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Chris Rowthorn on far left

Last Sunday, I left my house and headed down to the market to buy some milk for my tea (I may have lived in Japan for 18 years, but I still like to start my day with a cup of English tea). I walked down a small lane near my house that was bursting with flowers of every sort and made my way to the shopping street.

I entered the market just as it was opening. As I made my way to the back, I heard the staff in the storeroom practicing their polite greetings. Other workers were diligently putting out stock or cleaning the floor. At the checkout counter, the clerk, who I’ve befriended over the years, handed me two free tickets to a show at Kyoto National Museum.

So, in short, it was an utterly ordinary Sunday for me. But, as a foreigner – even one who has lived in Japan for 18 years – it also seemed utterly out of the ordinary. What kind of people are these? I wondered. Where else would workers at an ordinary food market practice polite greetings with such enthusiasm? Or give so generously to an ordinary customer? Or, for that matter, plant so many flowering plants along a very ordinary local lane?

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

But more than that, as I walked back to my house, I felt a deep sadness, because I was among the only foreigners in Kyoto to enjoy this beautiful season (indeed, one of the best cherry blossoms seasons in recent years). It also felt wrong to be walking through such a peaceful and lovely scene as hundreds of thousands of people in the north of the country were living in shelters, mourning loved ones, or picking through the ruins of their ruined homes.

I felt almost selfish simply to be alive and I started to descend into a rather dark mood. But, then I stopped to think for a moment and I was cheered by a sudden insight: the same people who practice the greetings at the store, who give me unexpected gifts, and who plant flowers along my path, are the very same people who will rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone can possibly imagine. They’ve done it before and they will do it again.

But more than that, these are the very same people you will meet anywhere from the north of Hokkaido to the southernmost island in Okinawa. These are the people I have lived amongst and traveled amongst for most of my adult life, and even now, I am in awe of them. I am particularly impressed by their civility, their gentleness, their thoroughness, their habit of giving their all to any task they undertake, and their conviction that when there is work to be done, it is best to join hands and work together. The result is a country that is a joy to travel in and a very comfortable place to live.

There is no denying that this is a time of deep crisis for Japan. Many foreign travelers have cancelled their trips to Japan, many out of fear of radiation or earthquakes. Few of these travelers realize that even at the very height of the crisis, almost all of Japan, including Tokyo and Narita Airport, was perfectly safe for travel. Few people realize the true size of Japan – it stretches almost 3000km (1800 miles) north to south – and most of the popular tourist sites, like Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama, are far, far from the areas affected by the disaster.

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Tofukuji Temple, Kyoto

For those considering a trip to Japan, my first advice would be to do your own research about the nuclear accident at Fukushima One. If you are not comfortable with the information given out by the Japanese authorities, seek information from third-party organizations. The main thing to keep in mind is that this is a radically different accident from the one that happened at Chernobyl. At Chernobyl, the reactor vessels were not surrounded by concrete containment vessels. At Fukushima, the reactor vessels were surrounded by concrete containment vessels. Thus, there never was an open-core situation and radiation release like the one that happened at Chernobyl. And, at the time of writing, radiation levels in Tokyo and the other popular tourist spots in Japan are within normal annual ranges (ie, basically, there is only the normal level of background radiation).

Right now, Japan is quickly rebuilding. Factories in northern Japan are reopening. The northern bullet train lines are running. Planes are flying in and out of Sendai Airport. In short, Japan is open for business. As we head into May, one of the prettiest times of year in Japan, what we need most is for people simply to come back to Japan. Donations to aid agencies are incredibly useful and welcome, but more than anything else, the Japanese people will be cheered by the sight of foreign tourists enjoying the incredible sights and kindness of the people. The simple message that "Japan, we are here with you" is the best gift we can give these people now.


Chris Rowthorn is the author of Lonely Planet’s Japan and Kyoto guides. He also offers private guided tours and travel consulting about Japan via his website at www.chrisrowthorn.com. You can also learn more about Chris on his private blog at www.insidekyoto.com.

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