JAPAN – The New Year’s earthquake has shattered hopes of tourism recovery in Wajima city, a popular destination in Ishikawa prefecture, Japan.
Among those affected by the earthquake is chef Makoto Wakabayashi, who had high hopes for 2024 to be a great year for tourism as visitors began to return. But those dreams were crushed in a matter of minutes on the first day of the new year, when the strongest earthquake to hit Japan in 13 years struck with multiple aftershocks, devastating the city and claiming the lives of dozens. One of the most severely damaged buildings was the 9-story Koshuen hotel where Wakabayashi worked.
The total human and material damage in the area from the powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake is yet to be assessed. But it is clear that Wajima, known for its fishing industry, lacquerware, and bustling markets, has a long road to recovery ahead.
Wakabayashi shared that the tourism industry had just started to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. He now fears that the earthquake could be a major setback. “It’s really terrible,” said the 62-year-old chef, sitting cramped in a makeshift shelter in a three-story building. Many people are sleeping on plastic sheets or tatami mats here.
Nearby is the Koshuen hotel, one of the largest accommodation centers in the city with a hot spring overlooking the sea. The top floors suffered the most damage, with walls peeling off and ceilings collapsing. Wakabayashi estimates that it will take 6 months to a year to completely renovate the hotel.
Tourism was a bright spot in Japan’s economy in 2023 when the country reopened its doors to visitors. By October last year, the number of visitors had surpassed the same period in 2019.
Located about 450 km northwest of Tokyo, Wajima has always been a popular domestic tourist destination. Just a 15-minute walk from Koshuen is Asaichi, a 1,000-year-old shopping district with around 200 stalls selling seafood, snacks, and handicrafts. Unfortunately, most of the market was destroyed in the fire caused by the earthquake.
“Asaichi morning market in Wajima is one of the top three markets in Japan,” Wakabayashi said. The flames almost completely consumed all the goods and houses of those who lived there, just as the crab harvesting season was about to begin.
The chef considers himself lucky compared to many residents who lost their homes and are now living in temporary apartments provided by the hotel. However, Wakabayashi still faces difficulties as his salary has been reduced due to the pandemic and his job is now uncertain due to the natural disaster.
While tourists will surely return, the cost of repairing the hotel will be high. “I’m not sure if the hotel will be able to keep its employees or not,” Wakabayashi said.