Japan: is it safe to return?

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Earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear radiation: could anything make Japan a more unappealing destination? After the devastating 9.0 quake of 11 March that left about 26,000 people dead, and the horrendous coastal destruction in the northern part of the archipelago, the Japanese have had to cope with the threat of fallout from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Japan suffered a 50% drop in visitors in March, and half a million hotel cancellations. But radiation fears have eased substantially since explosions first rocked the plant. Aftershocks have subsided too. The US government, drawing on the opinion of experts, says travel to Japan outside the 50-mile zone surrounding the Fukushima plant presents low risks. However, those worried about radiation levels can check those of Tokyo online and compare them with other cities (the Japan National Tourism Agency has a list here).

What can I expect in Tokyo?

There is a growing consensus that it’s safe to travel to Tokyo (many of the other major cities in Japan - Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto - are not really affected). Foreign governments have eased their travel restrictions and Japan’s capital is slowly getting back on its feet, with Tokyo Disneyland reopening in April to a queue of 10,000 after liquefaction of its parking lot and electricity shortages. The first post-quake tour group from Singapore arrived in the capital and set out for the Mt Fuji area.

Having travelled to Tokyo in April and spent three weeks there (see some of my photos here), the greatest challenge I faced was that some escalators and elevators were idled as part of an ongoing electricity conservation drive. If you’re hauling luggage to or from Narita Airport, taking the stairs is no fun. The Airport Limousine buses can make your trip to your hotel in downtown Tokyo much easier, since you won’t have to change trains. Otherwise, Japan’s excellent and ubiquitous courier companies (takkyubin) can ship your luggage to the city or anywhere in the country, usually for less than $30.

If you’re staying in the Tokyo area for more than a few days, you may experience an earthquake. That’s de rigueur in Japan, though recent aftershocks, while trending weaker, have been stronger and more frequent than the usual temblors. In a strong quake, be prepared to seek a safe spot immediately. If you feel the ground shaking, turn the nearest TV to NHK, which will have a report within seconds. Earthquakes cannot be predicted but Japan has early warning systems that are sometimes able to give people a few seconds’ lead time on approaching seismic waves.

The only other inconvenience in Tokyo these days is that some parts of the city are darker than usual due to the power-saving drive. If you’re hoping to see walls of brightly lit neon in neighbourhoods like Akihabara and Kabukicho, you may be disappointed. In addition, electricity deficits may curb the use of air conditioners in the sweltering Tokyo summer. Nearly all transport systems, though, have returned to their regular schedules.

What about Fukushima?

The Fukushima Daiichi plant, some 240km from Tokyo, is still somewhat of a wild card. The International Atomic Energy Agency continues to describe the situation at the plant as 'very serious'. While many experts have said the situation is improving and the likelihood of deterioration is low, some travellers might want to wait until the main cooling systems of the plant are restored. That could take up to six months as workers have only just entered the reactor buildings for the first time to prepare to install a new cooling system.

In Tokyo and elsewhere, though, Fukushima seems a world away. The fabric of Japanese civilisation is shot through with a history of disasters, man-made and natural, and people in the capital are quietly going about their business and getting on with life. As the country’s foreign minister has said, Japan is open for business and your custom will help it recover.

Why it's a good time to go to Japan

Post-disaster, it may seem a little crass suggesting that Japan travel deals are to be had, says our Asia-Pacific travel editor Shawn Low (@shawnlow). 'But there are and, as clichéd as it sounds, visiting the unaffected areas as a tourist can help bring about the revitalisation of the economy. It's important to remember that the country is still in mourning, so go with compassion.'

Here's his take on travel deals:

'It’s currently spring, a beautiful time of year to be in Japan. Airlines and tour agencies have been offering deals to entice visitors. Recently, Singapore Airlines was offering a stunner of a deal: $US350 return, all-inclusive flights from Singapore to Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Delta and United Airlines were doing the same at the time of writing. Tour agencies have been reported to be offering cheap packages as well. The Yen sadly took a dip after the disaster, so your dollar also goes a longer way  when you're on the ground. With deals available to many cities in Japan (all far away from the damaged Fukuskima plant), a holiday to Japan is really your oyster.'

Further reading: Lonely Planet's article on 'The best of Japan'