One year ago, on 11 March 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan's history hit the country's northeast, causing massive tsunamis and nuclear explosions that devastated a large swath of the country's coastline.
While some of the psychological and economic scars have yet to heal, visitor numbers are slowly returning to normal. After a 60% drop immediately following the quake, December 2011 recorded only 11% fewer visitors than the same month in 2010. Those who do visit will be met with the customary Japanese courtesy, plus an unusually open display of warmth and gratitude. More than ever, Japan wants you to visit.
But should you go? Considering the following, the answer is a resounding yes.
The threat of radiation
Sadly the issue of nuclear activity is now the first question on most visitors' minds. 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 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. To decipher the radiation levels of the area you are visiting, check out Citizen group Safecast, which maps local radiation levels.
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 been met, in many cases, with fierce local resistance. Power shortages may occur when the scorching Japanese summer kicks in around mid-July, which could cause trains to run on reduced schedules and cities to dim their neon light shows. But these are only mild inconveniences that should not put off travellers.
The disaster in northern Japan underscored just how long – about 1,200km from north to south – and diverse the country really is. In fact it is almost uncomfortably easy to travel around the southern two-thirds of the country without encountering any evidence of the trauma up 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 as easy to plan as they were before the disaster.
Most travellers tend to stick around the mid-section of the country, 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 for its up-and-coming city of Fukuoka, 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, 1,000km due south of Tokyo, you will 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 swell and truly discover this remote gem.
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 in these remote stretches, home to sacred peaks, mountain ascetics and rice fields, travellers are most likely to find the traditional Japan that seems all but lost elsewhere. And 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, in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, the coastline is still impassable in many places, but inland sights are accessible.