Touring Post-Earthquake Japan

By Chris Redfearn

I was first wowed by Japan’s major highlights, Tokyo and Kyoto, over four years ago. My long-awaited return this time had been planned - with friend and fellow Japanophile in tow - to focus on the more rustic flavours of the country, as far and wide as possible. Then the earthquake struck. Suddenly, our friends and family expressed concern verging on incredulity as our departure neared. I struggled to reconcile my excitement with the vague unease the British media seemed to delight in evoking.

My friend and I decided to pay heed to their reports and curb any movement north of Tokyo, towards the areas most directly affected by the earthquake and radiation. We prepared ourselves for the strange experience of seeking a heady adventure across a nation in mourning, still coming to terms with what befell it a mere month before.

We stayed in Tokyo three days before we collected our Japanese Rail passes and headed west. After arriving at our hostel in Asakusa, we decided to indulge our material side with a trip to Akihabara. That most hyperactive of districts, resplendent with cacophonous arcades and garish signage - nothing says “welcome back” with as much impact as Tokyo’s electronics mecca. We emerged from the subway, and were instantly immersed in the revelry.

But after a couple of hours, I acknowledged a subconscious admission that my surroundings were not as dazzling as I had remembered. It slowly dawned as I scrutinised the vaguely familiar buildings that Electric Town’s neon incandescence was decidedly more muted. I thought of the energy restrictions I had read about, and momentarily saw the city though the eyes of a local rather than a tourist. It was, however, to be the first of the strangely few and less profound consequences of the disaster. We saw nothing of the daily power cuts the government was reportedly enforcing across the city (though perhaps they were occurring in other districts), and no shortage of bottled water nor general food in the supermarkets. Perhaps it had all calmed by then.

Yet, the consequences were perceptible for those seeking them. Many of the shops and department stores were almost unbearably stuffy, a vague annoyance I do not recall noticing last time and perhaps part of the drive to curb air conditioning usage. At every Tower Records outlet stands were devoted to selling merchandise related to the earthquake: a Songs For Japan CD, T-shirts and posters. Donation boxes were ubiquitous. Advertising boards, restaurant menus and hostel greeting blackboards were taken over with urges to "Pray for Japan",  and occasional shrines and ornaments were bedecked with the delicate origami paper cranes which to the Japanese have come to symbolise hope during adversity since the story of Sadako Sasaki captivated the nation post-1945. The farther we journeyed from Tokyo, the less we beheld such sights, but even as far as Kido Nanzoinmae (outside Fukuoka on Kyushu island), we came across chains of vibrant paper cranes on the edge of a quiet forest.

Of course, the aftershocks back in the capital quite literally jolted us from our holiday mindset. The most powerful, at the time, of the hundreds which had struck since 11 March (7,1 magnitude) occurred just four days before we were to fly out, so we were expecting at least one. We felt two. The first awoke us on our second morning, and evoked ambivalence: half slight panic, half wonder. The second struck the following night, but neither was of sufficient size to make the news - nor indeed a topic of conversation in the local bar. Our most likely once-in-a-lifetime experience was, to everyone else, a sobering but standard aspect of daily life.

Not that there were many people with whom to discuss them. Our hostel in Asakusa seemed quiet for such a large place, and my friend confirmed it failed to match the vivacity of his previous visit.  All the places we stayed at - from the large hostels to the intimate ryokan of individual families - were well under capacity. Every owner we spoke to bemoaned the slow trade, but none was keen to speak at length of the reasons for it. They instead spoke of ‘what happened’, and expanded no further. Curiously, it was in the hostels rather than outside where a sense of languor could be felt - even beyond Tokyo. Two Westerners we socialised with, for example, had both been in Tokyo for weeks - listless as they awaited a start date for their delayed foreign language courses. The Britons we encountered only started to emerge once we were well in the west of the main Honshu island. All of those we talked with  agreed that the British media’s borderline sensationalist coverage of the earthquake was undoubtedly putting off travellers. The fewer travellers meant fewer convivial gatherings in the evenings. Indeed, past pictures on hostel noticeboards revealed the kinds of large gatherings that were more usual.

In contrast, the locals were as perfectly welcoming as they had been last time. The parks overflowed with families and couples delighting in the vibrant sakura, and public performances were many and varied - particularly as we headed into the port town of Nagasaki, and the start of the “Golden Week” holiday. An unexpected sense of liveliness was observed in all the large cities we visited, from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukuoka, and the frivolity only intensified as we progressed west.

The adjective most frequently bandied around by our media when describing the Japanese after the earthquake was "stoic", but to me this does them a vague disservice; it suggests a reaction somehow lacking in compassion. At no point did the topic feel breezed over in the many situations in which it arose; rather it was spoken of with a quiet respect and restraint. Theirs is an indomitable spirit born of more incomprehensible suffering than we could ever fathom (our wanderings around the magnificent Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Parks evidenced this enough). Ultimately, all they can be is pliant, yielding to the capricious will of nature they both seek to connect with and have such humble reverence for. 

Back in our local watering hole in Asakusa, a local on our third night was as gregarious as he was raucous - saluting us loudly as we entered and celebrating wildly when learning of our nationality. He bought us and the three fellow Westerners we had entered with a round of sake, toasting “to Nihon!” and thanking us time and time again just for being here. He was voicing, I believe, not untypical feelings of simple gratitude towards those undeterred from visiting their scarred yet still beautiful country.


Chris Redfearn holds a BA in History from the University of Reading. Since graduating, he has pursued his passion for writing across a range of media and genres. He writes extensively about his travels, and is employed as a Writer/Editor of consumer electronics insight.


17 June 2011


Photo Credit: © Chris Redfearn