Just as 9/11 changed many aspects of American life, so, too, has 3/11 – also called March 11, the date that the tsunami decimated the Sendai coast, affected Japan.
In Tokyo, more locals, particularly young women and couples, have been seeking out places with “healing powers,” such as the Calico cat café, where people pay up $13 an hour to pet animals. People ask sushi chefs where the fish is from, check labels to make sure produce isn’t from the north and worry that the government isn’t telling the truth about radiation.
For tourists, who have steadily been trickling back into the country, the post-3/11 landscapes mean that you’ll find value adds at luxury hotels and ryokans, and fewer crowds at some of the country’s famous museums, sites and temples.
During my two week stint in Japan this month, we saw very few American tourists. Granted, January is the off-season and the Yen remains very strong against the dollar. But it seems that fears over the fallout from the country’s nuclear plants linger almost a year later.
At the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, which ranks very high on TripAdvisor, more than half of the hotel’s guests used to come from overseas, with Americans being the highest percentage, said Ken Yokoyama, the hotel’s general manager. Since March 11, that figure has dropped to 20 to 30 percent, he said.
The hotel is trying to counter the drop by promoting Kyoto, the country’s cultural center, as a destination, Yokoyama said. They’re also adding value-added packages, such as 50% off the second night of a two-night stay, or a third night free. Transportation to and from the city’s train station is also included.
Those are great deals, particularly in a country that’s never been cheap to visit. Yet I saw very few international leisure travelers in Kyoto while I was there, although there were plenty of Japanese taking domestic trips for the New Year. It will be interesting to see what happens at cherry blossom time in April, a traditional month for Westerners to visit.
Whether it’s an economic freefall, a natural disaster or a political uprising, countries often recover for tourism long before people return. If you’re willing to visit while others are staying away, the savings can be substantial.
There’s more than 500 miles between Hiroshima in southern Japan and Fukushima, where the affected nuclear plants were. Yet international tourism to the city, which draws people who are interested in its tragic history, has dropped by 50 percent, said Ryoji Okue , a tourism official with the local government.
To counter the drop, the city is inviting the media (my group were the first American journalists to come since 3/11, he said, and a local TV news crew covered our visit) and travel agents, as well as attending travel shows. “We are presenting that we are safe and doing ordinary stuff.”
Still, filling rooms is an uphill battle when you’re fighting a difficult situation such as radiation exposure. While I had no problem visiting the country when invited, I’m not sure I would feel the same way if I was traveling with children. If I had kids, I would have certainly spent more time asking restaurateurs where their food came from, and been cautious about the seafood they consumed.
(As it was, I consumed plenty of raw fish and seafood on my trip, as fishing from Sendei has been halted. Grocery stores also label the prefecture where produce and livestock come from, and most people I talked to said they paid close attention to make sure their food came from the country’s western coast).
Then again, the level of risk that you’re willing to take as a traveler is always personal. “People have different comfort levels in terms of travel,” said Bodhi Fischman, an American owner of the Kyoto-based Plus Alpha Japan, which arranges luxury experiences throughout Japan. Most of his company’s high-end customers cancelled their trips after 3/11, but are now rescheduling their visits, he said.
A resident of Kyoto for 11 years, Bodhi said that even though his adopted city wasn’t affected physically by the earthquake or tsunami, the emotional fallout did spread far from the disaster’s epicenter in the following weeks and months.
“It’s been a very soul-searching time here in Japan,” Bodhi said. “It’s been a very difficult year but it also feels like it’s brought people together.”
My trip to Japan was sponsored by a variety of hotels and organizations, but my opinions are my own.
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