I was watching television when a very nostalgic-for-me landscape filled the screen. It was my hometown of Otaru, in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. But unfortunately, the news wasn't very uplifting. It was about how the number of visitors from South Korea and China had plummeted due to deteriorating ties between Japan and South Korea, and the new coronavirus.
The owner of a sushi restaurant that I have been to was shown lamenting that 90% of his customers had been foreigners in its heyday. And then he went on to say, "I wasn't aware of it until now, but now that they aren't here, I finally realized how many foreigner customers I had."
What a candid remark. Indeed, I'd become so accustomed to the many foreign travelers that I see in the stations and at hotels in Sapporo and Otaru, that whenever I went back, I no longer gave them a second thought.
So when I read an article saying that the number of visitors to the Sapporo Snow Festival was some 2.02 million this year, about 710,000 less than last year due to the impact of China banning outbound group tours as a measure against the coronavirus, I was surprised and grateful that so many had been visiting during other years.
This is not limited to our attitude toward foreign travelers. We tend to adapt to things very easily. Especially when it comes to things that we're blessed with, or are happy about, we're only aware of that joy in the beginning and soon start thinking it's normal.
But it's when you lose something that you realize that you had something great, and something to be grateful for. Sometimes it's too late by the time you realize it. That isn't the case this time, though.
We're seeing a glimmer of hope in Japan's relationship with South Korea, and the outbreak of the new coronavirus is sure to come to an end sometime. And when South Korean and Chinese visitors come to Japan in large numbers again, we can welcome them to Japan with open arms. The sushi restaurant owner in Otaru will surely do all he can to make the most delicious sushi.
For all those nationwide who are involved in tourism, these hard times will continue for a while. But I hope that they hang in there until they're able to exchange smiles and greetings with tourists again.
(Japanese original by Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)