TOKYO Built in the early 17th century, Kumamoto Castle is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Japan. It has also seen its share of history. Japan's last civil war took place there when, nine years after the Meiji Restoration, disgruntled samurai led by Saigo Takamori fought against the new Imperial government in 1877.
But the historic castle that had held up against wars and fires could not withstand the two powerful earthquakes that hit Kumamoto Prefecture on April 14 and 16. Only hours before the first quake, the Kumamoto Castle Facebook page posted a message about how the 800 cherry trees nearby had turned from pink to green as blossoms gave way to leaves.
By that evening, five structures that had stood since the castle's founding 400 years ago had collapsed.
DAMAGE CONTROL The quake hit Kumamoto, which is located on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, at the height of the tourism season. April 14 falls during Songkran, the Thai new year holiday period, and comes just before Japan's Golden Week, a string of public holidays in late April and early May.
A cheaper yen, a relaxed visa policy and a promotion strategy focused on Asia have made Kyushu an attractive destination for international travelers. In 2015, the number of foreign visitors to the island rose 69.1% on the year to 2.83 million, the fourth consecutive year of record visitors. Of that number, 69.3% were from Asian countries.
The governments of those countries took prompt action after the earthquakes struck.
The Thai Embassy in Tokyo said some 127 Thai nationals were rescued from the hard-hit prefectures of Kumamoto and Oita and sent to nearby Fukuoka. Those rescued included individual tourists and students studying at Kumamoto University. Other Thai nationals in the area were apparently taken care of by their travel agencies, an official at Japanese travel agency H.I.S. said.
Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said that 83 Indonesians, including 24 children, had sought shelter at the Kumamoto University campus. Two Indonesians were injured during the evacuation. And Taiwan's Tourism Bureau said there were 660 Taiwanese people in 27 separate groups in Kyushu at the time of the quakes.
SERIOUS SETBACKS Kumamoto is popular for its historical landmarks and onsen hot springs. Mount Aso, an active volcano, is also a "must-see" spot. Tourism in Kyushu as a whole has benefited from numerous municipalities offering subsidies to travelers. The extra money, equivalent to several thousand yen, is enough for many tourists to opt for a more luxurious hotel.
The rise in tourist-related consumption in recent years has been a boon for Kyushu's economy, but the twin earthquakes have turned the industry upside down.
All flights to and from Aso-Kumamoto Airport were canceled for several days due to damage to the terminal building, and operation of the Kyushu Shinkansen, the island's main transportation artery, was suspended. The bullet train connects Hakata in the north to Kagoshima-Chuo in the south.
Taiwan was Kyushu's second-largest source of visitors in 2015, after South Korea, with 278,618 travelers. With Kumamoto Airport closed, Taiwan's China Airlines has canceled the three direct flights it operates from Kaohsiung to Kumamoto each week. Among those who had planned to go to Kyushu from April 18 to April 30, a total of 2,084 tourists in 69 groups have canceled their trips.
China was quick to ban all travel to Kumamoto. In the northeastern port city of Dalian, a salesman at travel agency Jiatianmei said a group tour of 21 people to Kumamoto and elsewhere in Kyushu was canceled on April 16, the day of the second earthquake. Jiatianmei has also shelved similar trips that were to leave on April 21 and 29 and will refund customers' money. The company said it will not sell trips to Kyushu for the foreseeable future.
Kumamoto Airport partly resumed its operation on April 19, but the shinkansen, which sustained serious damage, is unlikely to resume full service anytime soon.
LONG-TERM IMPACTS With aftershocks continuing to strike the island, foreign travelers are likely to cross Kyushu off their list of destination options for some time to come.
Eisaku Okubo, deputy director of the Kyushu District Transport Bureau, is not optimistic about the impact. "We were sure that the figure [for foreign arrivals] would surpass 3 million this year," he said. "Now we think a decline is inevitable."
Tomochika Kitaoka, senior economist at Mizuho Securities, struck a similarly pessimistic note, writing on April 19 that the economic impact could amount to tens of billions of yen if cancellations continue for a few months across the whole Kyushu area.
A drop in tourists to Kyushu would also be a setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of doubling the number of foreign tourists to Japan to 40 million by 2020.
Japan has become an increasingly popular destination for Thais since requirements for tourist visas were waived in 2013. By nationality, Thais accounted for the sixth-largest group of arrivals in Japan in 2015, rising 21% to 796,731. The launch of a daily flight service between Kyushu's Fukuoka and Bangkok by budget carrier Jetstar Asia in 2014 expanded the tourist base to the southern region to young, cost-conscious travelers. Thai movies and TV series filmed in Kyushu have also helped raise the region's profile.
Charoen Wangananont, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said that despite the earthquakes, Thai nationals will continue to travel to Japan. "We understand more about the earthquakes in Japan, and we know that it affects only a particular region," he said. "I am sure that this year we will see another year-on-year increase of 20% in Thais traveling there," he said, noting that Kumamoto and its neighboring prefectures still account for a small portion of trips made by Thai visitors to Japan.
FAMILIAR FACE A 30-year-old market researcher from Singapore who visited Kumamoto last summer said she was saddened by news of the disaster. "The place was slow-paced, and the castle was beautiful," she said. "I'm concerned about the people living there. They were really friendly and helped us a lot during our trip."
One-time visitors are not the only ones expressing sympathy and solidarity.
Many people in Asia have come to know the prefecture through its mascot Kumamon. Stationery and clothing featuring the friendly-faced bear are sold across Bangkok, and meet-and-greet events featuring Kumamon always draw huge crowds. Kumamon is also popular in Singapore, receiving a warm welcome when he visited the city-state to promote agricultural products from the prefecture. Last February, he made an appearance in the Chingay Parade, an annual event that attracts thousands of participants and performers. Kumamon is also big in Hong Kong.
In China, Internet users have been circulating a cartoon of a panda giving a bamboo shoot to a bandaged Kumamon, and numerous sympathetic messages have been posted on social media sites. Li Tianran, the Chinese consul general to Fukuoka, met with Ikuo Kabashima, the governor of Kumamoto, to thank the prefecture for helping Chinese tourists take shelter at temporary camps.
Nikkei staff writers Yukako Ono in Bangkok, Daisuke Harashima in Dalian, Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore, Wataru Suzuki in Jakarta and Cheng Ting-fang in Taipei contributed to this report.