One year ago, on 11 March 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan’s history hit the country’s northeast, causing massive tsunamis and nuclear explosions that devastated a large swath of the country’s coastline.
of the psychological and economic scars have yet to heal, visitor numbers are
slowly returning to normal. After a 60% drop immediately following the quake, December
2011 recorded only 11% fewer visitors than the same month in 2010. Those who do
visit will be met with the customary Japanese courtesy, plus an unusually open
display of warmth and gratitude. More than ever, Japan wants you to visit.
you go? Considering the following, the answer is a resounding yes.
threat of radiation
Sadly the issue of nuclear activity is
now the first question on most visitors’ minds. A 20km exclusion zone still
exists around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant -- and likely will for
some time. Reports of contamination outside the exclusion zone have forced many
Fukushima residents to relocate. However, little radioactive fallout has been
detected in neighbouring prefectures and life goes on as usual.
In Tokyo --
some 270km from the Fukushima plant – the subject of radiation is much more
likely to elicit chagrin (for having hoarded bottled water in the weeks
following the disaster) than genuine fear. In the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto and
Nara) and further west, contamination was never a concern. To decipher the radiation levels
of the area you are visiting, check out Citizen group Safecast,
which maps local
54 nuclear power plants, only two are currently operating. The rest have been
shut down for scheduled maintenance and the prospect of restarting them has been
met, in many cases, with fierce local resistance. Power shortages may occur
when the scorching Japanese summer kicks in around mid-July, which could cause
trains to run on reduced schedules and cities to dim their neon light shows. But
these are only mild inconveniences that should not put off travellers.
The disaster in northern Japan underscored just how long – about 1,200km from
north to south – and diverse the country really is. In fact it is almost
uncomfortably easy to travel around the southern two-thirds of the country
without encountering any evidence of the trauma up north.
itineraries, such as those that take in the Tokyo and Kansai areas, Hiroshima and
the historic post-towns and hot springs of Nagano and Gifu prefectures, are all
as easy to plan as they were before the disaster.
tend to stick around the mid-section of the country, however, there is much
more to see in Japan beyond the main island of Honshū. Closer to the Asian
continent, the southwestern island of Kyūshū has long been popular with Korean
and Chinese visitors for its up-and-coming city of Fukuoka, hot spring resorts
and a smoking (though non-threatening) volcano, Sakurajima.
Kyūshū lie the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa, a land of snow-white beaches,
vibrant reefs and the distinctly different culture and cuisine of the former
due south of Tokyo, you will encounter more pristine beaches and rare wildlife
on the remote Ogasawara Islands, which became a Unesco World Heritage site last
summer. Visit soon, before the crowds swell and truly discover this remote gem.
Beyond the reach of the tsunami, northern Japan’s rustic onsen (hot
springs) and well-preserved feudal era towns survived with little damage.
Tourists have been giving all of Tōhoku – as the northern region is called – a
wide berth, however in these remote stretches, home to sacred peaks, mountain
ascetics and rice fields, travellers are most likely to find the traditional
Japan that seems all but lost elsewhere. And you can be sure that your yen is
going to those who need it most: local small businesses.
on the northwest coast (Yamagata, Akita and Aomori) were untouched by the
tsunami and are welcoming tourists. On the northeast side, in the Fukushima, Miyagi
and Iwate prefectures, the coastline is still impassable in many places, but
inland sights are accessible.
prefecture, the towns of Hiraizumi (famous for its temples) and Morioka (known
for its castle), as well as the picturesque Tōno Valley, are open and ready for
tourists with public transportation running as usual. Sendai, the capital of
Miyagi prefecture, has become something of a reconstruction boomtown and has
much of its infrastructure back in place. It is possible to take the Senseki
rail line from Sendai as far as Matsushima-kaigan – to see the bay made famous
by the haiku poet Bashō – but unfortunately not any further (the line is still
suspended between Matsushima-kaigan and Ishinomaki).
The Tōhoku shinkansen
(high speed rail), which
runs from Tokyo to Aomori, passing Sendai and Morioka along the way, is running
Want to get
more directly involved in helping the region? Contact Peace Boat for volunteer opportunities. You
can also do your part comfortably in Tokyo, at charity events like those
organized by the Save Minamisoma Project, which also accepts volunteers for
its biweekly food runs to Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima.
lives in Tokyo and is an author on Lonely Planet’s most recent Japan travel
guide as well as the upcoming Tokyo city guide.
The article 'Should you travel to Japan?' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.