Twin quakes hit growing tourism in southern Japan

Hideo Kawata, the manager in charge of Kumamoto Castle on the island of Kyushu, thought he would never witness one of Japan’s top tourist destinations in such a sorry state.

Several turrets and a part of the 242-metre Nagabei, or long wall, around the magnificent structure have collapsed, while many of the roof tiles from its main tower are scattered on the ground.

The damage to the 409-year-old castle “made me speechless. It was beyond imagination,” Kawata said.

Kawata said five of the 13 structures designated as "important cultural properties" at the castle were heavily damaged in the twin quakes centred on Kumamoto prefecture that struck two weeks ago.

The office has not even been able to assess the full extent of the damage as hundreds of aftershocks have continued to rattle the area, he said.

“It could take 10 years to 20 years or even decades to restore the damaged properties,” he said.

A magnitude-6.5 quake hit Kumamoto on April 14, and about 28 hours later, a second quake with a magnitude of 7.3 rocked the same region. The twin quakes left 49 dead and one missing.

To rescue Kumamoto Castle and other cultural assets, and to make sure that a growing tourism industry far away from the capital Tokyo is not too badly hit, offers of financial assistance have come in from across Japan.

One such offer came from Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation. He announced last week the organization would donate 3 billion yen (27 million dollars) for the restoration of the castle.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised the government’s support for the repair work when he met Kumamoto Governor Ikuo Kabashima.

“The castle is a symbol of Kumamoto and recovery from the quakes will not end until it is repaired,” Abe told the governor.

Damage was also severe at Kumamoto Shrine in the same compound as part of the castle’s stone wall fell on the shrine's main building.

Another venerable shrine at the foot of Mount Aso, the country’s largest active volcano, was flattened by the tremors.

An official at the Association of Shinto Shrines in Tokyo said they received reports that a number of other shrines in a wide area on Kyushu suffered damage.

The quakes came as Japan enjoys an ever-increasing number of tourists thanks to a weaker yen, the relaxation of visa rules and the growth of low-cost airlines. The number of overseas visitors in 2015 jumped 47.1 per cent from the previous year to a record 19.7 million.

The quake-hit region has a number of other major tourist destinations that were directly affected by the quakes: some roads to Mount Aso itself were cut off by landslides, and half of the inns at the high-end Yufuin hot spring resort are still closed. The perceived increased risk has led to many cancelled bookings, according to locals.

Some buildings in Beppu, another popular hot spring resort, suffered broken windows.

Most of the hotels and inns tried in vain to restart normal business as soon as possible following the quakes, said Seiji Hori, an official at the Hotel and Inn Association.

“Whenever TV showed images of the devastation [in quake-hit areas], we had more cancellations,” Hori complained. “But we are open for business as usual.”

Last update: Wed, 27/04/2016 - 11:10
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