When my friends back home contacted me in Japan to see if I was okay after the March 11 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, I told everyone the same thing. "We're okay. We live 500 miles from the disaster zone. We haven't been affected at all." We didn't even feel the earthquake, not even slightly. We have had no black-outs. We continue to have food, water and daily necessities.
But of course, this is not all true. The disaster has affected everyone in Japan, including the 650 people on the small island where I live in the middle of Japan's Seto Inland Sea. "What will happen to Japan?" laments my next-door neighbor, Kazu-chan. It's a big question.
Kazu-chan, manages the International Villa on our island that hosts over 1,000 foreigners each year. After a US$150,000 renovation last year, the beautiful villa overlooking the sea sits strangely vacant, in peril of becoming Japan's next haikyo, or "modern ruin."
"We have no reservations at all for the International Villa this year," says Kazu-chan, the first time this has happened in the 20-year history of the villa. "Ever since March 11, we have had only cancellations."
Sea-kun, who runs a kayaking program on the island for junior high schools has been faced with cancellations this year from school groups coming from the Tohoku region.
On the beach, the proprietors will have a lean summer without the foreign tourists they have come to rely on as, year by year, the Japanese tourists have decreased and the foreign tourists increased.
As the warm days of spring envelop the island, the foreign tourists should start arriving. But no one is coming to Japan now. "We are far from Tohoku, but the foreign media has exacerbated the nuclear problem. No one will come to Japan this summer," said another islander. The 'Visit Japan' campaign is a distant memory.
Tohoku, the northeastern part of Japan hardest hit by the triple disaster, is not a major destination for foreign tourists. Most people fly into Tokyo and head south-west. Western Japan, including Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Hiroshima haven't been affected at all, let alone the islands of Shikoku, Kyushu and all of Okinawa. From Tokyo to Okinawa is 1,500 kilometers, just half the total length of the country. But this is all hard to know if you don't live in Japan.
This is not the first time our island has experienced a decrease in foreign tourism. There was SARS and bird flu before this. But the Tohoku Earthquake is much bigger news. Many say this event will change Japan forever. We have survived before, but will we survive now?
Our locals have always welcomed the foreign tourists because they infuse variety into an otherwise austere island lifestyle. People often ask me what country most tourists come from, but my only answer is, "Everywhere!" They come from Holland, Sweden, France, Finland, Australia, Spain, Italy, Australia, the U.S., the U.K., even Trinidad and Tobago. Most are just travelling through Japan and choose to spend a day or two on the island.
The locals wonder, "Why Shiraishi Island?" not able to comprehend why our little island would be on any tourist's list of places to visit in Japan. The answers vary, but most tourists say they come to relax, experience Japanese culture first-hand and to soak up the quiet island life. Most have been referred by others.
Visitors are charmed by the simple island life and the friendliness of the locals. The islanders invite them into their homes for karaoke, food and drinks. Local businesses have walls full of postcards from all over the world--thank you notes from previous visitors who hold their memories dear.
In turn, the islanders are charmed by the tourists who regale them with tales of travelling around Japan (and the world), explaining the subtleties of different cultures and telling jokes over beers and sake. The foreigners bring their talents with them too: many are professional singers, dancers, writers or artists. They join in the island culture. They jam with us, drink with us, laugh with us and share our sorrows and joys.
Without the tourists, we would have little knowledge of other people, other countries, and other worlds outside of our own. They bring real experiences to us. We will miss them dearly.
Are we going to start referring to these as "the good ole days?"
The other night, I got a phone call from San-chan, who runs the restaurant and bar on the beach. "Come over to Kamiya," he said, referring to one of the old houses on the island. "We are doing something interesting." My husband and I grabbed a bottle of wine and headed towards the beach. Inside Kamiya, a traditional Japanese house over 100 years old, a group of locals was sitting around a large bonfire. Smoke wafted up through an opening in the ceiling and the walls of the room were black with 100 years of smoke. "This is how it used to be," they explained to me, "before we had heaters." I was astonished to see such a large, open fire inside a wooden house.
Beer and wine was passed around and someone brought out a guitar. We all settled into a typical island night of warmth, chattery and friendship.
But something was missing: you.