First Group of Japanese Tourists Visits Kuril Islands

Japanese tourists have for the first time visited the Kurils, an island chain that disputed between Tokyo and Moscow for over 70 years, reported.

The Soviet Union seized the strategically located volcanic archipelago north of Japan’s Hokkaido in the final days of World War II, and has maintained a military presence there ever since. President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have met many times to try to find a way out of the impasse, most recently in September.

The pair have discussed joint economic activity in the region and Russia’s tourism agency said this year it was hoping to attract Japanese tourists to the islands.

The group of 44 people arrived Wednesday for a four-day visit, including trips to a Japanese cemetery and a local history museum, Russian regional authorities said.

The mostly elderly tourists were set to see two of the four islands in the Sea of Japan, which Russia calls the southern Kuril islands and Tokyo says is its Northern Territories.

One Japanese woman told Mir 24 television she had come “to see the places where my fellow citizens once lived and to touch the ground.”

Some Japanese people have visited the islands to see their ancestors’ graves since the Soviet capture but there been no organized tourism.

The group bought the tours in Hokkaido and arrived by ship, with each paying around $3,000, Russian television channel Zvezda said.

A tour guide at a local history museum was shown on television telling the group that “Kunashir Island is part of (Russia’s) Sakhalin region.”