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.
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.