The year 2011 was indeed a terrible year for the Japanese, and it came hard on the heels of two pretty tough years by any standards, with the severe economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis of 2008.
In March 2011, just as the plum trees had burst into bloom and the nation was gearing up for the annual orgy of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan. The resulting tsunami (a word that, not coincidentally, happens to be Japanese) was of epic proportions: reaching almost 40m in height, it washed away entire villages along the east coast of Tōhoku (the northern part of the main island of Japan).
To add to the devastation, the tsunami also triggered a major crisis at a nuclear powerplant in Fukushima Prefecture, about 240km northeast of Tokyo. At press time, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plants, working with the Japanese government, seemed to have brought that situation under control, but the entire nation was still jittery and wondering how long it would be before the power stations could be declared cooled, cleared and no longer a concern.
» Population: 126.5 million (2011 estimate)
» GDP: US$4.4 trillion (purchasing power parity; 2010 estimate)
» GDP per capita: US$34,200 (2010 estimate)
» Inflation: -0.7% (2010 estimate)
Even without a sluggish economy and a severe natural disaster, things were already pretty tough for the Japanese as they set out into the new millennium.
In September 2010 the Japanese Coast Guard took the crew of a Chinese trawler into custody after a collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. About a week later, the Japanese were forced to release the crew in the face of threats by the Chinese. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the nation letting out a resounding ‘Ara!’ (‘uh-oh!’). The reason is this: since the end of WWII, Japan has done little to cultivate warm relations with China (some would say they’ve even actively antagonised China) and has, instead, focused on its alliances with Western nations. Now, with China rising fast (the nation overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010), Japan faces a new and rather unsettling geopolitical situation.
Compounding the problems is the situation at home. The population of Japan fell by more than 100,000 people in 2010 and experts predict that – barring large-scale immigration, which most Japanese oppose – the population may shrink to 100 million people by 2050 (from its present level of 126.5 million). Don’t think for a moment that the Japanese are unaware of this. Indeed, the words shōshika (declining birthrate) and kōreika (ageing population) find their way into every bathhouse, bar and cafe conversation.
» Number of onsen: more than 3000
» World’s busiest station: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, servicing 740,000 passengers a day
» Cruising speed of the shinkansen (bullet train): 300km/h
» Islands in the Japanese archipelago: approximately 3900
Reading all this, you might think that the Japanese were down for the count. But here’s the surprising part: that’s not the case at all. As shown by the Japanese people’s response to the earthquake and tsunami, when faced with a tough situation they band together, roll up their sleeves and get to work. Let’s not forget that these are the same people who took a country that was little more than rubble in 1945 and turned it into one of the world’s most advanced and efficient countries in just a few short decades.
But more than rebuilding, one senses that the crisis of 2011 will yield a variety of benefits for Japan, and the world as a whole. Nuclear power will come under some serious scrutiny (some countries may abandon it, while others will make their nuclear powerplants safer). Japan, already a leader in solar-energy technology, will surely explore other forms of alternative energy and energy conservation.
And perhaps best of all, in the days following the quake, the Japanese news showed rescue teams arriving from around the world, including China, and Japan deeply and sincerely felt the strength and warmth of the world’s support. In a country where debts are scrupulously honoured, this can only bring Japan closer to the world, and the world closer to Japan.
Dos & Don’ts
» Do take off your shoes when entering a house, the inner hall of a temple, or any place where you step up onto tatami mats. Try to step out of your shoes right onto the tatami mats (ie don’t take off your shoes a short distance away and walk over).
» Do learn a few Japanese pleasantries, but don’t worry too much about communication difficulties – the Japanese don’t expect you to speak their language, and they might know a bit of English.
» Don’t get into a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot springs)bath tub before thoroughly rinsing your body.
» Do slurp when you eat noodles.
Whether you’ve got six days or 60, these itineraries provide a starting point for the trip of a lifetime. Want more inspiration?
If your time in Japan is limited, don’t try to do too much. Fly into Narita or Haneda (the latter is closer to the city). Stay in a convenient transport hub like Shinjuku , Shibuya , Ginza or the Tokyo Station area . Visit Tsukiji fish market your first morning (a good idea if you’ve got jetlag). Next, head up to Asakusa to visit the temple of Sensō-ji , then over to nearby Ueno for the Tokyo National Museum . The next day, take the loop line to Harajuku and walk to Meiji-jingū , the city’s finest Shintō shrine, then take a stroll down chic Omote-sandō . From there, head up to Shibuya to soak up some of modern Tokyo. Make sure you spend an evening wandering east Shinjuku , since this is where you’ll get the full experience of Tokyo’s neon madness. Other urban areas to check out include Ginza , for high-end shopping; Akihabara , for electronics and geek culture; and Roppongi , for international nightlife.
Break up your time in Tokyo with day trips to nearby attractions like the fantastic shrines at Nikkō and the temples at Kamakura ; if you’re a hiker and it’s summertime, you could even climb Mt Fuji .
The Tokyo–Japan Alps–Kyoto route is the classic Japan journey and the best way to get a quick taste of the country. You’ll experience three faces of Japan: the modern wonders of Tokyo , the traditional culture of Kyoto , and the natural beauty of the Japan Alps . While you can do this itinerary in any season, keep in mind that the Japan Alps can be snow covered any time from early November to late March – this rules out hiking unless you’re an experienced winter mountaineer – but you can visit the attractive cities of Takayama and Kanazawa any time of year.
Let’s assume that you’ll fly into Tokyo . Follow the preceding Tokyo & Around itinerary, which will give you a taste of things in the capital. Don’t worry about skipping some of the traditional sights in that itinerary, because you’ll be heading to Kyoto , and you’ll get your fill of shrines and temples there.
From Tokyo, take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, then an express to Takayama . Spend a day here checking out the restored Sanmachi-suji district, then head into the Japan Alps via Shinhotaka Onsen or nearby Kamikōchi .