I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a long time now, but I think it might have been the movie Lost in Translation which sealed it into my mind as an object of fascination. Recently, close friends went for a week and came back raving about how much they had enjoyed Tokyo.
So when in early February Singapore Airlines was offering a special 5 night package to Tokyo to promote their new double-decker Airbus A380 planes on the LAX-Tokyo route, we jumped on it. The package included round trip airfare, 5 nights at the Tokyo Hilton, airport transfers and 1/2 day tour all for about the same cost as the airfare and was valid for the dates we needed for David’s Spring Break (the travel life of a teacher is dictated by school schedules). We had to buy the package through one of the authorized travel agents Singapore Vacations uses, and while for some unexplained reason this prevented us form selecting our seats in advance (causing me much travel anxiety), I was happy with the outcome and set about planning the trip in the two months we had left before departure.
Then on March 11, 2011 disaster struck. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit offshore of the north east coast of Japan in the middle of the afternoon. Forty five minutes later, we watched the news, live from Japan, as a tsunami hit the coast, a gigantic wall of water slamming into buildings, roaring across fields, ripping apart everything in its path. In the aftermath, boats teetered atop buildings, cars were stacked 3 high like children’s toys, and houses, those which had not been shattered, were found upside down, blocks from their foundations. A nuclear power plant was all but destroyed and struggled to keep the reactors cool.
In the days which followed we were horrified and saddened at everything we saw, yet also profoundly impressed by the fortitude and resilience of the Japanese people. People got together and helped others and there was no looting, no rioting. In Tokyo, people walked miles home because the trains weren’t running, yet the buildings were still standing, constructed to withstand large quakes and their aftershocks.
Of course, people asked us if we were still going to take our trip. We asked ourselves the same question and discussed it at length. For days. For weeks. We adopted the “wait and see” mantra and thus waited and watched. Things got better in some places though it’s clear that some of the towns and cities hit by the tsunami will never be the same and the recovery will take years. But it was the nuclear plant and its ongoing trials which gave us the most concern. Friends threatened to steal our passports to prevent us from going. Coworkers told us we were crazy and even “stupid.” People on internet message boards called those still planning to go “selfish.”
So we waited and watched some more. I investigated our options to cancel, and if needed we could do so with very little penalty. We also had travel insurance, which in this case, did not cover the situation so I was glad to have the option to cancel from the airline. During those weeks Singapore Airlines canceled the launch of the A380 on the LAX-NRT route. With tourism to Japan down over 60%, hotels were closing floors and temporarily shuttering restaurants to save energy and cut costs. Small business were starting to suffer for lack of customers, both locals and tourists.
Rumors of radioactive water, rolling blackouts, food shortages swirled around the media. I became more and more frustrated with the over-sensationalism and outright misinformation I saw in the news. Reports coming directly from people in Tokyo said things were getting back to normal and our hotel was not affected by power outages. Kyoto seemed to have had little impact from the aftermath of the disaster.
Finally, about two weeks before our departure date, we decided to go. After all the investigation and discussion, we felt it was safe and that we could accept any remaining risk. We thought we could do our part, albeit small, by not canceling our trip and spending our tourist dollars there in Japan.
I’ve also contributed to a fantastic charity cookbook which is being created with recipes from 50 incredible food bloggers and cookbook authors. It’s called Peko Peko; A Charity Cookbook For Japan and while it has not yet been published, please check out the web page for the book, and put your name on the mailing list so that you can be alerted to the release date. If you like Japanese food, this promises to be a wonderful cookbook to inspire you to try cooking Japanese food at home.
Coming next…Planning and Preparation; helpful links for planning a trip to Japan.