Exactly a year after it devastating earthquake the country is showing its resilient spirit. Here, two writers share experiences from recent visits, starting with ANNA PUKAS, finishing with WILL HIDE
TOO FAR and too expensive. These are the preconceptions Japan was already battling when trying to entice British tourists. Then March 11, 2011 happened.
The country was hit by the biggest earthquake in its history, followed swiftly by a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. For a while it looked as if the Japanese would have trouble looking after their own citizens, never mind visitors.
So what did they do? Shut up shop and hunker down? Not on your life. They cleaned up, fixed up and put out the message that Japan is open for business.
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The watchword in Japan is “gambare” which translates as “keep going” or “don’t give up”.
Travelling through some of the worst-hit areas, the word and the spirit it expresses was everywhere, from the sides of bullet trains to nightclub beer mats.
Tokyo is 140 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake, not far in seismic terms. Months later you might still wake up at 3am, as I did, to find your bed shaking.
As we travelled on the Hayabusa, the newest of Japan’s bullet trains, and the sprawl of the city gave way to green paddy fields and rolling hills, the careless cruelty of the disaster was all too evident.
Beautiful Matsushima Bay with its pine-fringed shoreline and 250 islands was miraculously untouched but Koizumi, a nearby seaside town, was a mass of uprooted trees and buildings torn from the ground like pulled teeth.
Volunteers, including expat Japanese returned from Britain, are working on the rebuilding programme and public-spirited tourists can also add on a short volunteer stint to their holiday.
Astonishingly, the airport at Sendai, where the tsunami swept up jet planes as if they were Airfix models, was closed for only a month.
In Aomori, the port at the northern tip of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four islands, the Nebuta summer festival was in full flow with its parade of meticulously constructed lantern floats accompanied by dancers and drummers.
In Western imagination, the Japanese wear kimonos and live in paper houses furnished with just a futon. Guess what? It’s all true.
Urban Japanese may inhabit concrete apartment blocks but to unwind they head for a ryokan (traditional house) and a dip in an onsen (natural hot spring).
Hotel Sakan is an exquisite example of both. After checking in, we swapped our sweaty Western clothes for yukatas (the supremely comfortable cotton kimonos worn by both sexes) and headed for one of thenatural pools.
As a way to relax, soaking your limbs under starry skies in deliciously warm water is hard to beat.
Thus refreshed, I donned my yukata again and padded off to dinner, walking with dainty steps in my traditional wooden flip-flops.
The Japanese firmly believe that food should appeal to all the senses, not just taste.
Our banquet, consisting of 17 dishes set out on individual low tables, was certainly a work of art.
After a while I became aware that the abalone shell was moving; the creature in it was still alive.
To my horror, the serving lady then lit the tealight underneath it. Yes, the thing cooked before my very eyes. Sometimes Japanese fine dining is not for the faint-hearted.
I could quite happily have set up home in the ryokan but the bullet train back to Tokyo beckoned.
It is not the easiest city to negotiate and reading the map of the underground is like trying to unravel the DNA helix.
As with any large city, however, it helps to view Tokyo as a collection of districts; Harajuku and Shibuya for outlandishly dressed youth, Roppongi for buzzy nightlife and the temples and the old-style markets of Asakusa for the spirit of old Tokyo.
It means an early start but Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, is not to be missed.
Then take a short river cruise before snagging a bargain in the electrical emporia of Electric Town and calming down again at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
For an off-the-wall experience, there is the Happy Cat Cafe.
Tokyoites who are not allowed pets in their tiny apartments pay to play with cats or just have one sitting on their lap while they read.
The Japan-is-expensive myth was exploded by the affordable and delicious Yakitori bars serving chicken on a skewer and by our stylish hotel in Akasaka, part of the “b” chain, which boasts five hotels in the capital.
The term “concrete jungle” might have been coined for Tokyo and the best views of the city are from at least 30 floors up.
Try the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt, best known from the 2003 film Lost In Translation.
Why would anyone get stuck there like Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s characters when travelling around Japan by bullet train is so comfortable and efficient?
You can even send your luggage on ahead.
There is no denying that Japan has had a battering but the country is not only soldiering on, it is forging ahead.
Life goes on and with prices reduced, now is the time to go.
That is one message that should not be lost in translation.
Inside Japan Tours (0117 370 9751/ insidejapantours.com) offers a 10-night
Festivals of Japan tour including the Aomori Nebuta Festival, Sendai’s Tanabata Festival, Akita’s Kanto Festival and four nights in Tokyo from £1,254pp (two sharing), B&B.
A seven-day Japan Rail Pass can be arranged from £221pp.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770/ virginatlantic.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Tokyo from £635.
The b Akasaka (theb-hotels. com/en) offers doubles from £55 per night (two sharing), B&B. Hyatt Regency Tokyo (tokyo.regency.hyatt.com) offers doubles from £150 per night (two sharing), B&B. Japan National Tourism Organisation: 020 7283 2130/ seejapan.co.uk
I HAD been in Tokyo only 15 minutes and already I had already been attacked.
By a loo.
"Emergency! A guard rushes! Slide this cover, alarming notice next to what I thought was the flush but which turned out to be a bidet function.
Jetlag and blasts of warm water make for an interesting combination.
It was exactly a year ago that I sat in a friend’s flat wondering why all the TV channels were running the same disaster movie.
It was only when we got to a news channel that we realised the scenes of earthquake and tsunami destruction were coming live from eastern Japan.
Unsurprisingly, tourist numbers are down but while certain areas near the nuclear reactor at Fukushima are off limits, Tokyo, 160 miles to the south, is unaffected and open for business.
The tourist board posts radiation read-outs on its website and figures for the city are lower than for New York, Paris or Berlin.
From a Western perspective Tokyo is utterly bonkers.
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It smacks you between the eyes and has a wow factor that just does not let go, perhaps not surprising for a 24-hour city of 18 million people.
On a sunny day, snow-dusted Mount Fuji can be seen clearly 70 miles away, poking out from behind the skyscrapers. Sumo wrestlers wobble down the street alongside ladies in kimonos and businessmen rush to their meetings wearing anti-flu facemasks.
At night, districts such as Shinjuku are ablaze in flashing neon with 50ft screens on the side of buildings advertising game consoles.
The 2,081ft Sky Tree tower, twice the height of London’s Shard, dominates the skyline and opens to the public in May.
Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Akihabara five-storey shops are devoted to cartoon books (“manga”) which are devoured in their millions every week.
Next door, costume shops allow Tokyoites to dress up as their favourite characters.
I wanted to experience all these things that make Tokyo different while taking in the main “must do” sites too.
I would recommend a walk to the serene Meiji Shrine in Shibuya-Ku, where you can write a wish on a wooden tablet and tie it under a massive camphor tree.
In what other capital could you catch a train and half an hour later be in a dressing gown buried in hot sand? It’s possible at the Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba where I soaked in natural hot springs, got a massage and had my feet nibbled by tiny fish.
For one night I booked myself into the Anshin Oyado “capsule hotel” in the Shinbashi area.
Rows of coffin-like chambers come with a mattress, duvet, reading light and TV.
Guests leave their clothes at the front door and change into brown pyjamas.
It's the nearest I will get to joining a cult, I thought, as I lay awake in my “room” at 2am listening to a chorus of drunk Japanese snoring away.
The next morning, after a communal shower, I escaped into a sea of umbrellas as the heavens opened and I took refuge in a burger bar.
Food in Tokyo is varied and, as long as you avoid the fancy places, inexpensive.
A large part of my week was spent eating extremely well, although the language barrier makes actually knowing what is on the plate a challenge.
The best bet, I found, is to see what others are having and if you like the look of it, point.
Food is a good metaphor for Japan. The country is like that slightly odd dish on the menu that you always shy away from but one day decide to sample and love it.
Give Japan a go and you will want to come back for seconds. By which time you will know how to flush the loo without any eyewatering surprises.