In Japan's Fukushima, hopes of Olympics boost are dashed


TSUCHIYU ONSEN MACHI, Japan, July 20 (Reuters) - When it was announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics, Kunitoshi Abe was thrilled.

Coming from a small mountain town in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture known for its "onsen", or hot spring resorts, Abe hoped his community, which was badly affected during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan, would benefit from the Games.

Japanese authorities had touted the event as an opportunity for national revival after the disaster that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing and triggered nuclear meltdowns, dubbing it a "Recovery Olympics".

But rising COVID-19 cases across Japan have forced authorities to hold the Games mostly without spectators, dealing a blow to the country's expectations. read more

"In the midst of this situation, I don't really feel it's any sort of 'Recovery Olympics'," said Abe. "The Olympics itself isn't really in the mood for the Olympics."

A sixth-generation kokeshi maker, Abe thought the Games might bring enough visitors to spark a renewed interest in the vial-shaped traditional wooden dolls he makes in his workshop.

Tsuchiyu Onsen Machi is home to some of the craft's last remaining masters, and giant statues of the dolls can be seen on town streets.

Abe hopes the practice won't die out with him. The coronavirus outbreak has already been bad for his business.

"I want people to come visit, but I don't want the coronavirus to come as well," he said. "I am also doubtful about the safety of having sporting events with audiences."

Although most events will be held in Tokyo, Fukushima was chosen to host seven softball and baseball matches.

The first softball game will be played without spectators on Wednesday at Fukushima Azuma baseball stadium, ten minutes' drive from the town.

The town's onsens have seen visitor numbers depleted as well. Business is at half what it would have been in normal times, said Kazuya Ikeda, head of the local hot springs tourism association.

Ikeda believes the idea of a 'Recovery Olympics' should be reconsidered.

"The coronavirus has spread throughout the world, and it is difficult for human efforts to overcome this all at once. This cannot be helped," he said.

"It's a matter of time before this will be solved ... and in that sense, this 'Recovery Olympics' can still be fixed by human hands."

Reporting by Joseph Campbell; Editing by Karishma Singh

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