It’s been two years now since the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck the eastern coast of Japan, washing entire communities into the sea and causing the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant that had the whole world on edge, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
Now, two years later, the country is healing, both physically and emotionally, but their tourism industry still struggles. In the aftermath of the disaster, travelers with plans to visit the islands of Japan cancelled their trips en masse for fear of radiation exposure, and consequently, even those communities not directly effected by the earthquake and tsunami have suffered economically.
For tourists with an eye on Japan, 2013 is the time to go. The country’s transportation systems and major tourist destinations are fully operational, and the country is excited to welcome foreign visitors back to its shores. Not only will visitors get to experience a rich culture steeped in ancient traditions, world famous Japanese cuisine and the natural beauty of this island nation, they’ll be contributing to Japan’s recovery moving into the future.
Is it really safe to visit Japan?
While concerns linger on about the safety of traveling to Japan, most of these fears are unfounded. Tokyo sits 124 miles (200 kilometers) away from the site of the power plant meltdown, and according to radiation measurements taken in February, Tokyo’s radiation level is half that of New York City.
The U.S. Department of State’s most recent travel advisory for Japan recommends visitors avoid the area within a 12.5-mile (20-kilometer) radius of the plant, as well as the area to the northwest designated as a Deliberate Evacuation Area. Since most of Japan’s major sites of interest fall nowhere near this area, it’s perfectly safe for tourists to come and enjoy all that Japan has to offer.
Another lingering health concern involves food, as some of the fishing areas off the coast of Fukushima were contaminated. The Japanese government has ceased fishing operations in contaminated areas and has begun monitoring the food supply to ensure the safety of its citizens and tourists alike.
One of Japan’s biggest meat processing plants has independently tested every one of its products for possible contaminants and has found nothing of concern. As of August 2012, the United States has resumed importing such food products from Japan, as have Hong Kong and Singapore.
While the Yen has recovered slightly since the disaster, Japan is not as expensive as it used to be and compared with destinations like Paris and London, meals, accommodation and attractions are often cheaper or even free.
For a list of free things to do in Tokyo check out our list of Top 5 Free Things to Do in Tokyo.
Shop around on the web for flight deals and keep your eyes open for value adds at luxury hotels and ryokans. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it is possible to find simple Japanese-style guesthouses known as minshuku from ¥6000 (US$74) a night.
The most popular times to visit Japan are in spring and autumn to experience its seasonal foliage. Right now, it is cherry blossom season with the trees in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara predicted to be in their finest blossomy form in the final few days of March 2012.
Top things to do
Japan has so many highlights that it can be hard to know where to start. If visiting for the first time, you might want to concentrate your efforts on Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara and, if you have more time, explore Osaka or Mt Fuji or head to the Japanese Alps. It really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
For a traditional take on Japan, stay in a homestay or ryokan, time your visit with a traditional festival and concentrate your efforts on the temple towns of Kyoto and Nara. Read more about Tokyo’s Best Tatami Sleeping Spots.
Some of the top shrines and temples include: Kiyomizu Temple, Sanjusangendo Hall and Kinkakuji in Kyoto and Todaiji and Horyuji Temple in Nara. Tokyo also has its traditional side, however, and is home to two notable places of worship: the Meiji Jingu Shrine and Sensoji Temple.
For a Blade Runner-esque type experience make sure you visit the entertainment districts of Shinjuku and Roppongi in Tokyo or Dotombori in Osaka – especially at night. For views, check out the Park Hyatt (with its scene-stealing views made famous in Lost in Translation) in Tokyo or take a train trip past Mt Fuji on a clear day. To get a feel for Tokyo’s quirky side simply stroll through the streets of Harajuku – especially on a Sunday – and watch the wacky fashion show roll on by.
If you plan on traveling between cities or further afield, look into purchasing a Japan Rail Pass before you go. It will save you a heap of money and hassle and you’ll be able to ride on most trains, including the super-fast and efficient shinkansen (bullet train).