By MAYU YOSHIDA
When Martin Smith checked into a small "ryokan" in the hot-spring resort of Shima, Gunma Prefecture, on a rainy September night, staff at the traditional inn saw a glimmer of hope that overseas guests could be lured back after the March triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.
Smith, a 32-year-old cofounder of a software company in San Diego, was the first foreign guest that Kashiwaya Ryokan had received since launching an English-language word-of-mouth campaign using Facebook and other websites earlier in the month.
Smith's trip fulfilled a decade-long wish to visit Japan, despite many tourists' concerns over the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
"I'm not worried at all and it's ridiculous," Smith said. "I had time, so I really had to do it."
Kashiwaya is just one of many traditional inns struggling to attract foreign guests again after the March disaster to supplement the already saturated domestic tourism market.
Before the disaster, Shima, located three hours by train or car north of Tokyo, was on track to becoming a popular destination for overseas visitors, especially from the United States, Europe, Singapore and Taiwan.
But the number of foreign visitors to Kashiwaya fell to nearly zero in the weeks after the disasters, with the inn not receiving a single inquiry from overseas.
Shima is far enough from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant not to be affected by radiation contamination. Nevertheless, like a number of other hot-springs resorts and tourist spots in Gunma and elsewhere in the region, it has been hurt by groundless rumors.
"We felt that our efforts had started to get off the ground," said Hiroshi Koyama, who is in charge of Kashiwaya's global promotion. "The disasters in March, however, drastically changed everything."
The Japan National Tourism Organization says that compared with 2010, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan plunged 60.6 percent in March, 81.9 percent in April and 65.8 percent in May.
Kashiwaya's president, Masuo Kashiwabara, who inherited the inn from his parents, said that shortly after the disasters he thought he would be able to last for only one year before he had to start laying off some of his 14 employees.
But thanks to a large-scale tourism campaign jointly launched by Japan Railways group firms and Gunma municipalities, the number of visitors to the prefecture this summer was higher than usual, and Kashiwaya enjoyed record-high reservations in August.
"Luckily, we managed to draw back domestic visitors this summer," Kashiwabara said. "Next we want to welcome international guests again. First we need to raise Shima's profile and stress its safety."
As part of the drive to win back visitors from overseas, Kashiwaya kicked off the Buzz about Kashiwaya Campaign in early September, cutting room charges in half for foreigners on condition that they post their impressions about the inn and Shima on blogs, Facebook pages or TripAdvisor.com.
After March 11, Kashiwaya also opened its own Facebook page and renewed its English website, which caught Smith's eye. He said it was the only Internet page he could find with English information for traditional Japanese inns in the Shima resort area.
"We are aiming to secure 10 to 15 percent of our reservations from international guests in the next three to five years. It would give a boost to the town's tourism," said Kashiwabara, 49, also chairman of the Shima Onsen Association.
Smith went by car to Shima during his 12-day trip to Japan that also took him to Kyoto, Hida, Gifu Prefecture, and Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.
"Shima is like nowhere else. It's less crowded, better for me," Smith said, adding he likes places that aren't spotlighted in guidebooks.
Other tourist spots in Gunma are also seeking to attract overseas visitors again.
Kusatsu, one of Gunma's most popular hot-spring and ski resorts, is planning to resume a project to establish a network of about 100 foreign workers in the town, mainly Chinese and South Koreans, for translation services for tourists. The project has been suspended since the earthquake.
The effort was launched about a year ago to offer a variety of services for international visitors, as Kusatsu was a popular destination for Asian group tourists, said Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Association Chairman Torayuki Yamada.
"We're also planning monitoring tours for international visitors to travel around Gunma, including Kusatsu," the 72-year-old Yamada said.
Kashiwabara, meanwhile, said he was encouraged by support from abroad. When Shima asked for donations on its website, in Japanese and in English, to offer free four-day trips to the resort for people who lost their homes in the quake-tsunami disaster, the first donor was a Briton, followed by a German art dealer who gave all the proceeds from some paintings he sold, Kashiwabara said.
A total of ¥6.5 million was raised, covering all the costs for inviting some 500 people during the April-July period.
"Just thinking that someone abroad cared about Shima bolstered me," he said.
After returning to the U.S., Smith said he hopes to visit Japan again. "I really loved Japan . . . I wish the trip had not come to an end."
Check out the bolded lines, guys :)