Saturday, April 16, 2011

Update #2 Tokyo & Kyoto Experiences

I won't try to replicate my other Japanese Ties blog... as this isn't my normal travel blog... but I thought I'd give some very quick impressions from my on-going trip to Japan. Firstly - this has been almost without doubt the most interesting, scary, stressful, beautiful, family oriented, happy, tiring and relaxing trip to date. And I've only just arrived in Sapporo.

Tokyo has to a large extent returned to normal - with the exceptions of some limitations on the supply of large bottles of water (saw plenty of small bottles in convenience stores, but no big 1L+ bottles), lots of dimmed lights, lots of events that had been cancelled, a general sombre mood. And for those that say that there was no infrastructure damage in Tokyo - there was, but thankfully it was mostly limited to the reclaimed land areas around Tokyo Bay (especially to the east in Urayasu City), there are major problems... and I mean very difficult and expensive problems to fix. Buildings, roads, pipes etc are all damaged, and it must be a long slow process of rebuilding. Another lesson to learn post earthquake... the follies of reclaiming land on an earthquake prone landscape.

 And yes - there are still aftershocks hitting the country to the north-east which are being felt here in Tokyo. The worst one we felt was on the morning of the second day in Tokyo - around 6:30 in the morning... which felt like quite strong, rapid, violent shaking that lasted for what felt about 1-2 mins. Actually, it wasn't the worst of the earthquakes - they happened at the end of our stay in Tokyo, but we were oblivious to them (perhaps on the train or something). They rattled my parents-in-law who actually started to freak out (opening the room doors as they are taught to do in bad earthquakes to allow rapid evacuation).

This is when we discovered the reality of post 3-11 life in Tokyo. It's not particularly bad... but when the aftershocks come, life (at least for those needing to get around on trains) comes to a temporary halt. Twice we were caught... on the last night (coming home from a wet afternoon out), and then in Musashi-Koyama on our way to the Shinegawa Station to catch the Shinkansen. The first instance was very bad. About 5:30-6:00 at night caught in Meguro station waiting to catch the train to Musashi Koyama (only 2 stops)... but because the trains come to a halt for about 20 mins, you have about 18 mins worth of people backed up and all trying to squeeze on the train at once. We had L-kun, and even though I was holding him above my head, the press of bodies was starting to scare him (and me). I would not take a small child on the trains at this time again (under similar circumstances). It could so easily have gone very very bad...

The second time we had set out on our way to the Shinkansen station, with what should have been plenty of time. But by the time we got to Musashi-Koyama, we found that the crowds were already milling, and the station staff started running around excitedly. Another earthquake just before had halted the trains again... and all of a sudden lots of time, looked like very little time... and shinkansen wait for no man and/or woman. Catching a taxi (thankfully) to Shinegawa gave us the breathing space we thought we needed.... and I have to say, that I've suddenly become quite familiar and happy with taxi travel in Japan (we never used to do this) - but, it turns out to be much cheaper than in Australia, and all things considered, a lot easier than transferring lots of stations. In the end - it turned out that Shinkansen do wait for nature - at least in the guise of earthquakes. Another 20 min delay most probably meant we would have had enough time... but you can never tell.

Musashi-Koyama Station to Shinegawa Station (via Meguro Station)

Now on to Kyoto - which I have to admit to loving to little temple bits. I am a nerd, as T-chan would say. Anyhow, I had expected (for some reason) for the sakura to be well and truly past their peak, but they were quite strong in many parts of the city, and it was such a pleasant surprise. The atmosphere in Kyoto was quite different... I won't go as far as to say indifferent to woes of Tokyo (as all of Japan suffers with the residents of Tohoku, whether they live there or not), but they have none of the infrastructure problems... although I still couldn't find the 1+L water bottles that I would normally have seen in convenience shops.

Unlike in Tokyo, most events were continuing, and people seemed really to be able to relax with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) which is normally a national mania. I liked our time here, but we started walking from the moment the shinkansen pulled in (btw - my first shinkansen.... strangely enough) on tuesday morning and continued walking through to Friday morning. It was a hard time - a lot like our first trip to Kyoto 4.5 years earlier... Still, it's such a wonderful city that invites you in and has so much to offer. And this time, it had sakura in abundance. The one thing we hadn't planned for was the warm weather however... it was 22-23 degrees C here, which made for nice walking (if you have light clothes)... we had however planned for cooler weather. A quick stop at Uniqlo (my favourite cheap but good clothing store) helped out here.

I would say that if you are going to Japan to spend most of your time in Tokyo, then you may be advised to delay slightly... not because of the risk - but because the mood is still subdued, there are still annoyances, and especially disruptions to the train services which are a central aspect to tourism in Tokyo. However, if you insist on travelling to Tokyo or Japan at this time, you can enjoy yourselves well, and can be confident on having a safe journey. Just leave plenty of time.

The only footnote I add here is that T-chan's parents have told us that there are some predicting a mag 8 earthquake to occur somewhere in eastern Japan within as little as the next month. I don't mean to alarm you (especially after re-assuring you) - but the reality is that these are troubled times - and the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor problems will be here for months, possibly years.


  1. I am glad you are enjoying your life in Japan; I thought you would.
    The "general somber mood" still continues. Our mentalities have changed.

    Anyway, good that nothing serious happened to you all.

  2. It's funny now (in retrospect) how worried we were. That's the thing about the unknown however.

    I know the mood will be quite subdued for a long time to come, and it might actually lead to a semi-permanent shift in attitude (I'm sure the Great Hanshin earthquake had a similar impact).

    Still, in all environments under stress, societies adapt to re-normalise under even dramatically different conditions. I'm sure that Japan's long history, and deep culture will help it adsorb much of the change. I just hope it also allows it to adapt in other legislative/regulatory ways.

    Still - Japan has resilience... but it's far from being out of the woods yet.