Simon Calder: Should you keep your distance from Japan?
The man who pays his way
Saturday 19 March 2011
Okinawa, an island 350 miles south-east of Shanghai and the same distance north-east of Taipei, is as close to sub-tropical perfection as any traveller could wish. Beaches and coral reefs provide aquatic opportunities in the shimmering Pacific. The main market is enchantingly scruffy and fascinating, re-supplied now and again from the gracefully idle fishing port. Inland the terrain of this 50-mile volcanic straggle will inspire the most jaded hiker.
The troubles of the rest of the world seem impossibly far away. In particular the Fukushima nuclear plant, of which neither you nor I had heard until eight days ago, is further than both Beijing and Hong Kong. Yet Okinawa will, I fear, be tainted for years – along with the rest of Japan – by the travel fall-out from earthquake, tsunami and unfolding nuclear nightmare.
In any international crisis, one of the first casualties is a proper sense of geography. To justify the invasion of Iraq, for example, the then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, spoke about the difficulties of finding those fabled weapons of mass destruction in "a country twice the size of France"; in fact, Iraq is one-fifth smaller than France.
Talking of the French: they were the first Westerners to send in the planes to extricate citizens from Japan in a mass evacuation. Was this needless panic after the catastrophe? From here in seismically placid Britain, it is hard to say. So I asked Chris Rowthorn, who runs tours from the glorious city of Kyoto, for his assessment of danger and disruption:
"Here in Kyoto, you would not know that anything had happened, unless you looked at the news. In fact, other than eastern coastal Tohoku [the northern part of Honshu] and some coastal areas of Hokkaido [the island beyond], it's business as usual. The places that most people travel to in Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Hiroshima etc – are all basically unaffected."
The Foreign Office, though, urges British travellers in Tokyo to "consider leaving the area".
Being able safely to travel in Japan is one thing – justifying the journey is another. Some travellers will be dismayed at the very notion of discussing something as trivial as tourism to a nation in such trauma. And it is natural to want to give the Japanese people time to mourn the thousands who have died and begin to rebuild. Yet Chris Rowthorn says this reaction, while understandable, is wrong:
"The worst thing for people to do now would be to cancel travel plans. This country is going to take a huge economic beating from this. Simply coming here and helping support the economy would be a very direct and real form of support for this nation."
If you feel able to take his advice, I recommend a trip to Okinawa – the venue for an even greater tragedy. In the fierce fighting a lifetime ago at the end of the Second World War, 200,000 people perished on the island called "the keystone of the Pacific". More people died here than in the atomic attacks on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A hillside above the ocean carries row upon row of black marble tablets listing the dead from both sides. As the past days remind us, there is no end to human suffering. But the gentle island of Okinawa shows how tranquillity can supplant tragedy. Start making your travel plans.
The next departure from Tokyo: anywhere but here
The departure boards at Narita and Haneda airports tell a sombre story. Dozens of flights from Tokyo's international gateways are cancelled. Lufthansa has moved all its Japanese flights west to Osaka and Nagoya. And other airlines' schedules have been shaken up. Pilots and cabin crew normally spend a two- or three-day layover in Tokyo, but carriers are keen to reduce the time spent on the ground to an hour or two. So Air France is shuttling passengers to and from Seoul. British Airways is hubbing its operations in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is also the Asia-Pacific base for Air Charter Services, the UK company that has laid on relief flights all week, with planes brought in from Europe, the US and the Middle East. "It started off being 50 or 100 people at a time," says the CEO, Gavin Copus. "Then entire companies decided to move their staff across to places like Hong Kong."
Now governments are demanding mass evacuations. "The last request I got, an hour ago, was to move 8,000 people south to Singapore," says Mr Copus. May they return to Japan, safely and soon.
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