What is REALLY happening in Japan?

Inawashiro town in Fukushima prefecture

I must admit I have been getting very, very worried.

From a number of sources, I am hearing that not only Tōhoku area (northeastern part of the island Honshu) should be avoided in the immediate future, but it’s long term fate remains unclear.

Tōhoku region is more rural than the rest of Japan, featuring snow-covered mountains, thick forests, rice paddies and is a hiker’s paradise. I have long held plans to traverse its rugged terrain together with my husband on foot. Look at its breathtaking beauty:

Mt Asahi

Mt Kurikoma in Miyagi prefecture

Mt Zao

 

Mt Zao

I, of course, refuse to believe that my dreams of a languid journey across that amazing land will never be fullfilled. But…

Tourism opportunities aside, that region is characterised by declining, ageing population and dominance of agriculture. Much of rice farming is subsidised. Clearly, the disaster on scale of Tohoku-Kanto earthquake has dealt a double blow to Tohoku – taking away the essential flow of tourism and exacerbating the outflow of population, possibly long term.

The greatest concern, of course, is the ongoing battle and potentially catastrophic long-term effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident. To me, Fukushima plan is a wound that just would not stop bleeding. Engineers and emergency workers are still there. My heart pains for those brave people daily. But the thought of the long term affects, should their efforts not bring the desired results, is ever more terrifying. Today, I went in search of informed opinions on the Fukushima situation. I discovered that this organisation – Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center – provides non-establishment disaster analysis.  In their latest press release, they stated: “Despite strenuous efforts, there is an increasing danger that large amounts of radioactive material might be released from Unit No. 3, which is loaded with fuel containing plutonium”.

No. 3 reactor at Fukushima, uses MOX fuel — whose melting point is lower than that of normal uranium fuel.

“The type of plutonium in MOX is different from that in normal fuel, and the toxicity of the plutonium in MOX is higher than that in normal fuel,” CNIC stated. “According to our calculations, it’s possible that the radiation exposure could be twice as much as that from normal fuel under certain conditions.”

Moreover, Masashi Goto, a former nuclear plant and containment vessel designer with Toshiba Corp., which manufactured four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant in the 1970sOn Thursday, said at the CNIC press conference that he thought it was possible that that spent fuel pool at reactor #3 was broken and water was leaking out.

The consequences of spent fuel pool filled with MOX combusting and radiation released into the atmosphere are potentially more severe than Chernobyl.

Let’s hope and pray that this will not happen.

In conclusion, the information I found today is discouraging. Personally, I think that unless there is an immediate need to be in Honshu, travel should be avoided.  As long at the Fukushima Daichi plan is unstable, the potential dangers of far-reaching radiation release cannot be ignored.

P.S. I also thought that this article titled “Japan’s deadly game of nuclear roulette“, written by a geoscientist in 2004, is an important read that provides a chilling perspective on the possibility of further nuclear disasters on southeastern parts of Honshu. Those areas are right next door to Tokyo and the ultimate Japanese icon, Mt Fuji.  Leuren Moret writes:

“Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list”.

I can only hope the Japanese government finally carries out a fresh assessment of the dangers of housing nuclear plants on seismic fault lines.

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Japan – to go or not to go?

Sakurajima volcano - Kyushu

There have been so many terrible news out of Japan, people are starting to associate this beautiful place with nothing more than natural disasters, radiation, danger. I thought it would be essential to remind people that Japan is relatively vast, stretching for thousands of kilometers. Kyoto is over 500 km away from Fukushima. If you considering travel to Japan, but worried about going to Tokyo, here’s my advice: don’t go to Tokyo, but do go to the south of Japan where there is so much to explore.

Instead of flying to Narita, fly to Kansai airport (Osaka).  Osaka can be your neon adventure, and Kyoto your sample of the best and finest in Japanese culture.

If Kansai (the south-central part of the Honshu island, including Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) is still too close for comfort, here’s a great idea. Fly to Fukuoka instead for an amazing tour of Kyushu. Kyushu is not on many travellers’ itinerary, but this is the place where I am very keen to return. It is a land of ancient volcanos, hot springs, lush subtropical forests and a dose of cosmopolitanism not found elsewhere in Japan.  Enjoy Korean barbeques in Fukuoka and Portuguese pastries and Chinese pork buns in Nagasaki, and then check out the active volcano Sakurajima and the lunar landscapes of Mount Aso.

Famous Kagoshima ramen is a reason to visit in itself

Not to be missed, of course, is the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki – pilgrimage to this sombre site is often a sole reason for the trip to Japan.  

Kyushu is comfortably far, far away from the earthquake-stricken area, see?

A few people have been asking me if they should proceed with their plans of travel to Japan. Based on what my Japanese friends told me, Tokyo is best to be avoided. Aftershocks are still strong and everyone is trying to get out of there.  But the south of Japan is so incredibly rich in experiences and so often overlooked, perhaps this is the only time when you can justify seeing that part of Japan instead of the North.

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Fifty Samurai

Still shot from Seven Samurai

While the world sleeps, eats, shops and fights, 50 nameless people are battling to save it.

Dubbed ‘Fukushima 50’,  the group of volunteers is selflessly facing escalating health and survival risks as they fight to prevent the nuclear catastrophe on a scale not seen since Chernobyl in 1986.

Two workers went missing a day earlier after the blasts, while one other worker was hospitalised after finding himself unable to breathe.

Yet, they won’t retreat.   A Japanese official who spoke to American channel CBS, said that he had made contact with a worker inside the control centre, who told him that he was not afraid to die, that that was his job.

In the aftermath of Chernobyl accident, 237 people suffered from acute radiation sickness, of whom 31 died within the first three months. Most of these were fire and rescue workers trying to bring the accident under control, some of whom were not fully aware of how dangerous exposure to the radiation and smoke was.

Knowing this, the personal sacrifice of Fukushima 50 for the collective good seems ever more awe-inspiring and unthinkable. I would speak for everyone I know that we are deeply humbled and grateful for your your sacrifice. I hope you all will, somehow, be allright. And if not, rest assured you will not be forgotten and the world will give generously to support your families left behind.

To me, the Fukushima 50 are a living example bushido (武士道), the way of the warrior, the spirit of samurai. A code of conduct developed amongst the warrier class during the feudal period, it emphases honour, loyalty and self-sacrifice. The history of bushido can be traced to the 8th century, with the virtures of self- sacrifice coming to utmost prominence in the 19th and 20th century. One can imagine the way it was popularised and exploited by the military and government, to ensure that the soldiers fight to the end. What cannot be denied is that the concept of sacrificing one’s needs, even life, for the collective benefit, and ideals of personal honour and duty developed for centuries and thus are woven into the fabric of Japanese soul.

A nation that produced the Fukushima 50 has a beautiful soul indeed.



Edit 18/03/2011:  50 Samurai become 180 Samurai.

Today I found out that there are 180 rescue workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant. They work in shifts of 50, hence the “Fukushima 50”.  Their names and communications with the outside world started filtering through. Mitchiko Otsuki, a TEPCO employee, remained at the plant from the time of the disaster until Monday. She wrote on her blog on the Japanese social networking site Mixi:

“In the midst of the tsunami alarm at 3am in the night when we couldn’t even see where we going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realisation that this could be certain death.

“Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work. … There are many who haven’t gotten in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard.

“Please remember that. I want this message to reach even just one more person. Everyone at the power plant is battling on, without running away.”

The update on the situation at the Fukushima plant can be found here.

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The lights are out in Tokyo, Japan

A well-written, first hand account of the earthquake written by the American expat girl living in Tokyo.    

She provides a wonderful summary of information links at the end of the post – really nothing to add…

via The lights are out in Tokyo, Japan.

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Help Japan

When I first saw this picture, I was perceptually disoriented: were those toy planes and cars, remnants of a toy store?

It took a couple of seconds to register that what I was seeing was the sheer brutality of nature, man-made objects weighing tons picked up like a handful of trinkets and thrown into a pile of wooden chips that once were houses.

One can only imagine what happened to humans who were tragically caught in the midst of Japan’s worst natural disaster in modern history.

I love Japan with all my heart. The accounts of “stoic, dignified” Japanese people bring tears to my eyes as this is what makes Japan – its quietly reserved and resilient people, so lovely and so undeserving of this horrible catastrophe. I wish I could do more to help, but the only thing I could do was donate money to the Australian Red Cross, whose emergency teams are preparing to fly to Japan to help people cope with the devastation of that disaster.

I beg you to spare what you can and donate to the charity of your choice. Australian Red Cross is running a Japan appeal, or here’s the detailed list of how you can help using other charities:

http://www.survivingnjapan.com/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan-links-resources.html

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Designing your first Japanese itinerary

I’ve been reading lots of travel and food blogs related to Japan so it seems like everyone in the world knows everything about Japan, Japanese food and especially Japanese travel.

I had to remind myself that when I started travelling to Japan in recent years, several friends asked for a copy of my itinerary. With all the resoures available on the Internet, they still were unsure where to go. It is especially hard when you’ve never been to Japan!

So I thought I’d share the classic Japanese itinerary we followed on our 2009 visit. It will give you the taste of what’s best in Japan – a tour of cultural and historic highlights and some of the best natural scenery.

10-14 DAYS IMAGINARY ITENERARY

Day 1. Arrive in Tokyo. I already mention that the best place to stay in Tokyo is Ginza – it will give you an amazing access to the most interesting parts of Tokyo.

Day 2-5. Explore Tokyo. You’d want good 5 days in Tokyo, believe me. At least. Better a week. Tokyo has everything you’ve imagined about Japan, and more. There are countless guide books written on the subject  and indeed one could write a whole book devoted to what to do in Tokyo alone. I will write a post devoted to Tokyo later – let’s move on to where to next.

Day 6. A day trip out of Tokyo. Here’s another bonus of staying in Tokyo longer – a number of exciting places are a mere 1-2 hours away. Again, just listing all the places where one could go could take a long time, and tourist guides usually cover the choices pretty well. One place to look into is Hakone. Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo. Hakone is quite a spectacular area stretching across remains of a collapsed volcano, complete with numerous hot springs and steam vents, including a tranquil lake Ashi that affords the views of Mt Fuji on a clear day. Local transport is part of the attraction. Once in Hakone, the area is explored by increasingly fun transport options – first on a mountain train that climbes through steep forest-covered hills, then a cable car, then a jaw-dropping ride on a ropeway above the steaming remains of the volcano and finally, a boat across the lake Ashi. All transport modes are covered by one Hakone Free Pass.

Hakone can become an easy introduction to the world of Japanese hot springs, onsen. We chose to use one in Hakone Green Plaza hotel, and were rewarded with beautiful outdoor pools with views of Mt Fuji and free sake on tap. The best part was that the hotel was convinitently located enroute to Lake Ashi, just off Ubako station on the Hakone Ropeway. Actually, I have so many things to tell about Hakone, I might do a special post.

From official Takayama websiteDay 7. Get out of Tokyo for good and go to Takayama. Takayama is the secret jewel of Honshu. It is a small Edo town hidden in the Japanese Alps, reached by a scenic ride across mountains and rivers on a train with large windows. Give your JR pass a workout and ride a Shinkansen to Nagoya, where you will change onto the Hida Wide View Express.  In Takayama, stay in a ryokan in the foothills of the mountains – you will still be able to walk everywhere in this picteresque town. We stayed in an absolute gem of ryokan Hakuun – the room had a spacious veranda with the views of the town and surrounding mountains, a luxurious private sypress bath, and the ryokan had in-house onsens.

Besides onsens and ryokans, the other attractions of Takayama are superb local Hida beef that rivals Kobe’s, sake breweries offering free tasting, a delightful quarter of old merchant houses converted into museums or stores selling traditional craft and food, and an open air museum in a form of a folk village displaying unique thatched roof (“gassho-zukuri”) houses that had been transported there from surrounding valleys. Just noticed that I list beef and sake first – that says a lot of the type of travel I love. Fear not, the architectural, historic and natural charms of this old town lost in a far away valley would appeal to absolutely everyone, not just foodies.

Day 8-12. Kyoto and Nara. Now, you have to be smart about how you use the rest of your time. I should mention that a popular route from Takayama to Kyoto is not going back to Nagoya on the Hida Wide View Express and then changing onto the Shinkansen. If you have more time, take a bus to Shokawa Valley, where the gassho-zukuri houses are displayed in their natural mountanous habitat and actually lived in, and then continue with the same bus company to Kanazawa. Kanazawa has plenty of attractions in itself, besides being a point of chaning to a train to Kyoto. But if time is of value, as it would be on a 10-14 day journey, go straight to Kyoto.

Kyoto needs no introduction. If possible at all, try and stay in a hotel around Kyoto station – a great point for hopping on sightseeing buses. 3 or even 4 days are not enough to see everything in Kyoto. Simlar to Tokyo, it is very well covered by guide books, which usually have mammoth sections devoted to this magestic city. Allocate at least 2 full days to seeing temples, and remember that seeing more than 3 in a day could be a stretch. Temples are dispersed, walking from one to another is beautiful but takes time, and temple sightseeing takes time. You will be lucky to cover only the highlights in a couple of days. Then, of course, there is Gion and maiko – see why I suggest skipping Kanazawa on this short trip?

Nara, the cradle of Japanese Buddhism, is an absolute must do as a day trip. It is a short 45 minute ride on the JR line or 35 minutes on the Kintetsu line. At Nara train station, there is a delightful information window, where a lady who spoke excellent English gave us all maps we needed for the day of exploring the awe-inducing Todai-ji temple with its giant Buddha, the museum of Buddhist arts, the sprawling park polulated with tame deer, all against the tranquil backdrop of mountains.

Day 13. Return to manic Tokyo! After a week of serenity, you will be ready for more action. Stepping back into Tokyo is like being propelled a hundred years into the future. Make sure to go out in style and book a spectacular dinner on your last night. My suggestion is the Michelin-star Molecular Tapas Bar at Mandarin Oriental. Only 8 guests are seated at the counter where two chefs create a feast of 20 imaginative courses before your eyes, with the vertiginous views stretching to Shinjuku behind you. Later, you can relax in the cocktail lounge on the 38th floor with a Molecular cocktail – just as we did. (Tip – ask for 8 pm seating for a more relaxed dinner)

Day 14….Home (sad face). Japan is one country where I never look forward to returning home. I’ve promised myself I will live there again, and I can’t wait! Make sure to have a twirl around Narita airport as there are plentiful restaurants, souvenier shops selling large arrays of Japanese mochi (traditional sweets), sake and other reasonabily priced souvenirs.

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Best place to stay in Tokyo

Finally, we got to stay in the middle of Ginza on our trip in 2010.  On the trip before that, we stayed in Shinjuku, and before that – in a very nondescript suburb Magome. How we ended up in Magome is a whole other story, and I want to talk about Ginza today…

Ginza is, of course, a  world-famous cultural, dining and shopping district which is often likened to Fifth Avenue or Champs-Élysées. Ginza, more than just a single avenue, is a myriad of streets dotted with high-end stores, cafes, patisseries and restaurants, lined with trees swathed in fairy lights , all mercifully laid out in easy to navigate grid pattern.

Though mostly budget-breaking, some hotels offer reasonable rates – check out any of the online booking agencies like Agoda, Expedia or Hotel Club. We were staying at Monterey Ginza, which is a lovely small hotel just steps away from Ginza’s main Chuo street.

Ginza is one of my favourite places in the world and staying there was a dream. It’s got the magic.

Why should you stay there? Because you will be in right in the middle of: 

1. Transport. It is incredibly convenient for getting around Tokyo. First of all, subway lines that can take you to Shinjuku, Shibuya and Roppongi within 15-20 min all converge at Ginza subway station. Yurakucho station on JR Yamanote loop line is there, too.  It is only 1 stop away from Tokyo station, which means you could walk there, if so inclined.

2. Shopping. Yes, most shops are very fancy and expensive, but Ginza also affords a look at incredible flagship stores of every designer label you might imagine. Sometimes it is just nice to browse!

Don’t let the designer oversaturation put you off Ginza shopping, however. I have acquired many a bargain in various department stores. My favourites are Seibu, Matsuya and Mitsukoshi…If you don’t have shopping budget as such, you should still shop for best quality Japanese brand accessories…or just visit the underground food hall in Mitsukoshi!

3. Food. Food, glorious food. Sure, Ginza has a notable concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants (which you definitely should pay a visit to!) but head to Yurakucho for a hole-in-the-wall izakayas, yakitori (chicken skewer) diners and stand-up sushi bars. Else, hit the chocolatiers and patisseries that are literally on every corner.

4. Nightlife. There must be thousands of drinking places in Ginza. I don’t think I am exaggerating. Ok, most of them would be high-class hostess bars that are hard to spot and still harder to enter for a foreigner. Yet, there is not a street that is not home to a multitude of intimate wine bars, cocktail lounges, izakayas and pubs. The scene is grown up and great for those who appreciate slightly finer things in life or simply cannot stomach a night in manic Shibuya:)

5. Sheer beauty of Ginza lights. Just check out the photos below.

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Don’t miss Osaka Aquarium

We were in Osaka for the first time, and only for 4 nights. My list of things to do and see was jam-packed with everything from Dotonbori and Doguya-suji to Osaka Castle and Umeda Sky Building. Then, there was a day trip to Hiroshima (about that later). Osaka Aquarium or ‘Kaiyukan’, although enjoying glowing write-ups in tourist guides, was somehow….not Japanese enough?

In the end, we decided on going, partly because ocean is my husband’s big big love.

I can happily report that Osaka Aquarium not only lived up to the reviews, but utterly suprised, delighted and mesmerised. It was that good!

Manta rays, sharks, seals, dolphins, King penguins, mysterious species from Amazonian rivers, turtles…and a real whale shark.  The neigbourhood of Osaka Bay is very modern and is home to a number of attractions, so a trip to the aquarium can become a complete day out.

The aqua gate at the entrance - gives you a little sample of the wonders inside

Osaka Aquarium aqua gate

Kaiyukan 

To get there: Take Chuo subway line and get off at Osakako (Osaka Port) station, for details read here.         

Opening Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m 

Admission Fees: Adults (16 years +) – 2,000 Yen, Children (7-16 years) – 900 Yen, Children (4-6) – 400 Yen
Check out the website for details of special exhibitions and tours: http://www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng/index.htm 

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How to use this site

Dear readers, this is a brand new site and you won’t find posts under some categories…Please keep checking in!

It might appear that the whole blog is, in fact, about food – this will change slightly as I am planning to pass on all my tips on planning a perfect Japanese itenerary – and if you have a question, please email me at planjapan “at” wordofprey.com!!

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The Magical JR Rail Pass

The first thing anyone travelling to Japan should know about is the amazing JR Rail Pass.
Essentially, this is a pass valid for unlimited travel on all JR trains and buses, including high speed rail, Shinkansen. It is also valid for Miyajima ferry (which you will want to use, trust me). It can only be bought by tourists outside Japan. JR pass comes in a 1, 2 and 3 weeks variations and allows you to criss-cross Japan at a price of a domestic airfare.
There are some exceptions – the pass is not valid on the fastest train, Nozomi (it is only marginally faster) on the Tokyo-Hakata route but it is valid on Narita Express, the Narita airport – Tokyo link.
The best thing about is that it is not date-specific. You can activate it while in Japan on any date, whenever you are ready to take advantage of the world-famous Japanese train travel.

HOW TO BUY? Just go to the official JR Pass website for the list of authorised re-selellers. They will give you an exchange order that you will turn into an actual Pass once in Japan.

ARE ALL RESELLERS EQUAL? No. The prices can be vastly different. Make sure to call around for the best price.

THE BEST TIME TO BUY? Monitor the exchange rate. The price is published by Japan Railways in Yen. Note that not all resellers promptly re-price JR Passes. In Sydney, I found that AWL Pitt Travel have great, frequently adjusted prices.
WHERE CAN IT TAKE ME? In a nutshell: everywhere. Japan is amazingly well covered by the rail network. How about travelling from Tokyo to Hokkaido on a luxurious overnight Cassiopeia? (You will pay extra for the overnight berth). A day trip out of Osaka to Hiroshima? A special wide-view express through the Japanese Alps to reach Edo town of Takayama? Stay tuned for suggested itineraries.

FINALLY, HOW DO I START USING IT? That can be as easy as showing up at any major train station in Tokyo (ie Shinjuku), locating an appropriate Information Center or a Ticket Office, getting the magic pass into your hands and then showing it to the man at turnstiles who will wave you through. You won’t need to actually get tickets if you are using unreserved seats on Shinkansen. Just find the right platform.
You can also make the exchange ahead of travel and simply tell the Exchange Office the date from which you would like to start using the pass. ALSO, you can ‘buy’ advanced tickets by, once more, simply showing your pass. No money needs to change hands.

A WORD OF WARNING. You won’t be able to replace the pass if you lose it, so treat it as cash. Keep your passport handy as train conductors require to see your ID at the time of checking the pass.

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