Saturday 22 July 2017

Japan: Land of the rising spirit

Six months on from Japan's devastating tsunami, Adrian Bridge visits the worst-hit region and is inspired by the unwavering resilience he finds

A little girl
sits on her dad's shoulders at
a sunflower festival near the
tsunami-hit region of Tohoku
A little girl sits on her dad's shoulders at a sunflower festival near the tsunami-hit region of Tohoku

Adrian Bridge

I learnt a new word while I was travelling around Japan earlier this month: 'Ganbare!' It means don't give up, or keep fighting.

Ganbare has become a rallying cry for the people of the Tohoku region, north of Tokyo, which earlier this year was struck by the biggest earthquake in Japan's history, followed by the nightmare combination of a tsunami and a meltdown at one of its nuclear power plants.

You hear it a lot as the Japanese seek to show solidarity with those who lost relatives or homes in the disaster, and to display the never-say-die spirit for which they are famous ("Fall down seven times, get up eight!").

You see it on placards, advertising boards and T-shirts.

I first registered the word in a carriage of one of the country's new Hayabusa bullet trains, when I noticed people having their photograph taken alongside it. Appropriately enough, the train was about to leave Tokyo and travel through the Tohoku region to Aomori -- on the northern tip of Honshu island -- the setting of the annual Nebuta festival, which organisers were determined would go ahead as usual. I was one of a small group of travel journalists flown in to see how Tohoku was getting back on its feet six months after the disaster, and to hear how it now hopes to draw back tourists.

Tourism to an area so recently the scene of such widespread destruction? I was sceptical. Would it be safe? Would it be fun? Would I really recommend it? There was only one way to find out.

The first sign of the ganbare spirit came in Tokyo, Japan's all-singing, all neon-lights-blazing capital. Just 231 miles away from the epicentre of the March 11 earthquake, Tokyo itself was badly shocked on that day. Everyone shared the fear that this was going to be a repeat of the Big One -- the earthquake that flattened the city in 1923.

I heard numerous uplifting tales of how people had come together in a Blitz-like spirit as the earth rumbled. For some, unable to get home that night owing to the shutdown of public transport, refuge came in the unlikely form of a bed in one of the city's most luxurious hotels, the Peninsula -- it threw open its doors to people in need of comfort, cake (the hotel is famous for its afternoon tea) and information.

Although initially supplies of some goods and power were disrupted, life in Tokyo was not too badly affected, and by April 5 foreign embassies had lifted their advisory against travelling to the city.

Certainly, in the Shibuya district -- a nerve centre of fashionable youth -- the lights were still glaring, the televised advertising hoardings blaring; in nearby Harajuku, the girls (and boys) were still sporting the most outlandish costumes and hair creations.

The closure of Fukushima and other nuclear plants has meant reduced power supplies and cutbacks in Tokyo: some subway escalators are not running; firms are more sparing with their use of air conditioning, and there are fewer stores open round the clock.

There are also continuing fears that another quake may be on the way (there are almost daily aftershocks), and a widespread suspicion that the government has not been honest about the radiation fallout from Fukushima and the extent to which food may be contaminated (just last month, there was a scare about beef).

But life goes on. And the view from the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt -- of 'Lost in Translation' fame -- remains magnificent: a fantastic display of flashing red lights and futuristic tower blocks.

Possibly the lights are burning a little less brightly, but Tokyo still has ferocious pace and quirkiness -- and the best sushi bars in the world.

The Hayabusa, the latest bullet train, with its bulbous nose, top speed of 199mph (320km/h) and ganbare message of support on its side, was introduced just six days before what is referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Damage to the line meant services to Aomori, the northernmost point of Tohoku, were disrupted earlier this year, but the Hayabusa was back on track by April 29. All damaged tracks in the Tohoku region had been repaired within 49 days of the disaster.

The new train has cut the journey time to Aomori to just over three hours. It takes a while to clear the vast suburban sprawl that is greater Tokyo, but then there is something softer on the eye in the form of brilliant green paddy fields and, in the distance, mountains that attract skiers in winter and hikers in summer.

Along the way the train passes Sendai, the capital of Tohoku and a city shown in news programmes worldwide when its airport was engulfed by the tsunami. At one point the train passes within about 30 miles of the Fukushima power plant -- possibly too close for some.

As we approached Aomori, Mihoko (Mimi), our guide, a former stewardess who, with her grace and unfailing courtesy, epitomised the finer points of the Japanese character, said that for all the sadness, some good had come out of what happened.

"We have been forced to rethink how we generate and use energy and our whole relationship with the natural world. We are much more appreciative now of simple things, like clean tap water. And friends. We have been brought closer together."

The people of Aomori have been celebrating the Nebuta festival for 300 years, and it is one of the most colourful of the Japanese calendar.

This month's festival had a special poignancy. Many felt that given the scale of the death and destruction in March (nearly 16,000 dead, 5,000 missing, 83,000 displaced) the event should be called off -- an unnecessary and distasteful extravagance at a time of continuing grief and economic hardship.

In the end, the show went on. And it was some display: in total, 27 floats paraded through the streets, delighting the crowds that had gathered to marvel and exchange banter with the troupes of costumed dancers and players -- and to cheer on the mayor, who delivered an impromptu jig.

The mood was festive; life-affirming. Later, in a covered walkway filled with vast hanging streamers that are the hallmark of Sendai's Tanabata festival, I bumped into two visitors from the United States who had spent the past 10 days touring some of the classic sights: Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima. "We were not quite sure what to expect travelling in Japan at this time, but wanted to do our bit to boost morale," said Nitt Chuenprateep, a 23 year-old from Washington DC.

"We have found everything working really efficiently and people very helpful and happy to see us.

My only complaint has been the strength of the yen!"

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