After the Earthquake: Japan
words Hanna photos: Patti Mcclard
“Why you don’t escape Japan?” This is the first question I was asked by a local when I arrived in Japan with my girlfriend Patti less than a month after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. There was a sense of frustration in our bus driver’s voice. In addition to the obvious physical destruction Japan has also suffered economically due to a mass exodus of foreign visitors and tourists. Our first glimpse of this was showing up to a nearly vacant arrivals terminal at Narita International Airport. It was eerily quiet.
To be honest, there was a period of 2 weeks where it looked like we wouldn’t be able to go. News of continuous struggles to control the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was constantly streaming across Western media outlets. Headlines with words like “meltdown,” “blackouts,” and “food shortages” had the entire country of Japan sounding like a war zone.
As our departure date neared, things began looking up. Fukushima was mostly under control, subways were running, and friends in Tokyo assured us Japan was safe and implored us to come. It was one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
We began our trip at Niseko United Resort on the northern Island of Hokkaido. It was snowing hard as we rode the train from Sapporo to Niseko and I was much too excited to sleep that night.
The next morning I stepped out of the Grand Hirafu gondola and right into my dreams of riding fresh powder in the trees of Japan. Aussie local Andrew was kind enough to show me some woods stashes and lead me on a mission hiking up to the summit and riding down through the back bowls to Annapuri. For this East Coast rider it was a hell of an experience. The resort was nearly a ghost town and we had fresh tracks in the trees for the next three days. After that initial snowstorm, spring weather showed up and we enjoyed sunny spring conditions for the rest of the trip. The riding was insane, the scenery breathtaking, and the crowds nonexistent.
With the riding portion of our trip concluded we traveled on to Kyoto, which is by far the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. We timed the trip perfectly; the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the weather was warm and sunny. Kyoto was bustling with Japanese tourists but once again almost no Westerners. We spent two whirlwind days walking around the city. We saw massive temples and neon signs, bustling street markets, and caught a stunning glimpse of a real life geisha through a window. We sampled all types of delicious foods, many of which were unrecognizable. We both agreed that we could have stayed in Kyoto for weeks if not months.
From Kyoto we traveled to the bright lights of Tokyo via Shinkansen (bullet train) at 186 miles per hour. Public transportation in Japan is unbelievable. Everything runs precisely on time and directions are easily available in English. Japan is the easiest to navigate foreign country I’ve ever visited. When we couldn’t figure things out on our own, people were always very quick and happy to help us find our way.
Life was back to “business as usual” in Tokyo despite there having been a small aftershock the morning we arrived. While the city seemed totally normal, the absence of foreign visitors was very conspicuous. Even in the fashionable shopping districts of Shibuya and Harajuku we ran into almost no Westerners (I counted 3!).
Everywhere we went in Japan, we were warmly welcomed and made to feel appreciated for visiting at a time when so many others had left or are cancelling their plans to visit. This ended up being the trip of a lifetime for me and I would strongly encourage people to continue with their travel plans. Despite the sensationalist headlines in the global media Japan is extremely safe right now and functioning normally outside of very isolated areas. With the lack of crowds this is a great time to visit and there is certainly no better way to help Japan’s economy in this tough time than by bringing your travel dollars. Go ahead and plan that dream trip to Japan for next season and you won’t be disappointed!
I have to take a moment to thank all of the Japanese people we met in our travels who helped us find our way around and were so quick to share their culture. They were truly some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Arigato! I’d also like to thank Andrew at Freshpowder Japan for going above and beyond to help us out during our stay, not to mention the guided tour. We also have to say thank you to Niseko United Resort for their support.
Finally, if you can’t make it to Japan, please consider making a donation to one of the many relief efforts. While most of Japan is back to normal, many people have lost everything. Japan is a country that has been quick to step in and donate when other countries have been affected by natural disasters…please step up to help them out in their tough time. If you don’t where to donate the Red Cross Japan is a great choice.
Check out our trip photo album on Flickr!