Less than three months after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, David McCourt visited Tokyo, before heading west to explore the Kinki and Chugoku regions. This is his report on a nation recovering its self-belief...
IT almost didn’t happen. After years of wanting, waiting, saving and planning, I’d finally taken the plunge and booked flights to Japan. A week later, and the March 11 earthquake brought devastation to the country I so longed to visit. As the tsunami swept through the coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, causing catastrophic damage, I watched in horror.
A guilty feeling lingeredduring the following weeks as I worried, not only about the people affected by the natural disaster, but selfishly about the implications it would have on my experience.
Action For NipponBut in traditional fashion, the Japanese were not about to hang around. The country mourned, but it also set about re-building, and re-structuring. Roads into Tokyo that had been completely torn up by the earthquake were open within days, and power-saving measures were taken to deal with the shortage brought on by losing nuclear reactors in Fukushima.
So efficient was the recovery in the (admittedly only partially effected) areas that we visited was that it was hardly noticeable that this was a nation that, less than 12 weeks previous, had lost thousands to a horrifying natural disaster.
That’s not to say the Japanese are cold. Quite the opposite is true. But I was surprised at the lack of post-tsunami trauma when I first arrived in Japan.
The media picture of a depressed nation suffering from power-cuts and travel disruptions didn’t match up to the reality by the time I landed. Tokyo was running at full speed, and every bit as vibrant and chaotic as I’d imagined.
Of course, the campaigns, fund-raising and mourning is still present, but you have to look hard to find the evidence. A celebrity endorsed ‘Action for Nippon’ campaign centre in Shibuya, Tokyo, was a particular reminder of the ongoing appeal, and ‘Love Japan’ t-shirts can be bought from selected tourist attractions with proceeds going towards those affected by the disaster.
The only way to describe Tokyo is organised chaos. A huge city with a huge population – over 12million – and you notice it. Never a quiet moment, Japan’s capital is for those who think sleeping is a waste of time. A true 24-hour city (who is going to the cinema to watch films starting at 2:30am on a Tuesday?) and the noise and neon can be intimidating at first.
Once you get your head around the inner transport system – which despite having twice as many people to cart around, makes London’s look like the Dark Ages – and begin to explore Tokyo’s inner regions, each with it’s own unique feel and vibe, you can soon feel at home.
The tranquil temple regions of Kyoto couldn’t be further from the intensity of Tokyo. It’s easy to spend a week there, exploring the downtown streets and more rural regions by bicycle.
One of the most endearing things about these areas is the politeness and sweetness of the schoolchildren instructed to interview English speaking tourists at popular attractions for their assignments.
We must have taken part in four or five of these vox pops throughout the trip and were always greeted by excited faces and presented with gifts and mementos to take away in thanks for our participation. Generosity seems engrained within the culture.
For true beauty, head west from Kinki to Miyajima Island. A short ferry ride from Hiroshima, it is undoubtedly one of the prettiest parts of the Chugoku region. After getting your picture of the Tori shrine, it’s worth getting yourself to the top of Mt Misen for some unbelievable views.
It seemed a world away from the images of tsunami and earthquake on the other side of Japan only weeks before. It took our next stop, Hiroshima, with its own legacy of utter devastation, to bring home how a nation can cope with tragedy on an immense scale.
Baseball Fans - HiroshimaThe atomic bombings in 1945 changed everything for the Japanese. Still the only use of nuclear weapons in war to date, up to 166,000 were killed in Hiroshima, and up to 80,000 in Nagasaki.
The museum in Hiroshima Peace Park depicts scenes not too dissimilar from those images we’ve seen of Fukushima – a town turned to wasteland in the blink of eye.
While the destruction is incomparable in terms of size and morality, it’s the similar bird’s eye images of the ruined towns that made me wonder.
Hiroshima is now a fantastic city, full of life and culture, and located right at the heart of it all, is Hiroshima Peace Park – a moving reminder of what was lost, and what has been rebuilt.
Let’s hope that in years to come Fukushima can rise much like Hiroshima has risen in the last half a century, I for one am sure it will, and you only have to visit to see that the Japanese truly believe it.
Here are David’s top tourist tips for your visit:
Albatros, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Space is so tight at this bar located in where the locals call ‘piss alley’ (all the bars share the same public toilet) that drinks orders can be placed and paid for through a trap door leading to the bar below. This three-floored venue also has a treat in store, for those willing to battle their way to the top, with a delightful hidden beer garden
Harajuku, TokyoHarajuku, Tokyo
Tokyo’s answer to Camden, Harajuku is vibrant and full of all creatures weird and wonderful, especially on a Sunday. Have a stroll around Yoyogi Park before hitting the backstreets for a find in the many vintage shops and markets. The fashion capital of Japan is the perfect place to witness the cosplayers (style-conscious performance artists) at their finest.
Todai-Ji Temple and Diabutsu, Nara
With so many incredible temples to see in Kinki region it’s difficult to pick a favorite, but many opt for Todai-JI. The largest wooden building in the world houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. The wild deer add to the spectacle, mobbing tourists who have purchased deer biscuits.
If you don’t mind a 30-45min ride via a scenic route, then by bicycle is the best way to visit this painfully pretty area of Kyoto. Home to the unmissable Tenryu-Ji Temple and the Okachi-Sanso Villa, the mountainous area is populated by wild monkeys for added head-turning moments. It’s also a great place to experience some of Japan’s famous bamboo forests.
Miyajima IslandMiyajima Island, Hiroshima
A short ferry ride from Hiroshima, this island is one of the most beautiful parts of the Chugoku region. Take the double cable car journey to close to the top of Mt Misen and hike the rest for breathtaking views of the island and the surrounding areas from 500m above sea level.
Sony Building, Ginza, Tokyo
A must for any tech-geeks visiting Japan. This free to enter eight-floor sky scraper is full of all the latest products the tech giant has recently developed, and most of it is on display for customers to try. If you do find that piece of kit you just must have, head to the sixth floor for tax-free shopping.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
More like a library than a museum, this place is a great idea if it’s raining outside. If you can read Japanese you could spend a lifetime in there, lounging around in one of the comfortable reading areas. Even if you don’t, however, there is still a large collection of English translated material, advice on how to read comics properly, and a well-stocked shop for buying early issues of your favorite series.
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