A picturesque mountain village that depended on tourists, university students and retirees faces an uncertain future after last week’s devastating earthquakes in southern Japan: Will they come back?
At least 14 people died in Minamiaso, including tourists and students, and the search for three still missing continued Wednesday.
The second of two strong earthquakes that shook the region triggered major landslides in Minamiaso last Saturday, burying buildings and sending a bridge and cars into deep ravines.
The village is part of the verdant Mount Aso region, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Kumamoto city on the island of Kyushu.
The 1,000 students of Tokai University’s agricultural department make up a sizable share of the rapidly aging village’s 11,500 people.
Many residents depend on money earned from renting apartments to students, three of whom died when apartment buildings collapsed.
Although the university says classes are expected to resume in May, residents are not optimistic.
“You never know if or when they will come back,” said Toshiaki Hashimoto, a 65-year-old construction company owner who has several student apartments, most of them now damaged. “Roads are disrupted and a bridge has fallen. How are people going to get here?”
Asphalt pavements and concrete sidewalks on campus are cracked and broken into sections.
The students provide a youthful mix in the graying village, and Hashimoto hired three for part-time jobs at his company. Both his house and office are severely damaged, and he says he is ready to fold his business and leave.
“This is what happens if you live on active faults,” Hashimoto said. “I see little future here.”
After being transferred from one city to another every few years while working for a major telephone company, Koji Fuchigami had set his goal: One day he would return to his native Kumamoto prefecture and have a house with a stove in the living room.
He achieved that goal 16 years ago, moving to scenic Minamiaso to build his dream log house in a newly developed area.
Now 62 and working part-time, he was still adding to it when the magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck Saturday.
“My dream is now gone,” Fuchigami said as he returned home to collect valuables and documents and check the damage. “I don’t think we can live here anymore.”
Compared to older homes in the village, his seems undamaged, but a closer look reveals cracks in the foundation that a neighbor who is a carpenter says likely can never be properly repaired.
Inside is a mess, the stove thrown across the living room floor. The neatly tended garden has deep cracks, and a pile of chopped wood for the stove is scattered in the backyard.
Fuchigami and his wife Yachiyo were asleep when the quake hit at 1:26 a.m. They tried to stand up but kept getting thrown to the floor, as if in a washing machine, he said. His wife fractured her wrist when it was pinned by a fallen bookshelf.
A mudslide blocked the car in the driveway, so the couple rushed away on foot with their next-door neighbor, whose daughter gave Yachiyo first-aid treatment.
The Mount Aso area is the top tourist destination in Kumamoto prefecture, known to many in Japan for its hugely popular black bear mascot, Kumamon.
About 16 million people visit the area every year, or more than 25 percent of the total visitors to the prefecture, for scenic drives and hikes around the world’s largest cauldron crater.
Minamiaso is home to Aso Farm Land, a theme park with animals and a health spa, and is known for abundant mountain spring water, often considered holy in Japan, that visitors can collect and take home to drink.
Hiroko Konishi runs an inn named Jikuya with her husband in a less-damaged area of the village where electricity has been restored. Wall hangings fell and furniture flew around, but the damage appears limited to external wall cracks.
“I’m hoping to repair and reopen the hotel if we can,” she said. “But the question is if anybody will want to come and visit a place like this.”
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