Virtually every sentient being on the planet knows that northeastern Japan was devastated by a powerful earthquake and tsunami and severe damage to nuclear power plant facilities this past March. Sadly, the loss of life and damage to property was substantial. In line with that, travel to Japan - including parts of the country that were not affected by the tragedy, which is to say, most of Japan - fell off a cliff.
What many people may not know is just how successful Japan has been at restoring services and tourist amenities. Not everything is back to normal. Most seriously, the restricted area around the damaged power plant on the Pacific in the stricken Tohoku region will be off-limts for visitors and former residents for quite some time to come - but many services are running at near-normal levels in Tohoku. Travelers should also be aware that radiation levels in Tokyo are running below measured levels in many other world capitals.
Japanese tourism authorities are understandably eager to convey the message of near-normality. Constantly changing conditions are updated on the Web site of the Japan National Tourism Organization (http://www.jnto.go.jp/eq/eng/). Another good source of current information about travel to Japan can be found here: http://www.visitjapan.jp/eng/top.html.
As a journalist who writes about Japan and a traveler who finds Japan one of the safest and most interesting countries in the world, I, in turn, have been eager to learn more about what things are like nearly nine months after the tragedy. To that end, I had lunch in San Francisco recently with Midori Yamamitsu, consul and director at the Consulate General of Japan, and her colleague Takeshi Kurashina, vice consul.
They told me that the Tohoku region is well-known in Japan for its succulent oysters, rice cultivation and fine sake, all of which help draw visitors to the region. Nowadays, these and other products are being monitored for radiation, to ensure that unsafe products don't reach the marketplace.
Over our lunch, I sipped a glass of Koshi no Kanbai, a clean, smooth sake that, I later learned, is one of Japan's premium sakes. (Thank you, Google.) It's called Pure Realm in English. Made in Niigata Prefecture in the Hokuriku region, it is an artisan sake that can be hard to find, even in Japan, but well worth it if you can.
Even amidst all the devastation of last winter, the beloved Matsushino island cluster has survived, I was told. Small, uninhabited rocky islands covered with pine trees, Matsushima'a 260 isles are counted among Japan's natural treasures. Local ferries are running again, though some long-distance ferry service is not. Also, the airport has been repaired and is up and running, though with fewer international flights. Tokyo's massive Narita and Haneda airports were never seriously damaged and are operating long-haul international flights as they always do.
The JNTO site states that no additional power blackouts are expected, though visitors may find the famous bright lights of Tokyo to be less bright in the near-term and some escalators in airports and train stations may not be operating.
It would be a stretch to say things are perfectly normal - just business as usual - but the rip-tide of fear that put the entire, and very diverse, island nation off-limits for travelers this year shouldn't be allowed to run rampant into next year.
Japan is still traveling down the road to recovery. The good news is the pace of that recovery is accelerating and the traveler's path is smoothing out.