Friday, August 5, 2011

Would You Visit Japan Right Now?

Right about this time, 11 years ago I was packing up to attend a friend's wedding in California. From there I was heading to Japan. My husband and I had decided to use the trip West as an excuse to keep going West, and since our then 10-month-old daughter was in the sand-eating stage, we jettisoned thoughts of Hawaii in favor of Japan. A friend was working on a dissertation there and was happy to play tour guide/translator for us, so it seemed an ideal time to go.

As we waited in the airport for the plane to San Francisco, we happened to glance up at one of the screens playing CNN and saw that there had been an accident at one of Japan's nuclear reactors. The scenes on TV were chilling: panicked-looking masked people, emergency vehicles, a map with a red throbbing button on it, marking the spot of the leak. Should we still go? Were we uncaring and irresponsible parents for even considering taking our infant into harms way? We started to field calls from frantic relatives, all of whom felt we should stay in the US, and we started researching alternative road trips in the US.
Heian Jingu Shrine, Kyoto (Photo by Robert Montgomery)

But after four days of Napa Valley wedding festivities, and another two days in San Francisco, we got itchy feet. We wanted to head out of the country (we hadn't cancelled any reservations and kept a close watch on the news) We called our friend in Japan, as well as other associates who knew the country well, and determined that the nuclear problem was too far from Tokyo and Kyoto (the two main stops on our itinerary) to be a threat to us. And so we headed across the Pacific.

What followed were 10 sleepless but delightful days as we walked our Ryokans' bamboo matted floors with our alert baby each night (she had a bad habit of falling asleep in her carrier during the day); and hit the streets in the daylight hours for temple-hopping, department store openings (we loved to go early in the morning and see the ritual of all the clerks lined up and bowing to the first customers), castle tours and market strolls. Having our baby daughter with us proved to be a boon; every where we went, we were surrounded by admirers cooing "kawa-ee" (cute) and "genki" (feisty) at our precious bundle. Those who spoke English, came up to us to chat about the baby. We were even invited to a stranger's house for dinner (an unusual event in this usually stand-offish nation). It was a remarkable experience, and one that has made me a lifelong fan of Japan.

That incident that almost derailed our trip was, of course, just a blip in history, especially compared to Japan's recent crisis. I don't blame those who have been cancelling their trips in the months since the tsunami and nuclear crisis. Too many discrepancies have arisen between what the Japanese government is telling its people (and would-be tourists) and what outside experts and local, unofficial monitors are saying about the scope of the nuclear contamination. A very disturbing article appeared just this week.

So would I go now? I think I would, though I might not bring my daughter this time as I do have worries about the radiation. Maybe I'm being too cautious though. There are no longer any State Department advisories warning visitors away from the country (and that's not just the case with the US, but also with the governments or Australia and the UK); and prices have never been better, important for this usually pricey country. The New York Times ran a lengthy piece recently about the 50% discounts that are standard in hotels across the island nation.

And my guess is that traveling there now is probably a bit like heading there with a baby. What I mean is: you're likely going to be greeted with great affection and thanks. Tourism is an important industry in Japan and its taken a beating. Those who are heading to Japan are finding a more gracious and open welcome than usual.


  1. My son is going to college in Tokyo.I happened to be visiting him in March during the Earthquake.I was surprised there was not more structural damage in Tokyo. The Earthquake went on a long while and it sure sounded like buildings were cracking.We did get stuck out that night, because there was no way to get back to my sons place.

    I met some amazing people on my trip and I'll definetly be back to visit my son during his university stay. Some cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Kyoto are totally safe and really need visitors right now

    I found the foreign embassies did a good job at getting info out.The US media really didn't do a great job in reporting for the first 30 days.Remember all the stories about radiation in Tokyo?It turned out there was less radiation in Tokyo then other cities around the world.Japan also was bad about getting information out, especially notices for the people around the power plant.

    My advice is for people to travel to Japan and take the advice of the foreign embassies on areas to avoid. Travel Rob

  2. Thanks Rob. But you're going from the official reports of radiation levels, right? There was a very disturbing piece in the NY Times last week about locals buying radiation monitoring machines, finding higher levels and now the government backtracking. I'm not sure if its clear who to trust on this one. I'm frankly quite torn (as you can probably tell from the blog) because I love Japan and would like to support the country at this time. But its hard to know where the truth lies in terms of radiation levels

  3. Pauline-I think the risk has always been around the plant and the area around it.Even the NYT article was not discussing safe areas.I tried to read worst case scenarios for Tokyo, because my son is there.Below was one from Radio Netherlands. I just think there are so many safe areas in Japan still,a traveler can safely go.My son wouldn't be there if I didn't believe that.
    I really don't think anyone is claiming cities like Kyoto or Osaka have high radiation levels at all. Travel Rob

  4. Yes I would! With the cheap air tickets, its really worth visiting. Besides, if you do not exceed exposure within a time span, it should be relatively safe.

    For more interesting articles, do visit today!

  5. I'm sure there is much work to be done in Japan. My family and I just returned from Haiti, where we helped in the wake of last year's earthquake. You can find great rates for Japan at
    Thanks for the article. Terry