Since 11 March 2011, one cannot talk about or consider visiting Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding.
Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility. This spirit will allow the Japanese people to rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone expects. And it is this very same spirit that makes travelling in Japan such a joy.
Do not avoid Japan because of fear. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a- lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. At the time of writing, only a small area of Fukushima Prefecture was off limits
apan is wide open for travel. If you have been considering your first visit to Japan or returning to re-experience the unique magic of the country, the perfect time to go – and to celebrate Japan and its people – is now.Japan Is Approachably Exotic
Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.Japan Makes You Think
Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It is a country that took a good, hard look at the West and said ‘We’ll take your technology, but we’re keeping our culture’. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things – and perhaps, just as often, wondering ‘Why don’t we do it that way back home?’
With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji.
Japan is a food lover’s paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba noodles to multi- course kaiseki banquets. In a city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, you could eat a different Japanese speciality cuisine every night for a month without repeating yourself. There’s no doubt that a food tour of Japan will be memorable, but there’s just one problem: once you try the real thing in Japan, the restaurants back home will pale in comparison. The only solution is another trip to Japan!
There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen. You can feel your muscles relax and the ‘ahhh’ that you emit is just an easy way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion, and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.Staying in a Ryokan
Eat in your bedroom. Spend the day lounging about in a robe. Soak in a bath while looking at a garden. Don’t lift a finger except to bring food to your mouth. Sounds relaxing? Then we highly recommend a night in a good ryokan. The Japanese had the whole spa thing figured out long before they ever heard the word ‘spa’. From first-class place to the most humble ryokan, they will all give you a taste of how the Japanese used to live.Hiking in the Japan Alps
Close your eyes and picture Japan. If all you see are geisha, Zen gardens, bullet trains and hyper- modern cities, you might be in for a real surprise when you get into the Japan Alps. Hike right into the heart of the high peaks here and you’ll be in awe of so much mountain splendour. You can go hut-to-hut among the peaks for a week with nothing on your back but a solid day pack.Castles
Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have in common with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or HikoneTokyo’s Modern Architecture
Japan may be known for its traditional temples, but Tokyo’s cityscape is a veritable open-air museum of contemporary structures. The capital has come a long way from copying the Eiffel Tower – these days you’ll find dozens of inspired and original works by a pantheon of the world’s greatest designers. Fill up on such architectural eye-candy as the chic boutiques in Omote-sandō, the quirky postmodern projects on Odaiba, or even the new army of office towers in Marunouchi.
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.