Japan

  
Japan is perhaps the most enigmatic country in the Far East and certainly one that offers an exhilarating travel experience, including some of the world's top dark-tourism destinations too! Japan's established darkest sites are mostly related to WWII, or "the Pacific War", including one of the very darkest aspects of it (and of all world history): the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
 
   
Due to its geotectonic location, Japan is also home to some of the world's most active and destructive volcanoes and is extremely earthquake-prone too. The latter manifested itself in the most catastrophic way on 11 March 2011, when an earthquake with a magnitude of over 9.0 struck and caused a massive tsunami along the north-east coast of Honshu (Japan's main island). Almost 20,000 people lost their lives and the structural damage was colossal.
   
A particular knock-on effect was that the tsunami triggered a meltdown at the NPP of Fukushima, which is regarded as the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. As at the latter, an Exclusion Zone was created and clear-up operations continue at the plant to this day.  
  
Fukushima has since also appeared on the dark-tourism radar. Some journalists and photographers, who were given special permits to visit, brought home striking images of some of the ghost towns left behind in the Zone. Now there's a road one can travel right through the Zone (without stopping and walking in). And at least one town has officially been declared re-inhabitable again – and apparently there are tours for visitors. However, since I've not been back to Japan to research this, Fukushima does not yet feature on these pages with its own entry. But that will probably change in the future.
  
Another place that has attracted attention within the context of dark tourism but is also not featured here, is Aokigahara, aka Japan's “suicide forest”. It's indeed a hotspot of suicides, but in addition to those going there with the actual intention of committing suicide, apparently there are also increasing numbers of visitors attracted to the forest because of that dark aura … and some do indeed encounter relics of suicides, or even dead bodies. I find this rather borderline for ethical reasons, and probably won't ever go there myself, and hence do not give Aokigahara its own chapter here, but a short mention of it was unavoidable ...  
      
The places covered in detail on this website are the following, ordered by importance/level of "darkness":
  
    
Nagasaki (esp. the Atomic Bomb Museum)
 
Mt Aso (an active volcano in the heart of Kyushu)
  
Sakurajima (another active volcano, near Kagoshima)
 
 
 
Since Okinawa is a Japanese possession, it should be linked from here too; and it is indeed a rich dark tourism destination mostly related to one of the most horrific battles of the Pacific War. These are the individual sites on the main island of the archipelago:
  
  
 
One dark aspect of WWII that is (almost) unique to Japan is that of the Kamikaze suicide attacks, the very concept of which has made Japanese warfare ideals infamous worldwide. This is commemorated (mostly rather as hero worship) in Japan in several museums, of which Chiran is perhaps the most poignant one.
 
Japan has also always been battered by natural disasters: earthquakes are an everyday occurrence, though mostly they remain small-scale and harmless, thanks to the fact that Japan leads the world in earthquake-resistant construction techniques. But disastrous ones have occurred all the same too – not only that mega-earthquake off the coast in March 2011 which caused the even more disastrous tsunami; but remember also Kobe 1995, when large parts of this city were destroyed and thousands died in collapsed buildings! A particular cause for concern in the future is another big one that is expected to hit Tokyo at some point – and that's the largest conurbation in the world!
    
Whereas earthquakes seldom provide for dark-tourism sites (reconstruction tends to take priority), some of Japan's many active volcanoes are indeed partly exploited for tourism and do offer some spectacular sights, in particular Mt Aso and Sakurajima.
  
Most dark sites to visit outside the capital Tokyo in the centre of the country, are in the southern half of the country, beginning with Hiroshima in the south-west of Japan's largest island Honshu, and extending to the very bottom of the south island Kyushu and beyond to the outlying Okinawa island halfway to Taiwan, which is already tropical. Another island, Hashima, is of a completely different character: it's a ghost island with an industrial ghost town that oozes a pseudo-post-apocalyptic look that is second to none.
  
Japan-related WWII sites are also dotted around the Pacific – not least Pearl Harbor, but also e.g. in Thailand (the Death Railway) or China (esp. Nanjing).
 
  
All darkness aside, Japan in general is a fantastic country to travel in! Only you first have to get there and for most foreigners this means a mid-range to long-haul international flight.
 
Some people seem to be a bit "afraid" of Japan – and I mean even before Fukushima added fears about radiation. Westerners expect life in Japan to be intimidatingly hectic and stressful. OK, Tokyo at rush hour can get very busy, when millions of people simultaneously fill the city's public transport to the brim. But other than that it's actually a very peaceful country – even Tokyo has many tranquil spots, and once you are off the main thoroughfares it often rather has the charm of a small town (even though this "small town" extends beyond the horizon – but you don't see that at street level).
 
The Japanese people are extremely friendly and helpful – only you have to overcome the language barrier. If you don't speak any Japanese you can still get along. Especially in bigger cities on Honshu (Tokyo in any case, but also Hiroshima) there will always be someone offering help in English. Even without a common language, the Japanese will try their utmost to be helpful. The biggest problem you'll probably encounter will be deciphering restaurant menus and finding specific addresses (unless they are tourist sights – the latter are usually well signposted), especially in Tokyo, which is bewildering in that respect even for locals.
 
One thing that can be particularly confusing for Westerners is the way Japanese maps on area plans and information panels in the streets, or in brochures, etc. are often "upside down", i.e. with the south at the top, and the north towards the bottom. Having been accustomed to the principle of north top, south bottom, i.e. west left, east right, it can take a while to correctly get your bearings on a Japanese "turned-around" map. It's not consistent, though; you can also find "normal" maps, so you first have to work out which type it is before trying to use one.
 
Using the metro in Tokyo or the Japan Rail long-distance trains (esp. shinkansen), on the other hand, is really very easy indeed for foreigners too. English signs, transliterated names, announcements in English, charts clearly indicating next stops, destinations and transfer options make it all but impossible to get lost.
 
Long-distance trains, esp. shinkansen, use a seat reservation system for most carriages and your ticket will indicate exactly which carriage number you're allocated – you then have to match this with the markings on the platforms and wait for the train door you'll need to appear and open right in front of you. Often there are several carriage number markings in the same places, depending on different train types with different numbers of carriages – colour coding helps, but if in doubt just ask one of the uniformed staff on the platforms by holding up your ticket, and they will usually take you by the hand and deposit you at the spot you need to be in. When things get a bit more provincial, it can get trickier, but still doable. I found even the trams in Kagoshima and local mini-trains in the Kyushu hinterland easy enough.
 
The Japanese rail system at large is the safest and most punctual in the world – so even if you're not sure where you are, you'll always know when to board or get off, because trains are never more than ten seconds late. You can set your watch according to trains' arrivals and departures! To look up train connections, arrivals and departures online in advance I can recommend using hyperdia.com (when travelling long distances on a JR RailPass remember that it is NOT valid on the very fastest "Nozomi" routes!). But you can also simply turn up at a station ticket counter and have the best route worked out for you when making your seat reservation.
 
Buses (e.g. to Chiran) stretch the limit more, but I still found it feasible. I have no first-hand experience with driving in Japan (I was told that they wouldn't accept a Germany-issued EU driving licence – otherwise I would have hired a car for Kyushu), but from what I could see, signage is pretty much consistently supplemented by Latin script transliterations. Touristy sites (including the major dark ones on Okinawa) are frequently signposted in English too. And traffic generally feels calm and well-behaved.
 
The only exception I found to my surprise can be pedestrians on road crossings. They often come straight at you, only to stop a second before bumping into you, with an astonished expression of consternation that there are other people about (even in a megacity of over 30 million).
 
In culinary terms, Japan is of course a food & drink adventurer's dream – the globally standardized sushi-conventionalism is hardly representative of the Japanese cuisine at large. It was not so easy, though, to convey the idea of semi-vegetarianism = no meat, but fish OK – it helped to have little cards to show restaurant staff: one with a crossed out pig and/or cow, the other with a fish with an "OK" tick next to it.
 
There are also websites which help cutting through the culinary thicket (especially this one), with maps and menus in Japanese and English ... just print out before you go whatever you're after so that you can show it to the waiters in Japanese on paper – language barrier bridged! Many restaurants also have plastic or wax models of their dishes in the window – or menus with photos – so you can follow the point-and-try approach.
 
One speciality unique to Japan - and perhaps of special interest from a dark perspective too - is fugo, or puffer fish. This is extremely poisonous, unless prepared with great care and skill, removing the toxic glands and entrails. Then the meat as such is palatable. Only specially trained and licensed chefs are allowed to prepare fugo in specialized restaurants. However, hundreds of people do try it at home and poison themselves with depressing regularity and there are even fugo-induced deaths every year in Japan. But if you stick to a fugo-licensed restaurant you will be quite safe, if you want to try it. I did in Tokyo - but must say that taste-wise it's a bit of a let-down. The coolness of having tried this potentially deadly delicacy is something else, of course ...
 
Drinks in Japan can also be a special experience – off the usual European tracks! There's no real wine at all, other than expensive imported ones, of course, but at least beer can be a good alternative, now that there are some excellent craft beers made in Japan too (though not yet an the scale as in some other countries). Sake (rice wine) and green tea, on the other hand, are omnipresent. The latter is often even served free of charge in some restaurants. Not free, and occasionally coming with scary names are the soft drinks in vending machines – including the notorious "Pocari Sweat" (don't ask me what it is – I never tried it).

The national alcoholic tipple is sake, and it can be of superb quality (Hiroshima, for instance, is a Mecca for good sake) – much better than what you normally get in the West. Forget the simple hot sake served in ordinary sushi joints in the West – the real thing at premium levels can be exceptionally delicate (and is drunk cold!). However, it can quickly get just as pricey as high-class European wines. But it's worth discovering and exploring, especially as you are unlikely to ever again see the same brands of sake at home! Maybe the Japanese keep all the good stuff for themselves.

The latter is certainly true for their whisky. Many people don't know this, but Japan has had a whisky industry of the Scotch style for nearly a century and the quality levels it can reach are outstanding (often knocking your average Scotch into a cocked hat – easily). At the top end of the range, it gets expensive … and the really rare stuff is hardly obtainable on the free market at all, not even within the country. But even at the regularly affordable end there are some superb tipples: Suntory's "Super" blend, for instance. In bars, however, the mark-up for drinks is ludicrous (a shot of Yamazaki 18-year-old malt would have cost me as much as quarter of a whole bottle in a standard shop! … I declined …). Recently, I indulged in purchasing what could be called the world's only "dark tourist" single malt: namely one from Sendai distillery – a bottling made (and shipped to Europe) before Sendai was struck by the 11 March 2011 tsunami that devastated the whole region followed by the radiation from Fukushima that came on top. It's like a relic in a bottle. Whether whiskies of this make will ever become available again remains to be seen …
 
Climate/weather-wise, spring is the best time to go, around Easter, preferably before the end of April (when "Golden Week" has half of Japan on the road). In April, days are already getting milder, especially in the southern half of the country, but it's not yet oppressively hot – which is frequently the case in summer. Winters, in contrast, can be very harsh in Japan, particularly in the north where they also last much longer. Autumn often sees typhoons, which can seriously impair the travel experience. So spring really is the best time to go. Another add-on attraction in spring is the fabled cherry-blossom season. It's as much fun to watch the Japanese admire (and photograph en masse) their beloved cherry blossoms as it is seeing the blossoms for yourself.
 
One thing I found a little difficult to deal with was the enormous wastefulness in Japan, especially as regards packaging. Everything is over-packaged (except fresh produce at food markets), in particular touristy food souvenirs where there may be an outer box and an inner box, a plastic wrapper around the inner box, and inside items that are all individually wrapped too. Plastic overkill.
 
Energy is wasted liberally too – although in the case of those famous hi-tech toilets you can at least turn off the unnecessary loo seat heating. There’s really no need to leave it on during the day when you're out, even if you in principle appreciate the luxury comfort it provides, when not set too hot, that is … But things may be changing on that front too in the wake of Fukushima and Japan's plans to phase out nuclear power.
 
All in all, visiting Japan is not as difficult as is often assumed, nor does it have to be as expensive as the cliché has it. OK, there's plenty of opportunity to burn money fast and in large amounts (on accommodation, luxury food, clothing, etc.), but you can equally economize quite a bit so that at the end of the day Japan is no more expensive than most other First World countries. Flights of course eat up a major chunk of your budget, but given the many connections, even flight fares can be surprisingly restrained compared to other similarly far-away destinations …  
 
In short, I can wholeheartedly recommend it – if the pull of such ultra-dark sites as Hiroshima & Nagasaki isn't already enough to convince the potentially tempted dark tourist …
 
 
 
  • Japan 01 - Imperial PalaceJapan 01 - Imperial Palace
  • Japan 02 - cherry blossomsJapan 02 - cherry blossoms
  • Japan 03 - Shinkansen bullet trainJapan 03 - Shinkansen bullet train
  • Japan 04 - comics are mainstreamJapan 04 - comics are mainstream
  • Japan 05 - fare chart on Kyushu busJapan 05 - fare chart on Kyushu bus
  • Japan 06 - cables, signs and orderly chaosJapan 06 - cables, signs and orderly chaos
  • Japan 07 - wacky Japanese TVJapan 07 - wacky Japanese TV
  • Japan 08 - friendly robotJapan 08 - friendly robot
  • Japan 09 - Nippon mock moon rocketJapan 09 - Nippon mock moon rocket
  • Japan 10 - sceneryJapan 10 - scenery
  • Japan 11 - green tea worshipJapan 11 - green tea worship
  • Japan 12 - packaging galoreJapan 12 - packaging galore
  • Japan 13 - train travel snacksJapan 13 - train travel snacks
  • Japan 14 - Hiroshima OkonomiyakiJapan 14 - Hiroshima Okonomiyaki
  • Japan 15 - spoilt for choiceJapan 15 - spoilt for choice
  • Japan 16 - fugoJapan 16 - fugo
  • JapanJapan
  
  
  
  
 
 
  
  
  

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