Japan tsunami


Six months ago, Japan was hit by the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history, followed by destructive 40m-high tsunami waves. An estimated 15,700 people lost their lives with 4,600 still missing. As Metro discovers, tourists are still very much needed...


Metro, 8 September 2011

“One-day trip to Fukushima!” shrieks the tourist brochure in Metro’s Sendai hotel room. Published before the devastating events of 11 March, which left 15,700 people dead and the city’s nuclear plant crippled, the guide is a soul-sapping reminder that long before radiation fears ricocheted around the globe, tourists did come here, once. But with international visitors to Japan down 36% from last year*, travellers are wary. Is Japan safe? Is it still fun? Metro visited the worst-hit area, Tôhoku, in north-west Japan to find out…

Like Fukushima, no tourist would dream of spending their annual two-week vacation in downtown Koizumi. Sure, the Godzilla-green mountains, lush paddy-fields and Pacific ocean that crashes in like a thousand karate kicks, makes a scenic setting. But it’s hard to ignore the roofs of half-smashed houses dumped on a nearby railway bridge. Or the elementary school, stripped to its concrete foundations. Or the seaweed-caked saloon cars, catamarans washed miles inland and random bathtubs in the road. The town is now a rubble Babylon, left with a few prefabs and a clean-up effort set to take years.

Metro spends a morning with young volunteers, clad in dust-masks and hip hop bandanas, as they cleared the debris. Here among uprooted branches and downed telegraph poles, we find kids’ toys, coat hangers, a jar of pickled plums, geta sandals, a DVD entitled Great Chicken Powers – mementoes of people’s lives before the Richter 9.0 earthquake and resultant 40-foot-high waves changed them forever.

Bizarre as it may seem, foreign tourists are needed here. Mark Birtles, 28, from Nottingham, recently spent five days volunteering. “I had time off work and would feel guilty not helping out,” he says. “We helped families by delivering supplies to temporary shelters and cleaned temple gardens. When you sit back with a beer later, you definitely feel you’ve achieved something.”

The ‘voluntourism’ isn’t just gritty manual work. Organisations such as RQ can match your skills to work. Photos found in the wreckage need restoring (survivors’ moods are boosted massively if say, an old wedding photo is unearthed), while Finnish flute-players and Spanish clowns have recently used their talents to cheer locals up. “You form bonds very quickly,” adds Mark. “I made some good friendships.”

Indeed, the perma-bowing bonhomie of Japanese folk is often what makes many visitors’ trips to the country. But tourists have no need to fear post-earthquake sombreness. Everywhere you go, from Sendai to Tokyo, streets swarm with Asahi-sipping locals smiling so much, their faces must ache with RSI. The disaster has brought people closer together – marriages and pregnancies in Tôhoku have soared since March.

But nagging doubts remain, namely radiation fears. While some Japanese show solidarity by deliberately eating Fukushima beef, many expats, worried about the long-term effects of radiation, have fled the country (Japanese call them “flyjin” – a play-on-words of gaijin, which means “foreign person”).

The Foreign Office currently advises “against all travel within a 60km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility [except in transit]”. Most Tôhoku tourist sites fall outside this zone, while Tokyo (236km away) has a radiation level of 0.056usv/h, lower than New York or Paris. By comparison, your 12-hour plane journey from the UK you’re likely to have been exposed you to 200usv. The tsunami-stricken areas along Tôhoku’s coast maybe prone to regular aftershocks, but most are mild and you’ll feel nothing more than a slight hum.

“One reason you should take advantage and go now is that there are less foreign visitors which means previously busy tourist sites are relatively empty,”  says James Mundy from InsideJapan Tours.  “Plus the Japanese people are going out of their way to welcome tourists – offering special gifts or cheaper rates on accommodation.”

Indeed, staying at opulence-to-the-hilt lodgings such as Tokyo’s five-star Peninsula will now only set you back £300 a night (down from £500 six months ago).

On our last night in Tôhoku, Metro stays in Sakan Ryokan (traditional inn) in the spa resort of Akiu. In the paper-screen-and-tatami-mat zen-ness of our room, Metro changes into traditional ryokan-wear of a yukata kimono, which guests pad around in, like an old folk’s home, until check-out.

After taking an onsen steam-bath (chaps: all underwear must come off, unless you fancy some Japanese bloke grumbling about breach-of-etiquette), we sit down to a kaiseki meal, a shoes-off-and-lotus-position, women-in-kimonos-serving-27-tons-of-slimy-food-affair. Trays of local delicacies – “sea squirt”, jellyfish and something which looks and tastes like an earthworm – are brought out. Suddenly, an abalone (sea snail) cooking on a Bunsen burner raises its tiny tentacle, wrapping around Metro’s chopstick. It’s enough to make some tourists swear to vegetarianism forever, but for many it represents one of the myriad alien things (customised bidets, bowing like an idiot 17 times a day etc) that makes holidaying in Japan such a super-charged, Fuji-sized adventure.

The following morning, as Metro leaves the ryokan, three old ladies in geisha get-up unfurl a banner saying, “PLEASE COME BACK SOON!” Tourism here has nosedived recently (despite an 800-guest capacity, some nights they only muster 30) and the poignant scene tugs the heart-strings. Thinking about visiting Japan? There really hasn’t been a better time…