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A new luxury hotel — in Fukushima? via The Japan Times

Hotelli Aalto is surrounded by lakes and ponds created by the Mount Bandai eruption, and it offers access to nature at its most raw. The 13 rooms here (priced from ¥28,000 per person) are divided between those with a forest or mountain view. There is also the new Aalto Lodge a short distance from the main hotel, designed for families and even pets. Renovated in 2007, the hotel has a European mountain-lodge feel with an open-plan lobby where guests to relax and mingle. As well as indoor and outdoor natural onsen (hot springs), Aalto also offers Nordic and Japanese fusion cuisine.

The hotel is perched high in the mountains some 100 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, in the far west of the prefecture. But being located within Fukushima has left it with an image problem — everything within the prefecture borders can sound toxic, even though neighboring Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures are closer to the plant and have been more affected by the events of March 2011.

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The Reconstruction Agency, tasked by the government with the rebuilding after the Great East Japan Earthquake, stated earlier this year that Fukushima tourism is still in a “severe situation” and that, due to reputational damage, Fukushima “has not been able to enjoy the effects of the national inbound surge.”

In 2010, 26 million overseas visitors came to Japan, of which 510,000 visited the Tohoku region. After the 2011 disaster, every region except Okinawa saw a decrease in foreign tourists, but none more so than Tohoku, which dropped to 40 percent of its normal influx. By 2013, all regions bar Tohoku had rebounded past their 2010 numbers. Fukushima remains hit the hardest. The Reconstruction Agency shows that the number of foreign tourists staying overnight in Fukushima Prefecture fell by 70 percent in 2011 and has barely increased since.

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Munakata hired Yoshikazu Masuko, one of Japan’s own “famous architects,” who also has a long track record of designing Nordic architecture. The Japan-meets-Scandinavia concept for the hotel is an idea supported by a shared climate — temperatures can get down to -20 degrees Celsius in both Finland and Aizu.

“The people in Finland enjoy winter, with long nights and little sunlight, by staying inside. I wanted to have that mindset within this hotel,” says Munakata.

Building on a strong demand in Japan for northern European style, the hotel is offering a lifestyle and design concept with an interior that uses only natural elements.

Unlike Japan, Scandinavia has a “culture of using chairs,” Munakata says, “but what we did was to use wood in a unique Japanese way, combining the culture of chairs with the Japanese birch of Shirakawa. We wanted to use only local wood to create this.”

This month the hotel is expanding, with the opening of Aalto Lodge, a private villa with a wooden bath separate from the main hotel. Munakata hopes it will further the hotel’s appeal to foreign tourists. Priced at around ¥80,000 for a two-night stay, the family-sized house is set within a forest a short drive from the main hotel.

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