Photograph by iplan, Getty Images
From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
The tourism office, like the snack bars in Fukushima’s train station, is stuffy in the summer heat. Four months after Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the government is asking businesses to cut their electricity consumption by at least 15 percent to save precious energy; most are patriotically overcompensating. Yet there is megawatt power in the smile of the woman at the tourism desk when a lone customer saunters in from the bullet train.
“Irasshaimase! Welcome!” she sings out, and I smile back. The office is filled with maps, leaflets—and a cutout of a rabbit character: the snow bunny Momorin, Fukushima’s tourism mascot. Walls are covered with posters showing trees in springtime, their buds exploding like popcorn into pink and fuchsia blossoms.
“Some years, our cherry and peach trees bloom at the same time,” the tourism clerk tells me. “It is quite beautiful to see. Our peaches are famously juicy.”
But will anyone be eating them this year? I bite my tongue to keep that awkward thought from slipping out. Fukushima, on the island of Honshu, is now forever famous, though not, sadly, for peaches. Still, the site of the nuclear meltdown lies miles from where I am, and the no-go area is just a small circle on the map of this, Japan’s third largest prefecture, almost the size of Connecticut.
“New England in summer,” I think as the rental van winds into the mountains above Fukushima City. Lush fruit orchards fade to cool, pine-covered slopes. In the blue sky I spot traces of white plumes—not smoke or nuclear debris but thermal steam from the 130 hot springs that bubble up from Fukushima’s restless land.
I’m traveling, literally, on shaky ground. Still, I feel lucky to be here now. Many travelers, upon hearing that something has gone wrong in the destination they’re headed to, move quickly to switch reservations, abandon vacations. But when I hear bad news about a destination, I resist instantly reaching for the phone to cancel my flights. I do my research, gather as many facts as I can. Then, more often than not, I stick to my plans and keep going.
Natural disasters, economic collapse, social upheavals—as much as we may prefer our dream destinations to remain unchanging and picture-perfect (like the tourist office posters), they can’t. Would we really want to live and travel in such a dull, airbrushed world? Certainly, I don’t want to be a burden by parachuting my traveling self into countries that are dealing with immediate life-and-death situations. (In 2005, although I was in the area, I steered clear of southern Thailand’s beaches right after the tsunami, knowing that whatever precious food, water, and shelter were available needed to go to the relief effort, not tourists.)
But there’s a window after the critical emergency has passed—and before its shadow has been erased. This pause of breath as disaster fades and real life resumes may last for weeks or months; if I have a chance to visit a new place during that in-between period, I grab it. Traveling after disaster can be a challenge: The electricity may be spotty; the trains may not run on time—or there may be no trains at all. Yet it’s the very lack of certainty that makes this such a rich and rewarding moment to travel. When I do, I’m always happy I didn’t cancel those tickets and go somewhere else.
Some budget travel guides suggest “disaster” travel as a way to stretch your dollars. While it’s true that the flight of tourists often leads to more deals, I prefer to focus on the flip side of the equation. When you travel to a place that has had an unfortunate spell, you can be certain that every dollar you spend is going to people who need and appreciate it. I spent two weeks on the island of Bali just after the 2002 terrorist bombings of two discos. At first, I felt I had made a mistake: The international headlines had scared almost everyone away and turned the resorts into ghost towns. But soon I found myself surrounded—by grateful Balinese. After the first day, I stopped counting the thank-yous, the exhortations to “please tell everyone that we’re OK and they can come back.”
Another advantage in daring to go boldly where most travelers won’t is that you have the place pretty much to yourself, a huge treat in this ever more crowded world. On Bali’s north coast at sunrise I awoke to my hosts personally bringing breakfast and fresh flowers to my room; because I was one of only two guests, they had extra time for such niceties, and for me. At sunset I walked along a beach that, for once, really was as profoundly peaceful and deserted as those in the travel posters.
Because of my experience with traveling in tender times, I knew I’d need to tread softly and courteously on my trip through Japan last summer, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. But I didn’t even consider not going.
In the Fukushima mountains, I eased myself into one of the hot springs alongside two elderly women who had been evacuated, they told me in halting English, from a village mostly swept away by the enormous waves. We lay in the steamy water, enjoying the smell of the pines, admiring the moon. Next year, if I’m lucky, I’ll return to try the peaches.