Inside travel: Japan
Foreigners are more welcome than ever in a city coming to terms with tragedy, says Adrian Hamilton
Saturday 04 June 2011
The disaster on 11 March shook Tokyo – seismically, economically, socially – and also from the point of view of tourism. The airlines cancelled dozens of flights and added stops in Hong Kong or Seoul to avoid having their crews stay overnight in Japan.
However, they are flying non-stop into Tokyo's Narita airport again – and last weekend British Airways re-established the five-times-a-week service into Tokyo's Haneda airport that it introduced just three weeks before the disaster struck. Meanwhile the Foreign Office withdrew its initial warnings to avoid Tokyo two months ago.
In the main, though, foreigners have not returned. Which, counter-intuitive as it may be, makes this the perfect time to enjoy the Japanese capital. Tokyo's usual hectic pace has eased and you will be made all the more welcome in a country that has settled in for a long-haul journey out of its catastrophe and sees visitors as a welcome sign of support.
The restaurants are open and eager for custom. The theatres have resumed their spring and summer shows, and postponed sports events are being crammed back into the schedules.
What's missing? The bright lights and some of the razzmatazz of the neon areas of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ginza. It's not aftershocks and radiation that constrain the mood now – the Japanese seem to have learnt to live with those (although they are none too happy with the way that the government and power companies have managed them). But the shutdown of nuclear capacity following the Fukushima explosions has cut electricity capacity and forced Tokyoites in particular to curb their energy use. Commuter trains have been reduced, street lighting has been halved and the neon-strips and floodlighting that had become such a feature of Tokyo in films have been subdued.
All to the good, one might say. Like New York in the glory days before the financial meltdown, there was something a little too frenetic and high spending about Tokyo in recent years; a sense that you weren't really with it unless you were going to the latest restaurants and dancing away the night in the hippest clubs. Now, like New York, a degree of calm has returned.
As a tourist, it doesn't really matter whether you speak any Japanese or that most locals do not speak any English. The dishes of the restaurants are on display as plastic models outside. You only need to bring out the waiter or waitress to point at your order.
Getting around, too, is relatively easy. The circular Yamanote Line and the Metro provide a super-efficient way to link neighbourhoods. You have the delight, as in London, of emerging in quite separate places with their own character – the old style of Asakusa, the grandeur of Marunouchi, the seaminess of Shinjuku, the temples of Yanaka.
And then there are the trips outside the city. Tokyo's residents need to breathe and to feel the air of the mountains and pine forests. With fewer people travelling, I found the trains less claustrophobic, and the wait at the important temples shorter.
On the first Sunday of "Golden Week" last month, I took a trip to Nikko, two hours north of Tokyo. Golden Week is a sequence of public holidays which enables the hard-working Japanese to grab an extra break with minimum days off. Usually, Nikko is teeming at this time of year as people flock to this 17th-century shrine. But there were no foreigners at all and – according to a local restaurant owner – barely half the usual numbers of Japanese visitors.
The same story applies to the hot baths and forests and hills of Hakone, only two hours south-west. Or, if you want to explore the old temples and incomparable sculpture of medieval Japan without going as far as Kyoto or Nara, take the train an hour away to Kamakura, the first military capital of the country and one of Japan's most pleasant towns in which to walk.
So, my advice: go now. Dire straits haven't led to massive discounting. But there are some good offers on hotels and, as one hotelier told me, "with fewer customers, we can offer much more personal service". Half the attraction of Japan is that it is a country set up for tourism because the Japanese themselves like to tour it. That's what makes the transport so efficient, the sights so open and the facilities so good.
Adrian Hamilton is senior comment writer at The Independent
Travel essentials: Japan
* The writer flew to Tokyo with Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), which flies daily non-stop between Heathrow and Narita, in competition with ANA, Japan Airlines and British Airways. BA also flies from Heathrow to Tokyo's Haneda airport.
* The best way to use the Metro system is with a Pasmo pre-paid card, available from stations ( pasmo.co.jp/en).
* The writer stayed at the Hilton Tokyo, Shinjuku-Ku (00 81 3 3344 5111; hilton.co.uk/tokyo; doubles from Y26,670/£200, room only), and the Conrad Hotel, Shinbashi (00 81 3 6388 8000; conradhotels1.hilton.com; doubles from Y45,000/£339, including breakfast).
* Japan National Tourism Organization: seejapan.co.uk
* Tokyo Tourism Info is available, in English, at 00 81 3 5321 3077 or at tourism.metro.tokyo.jp.
* For the latest 48 Hours in The Independent and its accompanying film and radio programme, visit independent.co.uk/Tokyo.
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