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April 25th, 2011
07:54 AM ET

A Tourist in Tokyo

I recently returned from a weeklong trip to Japan. It was my first real visit to the country. Having no other point of reference, Tokyo seemed pretty normal to me.

And by normal, I mean incredible. The maze of trains and subways was as packed and punctual as I had expected. Store after store –make that mall after mall– offered gadgets and fashions I had never seen before. And yes, sushi really does taste better in Japan.

The action wasn't all indoors. People were having picnics in the park under cherry blossoms. We saw at least four outdoor weddings. We spent hours people-watching... gawking at random breakdance battles and crowds in elaborate costumes.

But the trip almost didn't happen. Like many people, I struggled with deciding whether or not to cancel my vacation. The holiday had been booked months before the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Japan's National Tourism Organization says arrivals in March plunged 50% from last year. Radiation fears, aftershocks and blackouts have scared off scores of would-be visitors.

We saw evidence of the emptiness. These two pictures of the Great Buddha in Kamakura don't entirely do it justice. The one on the left shows the few dozen people at the site last week. April is usually a peak time for tourists. But the crowds were far bigger a few months ago. The picture on the right was taken in November.

Photos by Bryan Ho & Vincent Ho

Store owners opened up about the difficult time they're going through. When I thanked the manager of a Kappabashi-dori kitchenware shop, he replied, "You are most welcome. Thank you for coming to Japan." He told me the great quake did little damage to his goods. But he's still hurting because it caused foreigners to flee. And that's a big chunk of his business. He says sales are down 40% at his knife shop.

I heard a similar story at a sushi restaurant in Ginza. My husband and I were enjoying a set dinner when our chef presented us with some high-end pieces of fish not listed on our menu. He told us they were a gift from the businessman seated across from us at the sushi bar, to thank us for visiting Japan.

The owner also came out to talk to us. His father opened the restaurant back in 1936. He told us business has slowed significantly since the quake. He feels bad, not just for his 150 employees but for their families as well. He considers himself responsible for all of them, up to 500 people relying on him for their livelihoods.

I never considered the distribution of my tourist dollars that way before... that my holiday might help support Japan's reconstruction, albeit in a small and indirect way.

And in case you're curious, I felt 2.5 aftershocks (one may have been my imagination). They were all late at night. There were no unexpected blackouts, though the electricity shortage meant most escalators were turned off to conserve energy. Many museums and some shops are operating with shortened hours.

As for radiation fears, all I can say is do some research and make an informed decision. For me, the U.S. State Department's updated guidance provided additional peace of mind. I had already looked into the risks associated with various exposure levels. Here's that segment, just to get you started.

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Filed under: General • Personal musings
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Jacob

    thanks for posting this! exactly the sort of feedback I was searching for

    April 27, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  2. Eyvor

    I was glad when I read your text. Me and my family did the same thing, we really go to Japan on vacations 9th och April to 20th of April, and we didn't regret at all. We visit Kyoto and the people there told us they noticed fewer tourists and they were very happy we came from Sweden inspite of their situation in the country. One of our bests vacations (my daughter is ther for study japanese for one year, and many pupils from Sweden and Europe left the country after the disaster, but she is still there!!

    April 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  3. Pedro

    I was in Tokyo for 1 week at end of April, my flight was almost empty...i have found that weird...
    My stay in Tokyo ? Amazing...everything was normal, people living normal...
    I loved it...and hope to go back.

    May 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Sokhon

      Yeah, it's likely Hayate 2 will be in the same TV Tokyo spot as Hayate 1 and ZKC: 10am on Sunday (or 34:00 on Saturday, dennedipg on your perspective). Congrats on the move! Indeed, Warabi is served by the Touhouku honsen, straight to Ueno, Tokyo *and* Akiba :-).

      September 10, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I just left Tokyo a few days ago and it's amazing how different countries exaggerate some of the news. I'm currently in Shanghai and the news keep pouring in about Japan being in horrible condition. I was in Tokyo last year around the same time and the only difference is..... fewer neon signs. That is the only difference that I found. There was no food shortage, no water shortage, maybe a slight cigarette shortage but nothing more than that. All my friends (Tokyo natives) were out an about every night and getting drunk like any other night before the earthquake. If any of you have any interest in going to Tokyo, ignore the fears and go have fun. From what I've seen and heard, everyone is pretty much over the crisis and ready to move on.

    May 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  5. Jerry

    The exchange rate scares me more than the potential of radiation exposure right now...

    May 17, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  6. Jeff

    I run a tourism-related business in Japan and this year has been horrible. The foreign media has done Japan a huge disservice by making it seem like the entire country is a disaster area. I can assure you that the regular tourist trail, including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima are doing just fine and have been open for business the entire time. Come visit Japan!

    May 17, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Reply
  7. Marc

    I was supposed to leave for Japan next week but have cancelled the trip.....what is "recovering" is something visible. However radiation is not something that can be seen or felt after a week-long trip.....it's hard to tell how dire that aspect of the situation is.

    Anyways very glad you enjoyed your trip. Japan is an amazing country to visit and wish I can go back very soon!

    May 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  8. Lewis Foster

    "From what I've seen and heard, everyone is pretty much over the crisis and ready to move on."

    While this is true of Tokyo and much other areas of Japan, the areas hit by the tsunami are not even close to being over the crisis and ready to move on. The headlines may be over, but the people of Northern Japan still need help. Please do a little online research and see what you can do to help! thanks!

    May 17, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  9. Gitte

    I and my husband lived in Tokyo for five years. I can imagine very well what you experienced and I look forward to our upcoming trip in June. Will make sure we spend loads of yen on fantastic food, fashion and books!

    May 17, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  10. theresebernard

    Tokyo was a lot farther from the epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami event, and was not affected directly by the tsunami. What would you expect to find? I live in Seattle, and several years ago were had and earthquake in the 6.8 magnitude, but we are well removed from the epicenter, and some parts of Seattle suffered a lot of damage, and others did not -mostly the very old section of unreinforced masonry buildings in Pioneer Square District. The new high rises barely suffered at all. If the same quake had in fact occurred under Seattle, the story would have been vastly different.I was there downtown on personal business I never got to conduct. I spent three hours trying to get a bus OUT of the area. Had the earthquake been UNDER Seattle directly, I might not be writing this at all.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  11. Shirokuma

    Seriously?

    Kanagawa and Tokyo do not Japan make.
    People are not at all "over" the crisis. The current news that all three reactors likely melted down and damaged the pressure vessels is huge national news.

    The undercurrent is the more important issue. That is not something one can feel without being in it. A lot of people are still missing relatives from the areas, a lot of those people will not believe their relatives are dead until a body is found.

    Things in the back of the mind can be ignored for a time but that does not change the fact that they are there.

    Economically this disaster will bankrupt the country. Government bonds are being issued again to back the compensation TEPCO has to pay, the government is asking banks to forgive loans to TEPCO.

    And for the power consumption issue summer has not hit yet. Try the middle of July.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  12. Kalvin

    My family and I will be visiting Tokyo on June 22nd. Can't wait to go back to visit this wonderful country. We had booked our trip before the disasters. I agree with Jonathan about the media. I have friends that live there, and it is very sad what is going on in the parts of Japan that got hit by the disasters. However, they say most is the same except fewer tourists. Which might be better for those who do go.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  13. Vendo Thefastlane

    ...While those of us who live here have been SCREAMING at the world that everything has been pretty much normal in 95% of Japan since late March...

    May 18, 2011 at 12:12 am | Reply
    • Nilce

      Man, I worry about my wallet too. I aleardy have a shopping list! I gotta fill out by Chocotto Sister DVD collection, buy and pick up some manga and doujinshi. That's like a billion dollars right there, especially with this crappy exchange rate!

      September 10, 2012 at 5:19 am | Reply
  14. Sepirus

    I live in Japan right now (from America) and stayed through the earthquake as a teacher here. There are no worries to be had. These pictures above of are Kamakura, a beautiful place and great attraction. It was that empty when I went in early April.

    Japan really needs all the tourist support it can get and for people to not be worried about false reports or fear. Come to Japan if you are inclined to, there is no danger. Oh, and escalators are back working now that the power situation has returned to normal.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:37 am | Reply
  15. Jacky McDonnell

    Thank you for your positive feedback from your Japan visit. I have visited this fantastic country twice, last time taking my grandson. It is a visual pleasure of contrasts! The people are polite, welcoming and helpful. We have many friends(homestay english learning students) who we keep in constant contact, and they have also said that many businesses, in areas not affected by the disasters, are suffering because tourists think all of Japan is a no go zone. I hope many people read about your recent visit and decide to go and support this wonderful country.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:05 am | Reply
  16. jugglingtam

    It's nice to post something like this to ease people's fear of travels to Japan. I am a professor here in Tokyo and have been living here since a week after the quake (and two years in the past). Life has been relatively normal. Yes, there are aftershocks and yes, people been consumed with helping those up North, but we are not in a dire situation.

    Tam
    tamdoesjapan.wordpress.com

    May 18, 2011 at 1:07 am | Reply
  17. Jeanette

    I have also just returned to Australia from a week in Japan (Tokyo). Loved it! Everyone was so helpful and courteous. Went to Disneyland and noticed the distinct lack of foreign tourists. It's a beautiful country and if you have ever wanted to go, now is the time. Seize it.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  18. Max

    Till the Fukushima nuclear plant issue is NOT solved, tourist will not come to Japan. The media is actually downplaying the ongoing, grave situation at Fukushima.

    Tourist have many other options, and who wants to travel to a country where there is an ongoing Nuclear disaster going on?

    The media is not exaggerating, but underplaying the risks.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:02 am | Reply
  19. Greg

    Our family visits Japan about three times a year but our trips have been limited because the yen is so strong to the dollar. Japan has become too expensive and I think this also limits tourist travel to Japan. I am less concerned about the media reports and we will return to Japan when the dollar is stronger.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:03 am | Reply
  20. Max

    Japan is not expensive, but till the ongoing situation at Fukushima nuclear plant is not solved, tourists will go somewhere else.

    I feel that several of the comments are suspicious and written maybe by the Japanese tourist agency? Why nobody mentions about the Fukushima nuclear crisis?

    May 19, 2011 at 12:20 am | Reply
  21. Jeff

    To the two commenters who wrote about the radiation:

    The media is not downplaying the radiation risk to tourists. There simply isn't much of one. I live near Tokyo, which is the closest big city to the problem area, with the other cities in the usual tourist trail being much farther away. I also have a radiation detector (paranoid family member sent it). The radiation is between 0.1-0.2 micro Sv per hour, which is exactly normal when compared to the world's other major cities.

    The public was expecting a huge nuclear disaster in Tokyo and they didn't get one, so they accuse the media of downplaying and the government of a cover-up.

    May 19, 2011 at 3:15 am | Reply
  22. Jeff

    "I feel that several of the comments are suspicious and written maybe by the Japanese tourist agency? Why nobody mentions about the Fukushima nuclear crisis?"

    This is the level of paranoia that I'm talking about. See my post above. Then again, maybe I'm "one of them"!

    May 19, 2011 at 3:16 am | Reply
  23. Max

    Till the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis is NOT over, Japan tourism will not recover. The media is trying very hard to make us forget what is STILL going on at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

    Is not paranoia, but a fact, that the Fukushima nuclear plant situation is NOT resolved.

    When is resolved, let me know.

    May 19, 2011 at 3:44 am | Reply
  24. Jeff

    A lot of things in Japan aren't resolved, Max. It doesn't mean you're in any danger to come here. Do you understand that Tokyo is too far away to be affected?

    May 19, 2011 at 3:57 am | Reply
  25. Jeff

    And Max, it IS paranoia when you think that tourists returning from Japan and commenting on this board are from the Japan Tourism Agency.

    May 19, 2011 at 3:59 am | Reply
  26. Matt

    Hi I have lived in Japan for 15 years(from australia) and let me tell you it is a fantastic country. BUT>>> with the nuclear crisis the foreign media is on track. The Japanese government is too slow with information and when it does come out it's conflicting. If the agencies all got together and worked frpm the same page pf the script then there would be no problem. at the moment I don't trust the vegetables, beef, tea and seafood. Believe me, I will only buy Ozzie beef and vegetables from the very south of Japan. It is the governmet\nt and japanese media doing the country a disservice not the foreign media.
    Support the country but be aware that things certainly aren't all rosy.

    May 19, 2011 at 9:23 am | Reply
  27. Asako

    I live in Tokyo, I want to know truth about Fukushima nuclear crisis soon. Japanese government is too slow.

    May 19, 2011 at 11:00 am | Reply
  28. Saud

    Hi Just got back from a wirl wind trip of Tokyo this morning .Everyone who I spoke before the trip said your mad .Now that I have gone to Japan Tokyo and back everything is normal has kept them quiet .

    A beautiful country and very hardworking people will rise up again

    May 19, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  29. Max

    I am with you Asako — Japanese should demand the truth about the ongoing crisis at the nuclear plant.

    Unfortunately, the mainstream media from around the world, is downplaying the crisis at the Fukushima plant, because supposedly, the Japanese embassies around the world, have demanded a blackout over the nuclear crisis.

    I recommend Twitter #Fukushima to read what most people are really thinking about the ongoing crisis.

    Jeff - the situation unfortunately, is far from over and is not paranoia.
    Check Twitter, and you will see thousands of tweets about Fukushima.

    May 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply

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