One year after Japan's heartbreaking triple-disaster, the country still has a lot more reconstruction ahead of it and some psychological and economic scars that have yet to heal. Yet while the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated a large swath of Japan's northeastern coastline, whole other areas of the country were virtually untouched and remain well and truly open for business.
The number of visitors to Japan has been gradually crawling back up; the most recent statistics from December 2011 show just an 11% decline for that month from the previous year - that's compared to a 60% drop immediately following the quake. Those who do visit will be met with not just the customary Japanese courtesy, but with an unusually open display of warmth and gratitude. More than ever, Japan wants you to visit.
Should you go? Considering the following, the answer is a resounding yes.
The nuclear question
Sadly this is now the first question on most visitors' minds. The reality is that a 20km exclusion zone still exists around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, and likely will for some time. Reports of contamination outside the exclusion zone have forced many Fukushima residents to relocate. However, little significant radioactive fallout has been detected in neighbouring prefectures and life goes on as usual.
In Tokyo - some 270km from the Fukushima plant - the subject of radiation is much more likely to elicit chagrin (for having hoarded bottled water in the weeks following the disaster) than genuine fear. In the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto and Nara) and further west, contamination was never a concern.
Still don't trust the official government version of the story? Citizen groups like Safecast have been doing their own localized radiation monitoring; check out their online maps and plan out your own worry-free route.
Of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants, only two are currently operating. The rest have been shut down for scheduled maintenance and the prospect of restarting them has met, in many cases, with fierce local resistance. This means that power shortages may occur when the scorching Japanese summer kicks in around mid-July. This could cause trains to run on reduced schedules and cities to dim their neon light shows, but these are only mild inconveniences that shouldn't put off travelers.
The disaster in northern Japan underscored just how long - about 1200km from north to south - and diverse the country really is. In fact it's almost uncomfortably easy to travel around the southern two-thirds of the country without encountering any evidence of the trauma of the north.
Classic itineraries, such as those that take in the Tokyo and Kansai areas, Hiroshima and the historic post-towns and hot springs of Nagano and Gifu prefectures are all still feasible - no less so than they were before the disaster.
Most travelers tend to stick around the mid-section of the country, hitting those well-traveled destinations listed above. However, there is much more to see in Japan beyond the main island of Honshū. Closer to the Asian continent, the southwestern island of Kyūshū has long been popular with Korean and Chinese visitors, but is only just getting noticed by travelers from the West. Here, you'll find the up-and-coming city of Fukuoka, several hot spring resorts and a smoking (though non-threatening) volcano, Sakurajima.
Beyond Kyūshū lie the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa, a land of snow-white beaches, vibrant reefs and the distinctly different culture and cuisine of the former Ryūkyū Kingdom.
Meanwhile, 1000km due south of Tokyo, you'll encounter more pristine beaches and rare wildlife on the remote Ogasawara Islands, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site last summer. Visit soon, before the crowds well and truly discover this remote gem.
Or go north
Beyond the reach of the tsunami, northern Japan's rustic onsen (hot springs) and well-preserved feudal era towns survived with little damage. Tourists have been giving all of Tōhoku - as the northern region is called - a wide berth, however there is still a lot to see there. In these remote stretches, home to sacred peaks, mountain ascetics and plenty of rice fields, travelers are most likely to find the traditional Japan that seems all but lost elsewhere. What's more, you can be sure that your yen is going to those who need it most: local small businesses.
Prefectures on the northwest coast (Yamagata, Akita and Aomori) were untouched by the tsunami and are welcoming tourists. On the northeast side, which includes Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, the coastline is still impassable in many places, but inland sights are accessible.
In Iwate prefecture, the towns of Hiraizumi (famous for its temples) and Morioka (known for its castle), as well as the picturesque Tōno Valley, are open and ready for tourists with public transportation running as usual. Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture, has become something of a reconstruction boomtown and has much of its infrastructure back in place. It's possible to take the Senseki rail line from Sendai as far as Matsushima-kaigan - to see the bay made famous by the haiku poet Bashō - but unfortunately not any further (the line is still suspended between Matsushima-kaigan and Ishinomaki).
The Tōhoku shinkansen, which runs from Tokyo to Aomori, passing Sendai and Morioka along the way, is running uninterrupted.
Want to get more directly involved in helping the region? Contact Peace Boat for volunteer opportunities. You can also do your part comfortably in Tokyo, at charity events like those organized by the Save Minamisoma Project, which also accepts volunteers for its biweekly food runs to Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima.
Rebecca Milner lives in Tokyo and is an author on Lonely Planet's most recent Japan travel guide as well as the upcoming Tokyo city guide. When not writing Lonely Planet travel guides, she is a freelance writer publishing regularly on CNN Go, Tokyo Art Beat and in Tokyo's Metropolis magazine.
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