourists spending money.
The "minpaku" private lodging program organized by the city's tourism promoting organization Marugoto Rikuzentakata enables visitors to get a taste of the daily lives of local fishermen, farmers, and other residents while learning about the disaster.
Dipendra Lamichhane, a 27-year-old Nepalese who joined one of the three-day tours in February, said it was an "unforgettable" experience, citing his host family's warm hospitality and the city's beautiful ocean scenery known for its saw-tooth shaped coastline.
"We made a family here," the student of a computer vocational school in Miyagi prefectural capital of Sendai, said after spending time with his host family and three Nepalese schoolmates, visiting an ocean viewpoint and hot spring, cooking for each other and dining together.
They sometimes talked about what it must have been like when the city was hit by the magnitude 9.0-earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Lamichhane said he was surprised how his host mother Renko Ogiwara, 69, miraculously survived, becoming the last to escape the tsunami when she drove up a hill while others said along the way it was the wrong direction to be fleeing.
"A big, black mountain was chasing after me," Ogiwara said of the tsunami she saw on that fateful day.
Having heard that she suffered from depression later, Lamichhane, whose home country was also struck by a major earthquake in 2015, said, "I was impressed how she's been hanging tough."
A total of 24 Nepalese and Vietnamese studying in Japan joined the home stay program with Lamichhane. Many of the host families have decided to cooperate with the project as a way to reciprocate the kindness they received in the aftermath of the disaster or to help make the city vibrant again, said Aya Yokosawa, a coordinator of the program in the organization.
Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture was among the hardest-hit cities in the calamity. Nearly 1,800 people -- around 7 percent of the city's population -- died or went unaccounted for and nearly 4,000 houses collapsed entirely as waves, reaching 17 meters at some points, destroyed the city's downtown hub.
Six years later, construction still continues in a vastly flattened coastal area to heighten the land in order to buttress the area for another tsunami.
Currently, Japan as a whole enjoys a tourism boom, with the number of foreign visitors to the nation increasing for the fifth consecutive year to a record high exceeding 24 million in 2016, but its benefits have not spread equally to disaster-stricken areas in northeastern Japan.
While hotel utilization by foreigners in 2016 jumped 2.5-fold from the pre-disaster level for Japan, the combined figure for the northeastern prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima has just recently recovered to pre-disaster levels, according to the Reconstruction Agency.
The city government of Rikuzentakata officially started promoting minpaku private lodging services in 2015 as a way to redevelop tourism as it believes benefits to be brought by the project are not only something that can be calculated in economic terms, but offer opportunities for excitement and motivation, said Takanori Obayashi of the city office's tourism section.
So far, five Japanese schools brought around 670 students to the city under the home stay program in 2016, and 10 schools have signed up for the program this year for around 2,200 students, according to Marugoto Rikuzentakata. More than 100 foreigners also used or have reserved the city's private lodging services for this year.
The city recently launched a licensing system for interpreter guides to better cope with the needs of foreign tourists, while helping local restaurants and hotels to prepare menus and signs in foreign languages.
Sakae Suzuki, 65, and his wife Mitsuko, 62, oyster farmers who had lost their home and a fishing boat in the tsunami, said they had never imagined that they would one day have Vietnamese student guests at their new home.
"It's fun to connect with people outside. I didn't think in that way before the quake, but many volunteers came here at that time and I found it fun to interact with people outside this city," Mitsuko said while showing their Vietnamese guests how to pry open oyster shells. Mitsuko also does not mind the extra cash she can earn through the program, she said.
Her husband Sakae was a little worried that they might not be able to communicate with Vietnamese, but it never was a problem.
"We got a lot of help" after the disaster, Sakae said when asked why he decided to accept tourists at their home. "If there's something that we can do to repay people's kindness, we wanted to do it," he said, referring to the relief donations that arrived from around the world.
Nguyen Manh Duc, 25, one of Suzuki's Vietnamese guests, said he enjoyed going out in his host father's boat to catch crabs as part of his first fishing experience at sea.
"The ocean is very beautiful, and people are really kind," said Nguyen Manh, a student of a Japanese language school in Sendai.
After ending the three-day tour, the foreign students appeared reluctant to part with their host families. They took photos, hugged until the last minute before departure, while some were teary-eyed.
The small coastal city became known for the heavy toll it took from the 2011 calamity and its population fell 18 percent from the pre-disaster level to around 19,800. Probably the best-known symbol of Rikuzentakata today is the "miracle pine", a single spindly survivor among a grove of 70,000 trees that had lined the city's beach for centuries.
With anti-decay chemical treatment, the tree became a monument, standing in the beach as a symbol of its tenacity amid the unimaginable destruction.
Minpaku program coordinator Yokosawa said people come to see the miracle pine and buildings left stranded after the tsunami, but she wanted to offer them chances to get to know the city at a deeper level through exchanges with the locals.
"The pine grove that lasted since Edo period is gone and it takes time to restore the beautiful scenery we used to have, but there are people who continue to live here," she said. "I want visitors to get a glimpse of their charm because I believe there is no place other than here where people's ordinary life is treasured and shines so much."