Dispatch, Japan: Power crunch

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KKJAPAN-dispatch

Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is visiting Japan as a guest of the Japanese National Tourist Organization. His first dispatch follows.

"Gamboro'oh Nippon." You see this phrase — or, rather, the Japanese hiragana characters representing it — all over Tokyo these days.

Posters and banners carrying the expression, which translates as both "cheer up, Japan" and "move forward, Japan," are plastered on buses, on telephone poles, at temple and train station entrances — you name it — as the city and country still grapple with the aftershocks, both physical and psychological, of the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear crisis.

I've been touring bustling Tokyo — which at first glance bears little resemblance to a city in crisis — with my guide, Yumiko Kobayashi.

Yumi, as she prefers to be called, has called my attention to the slogans wherever and whenever they appear. She also points out other subtler effects on life in the city since the crisis began.

For example, the ubiquitous vending machines that dot Tokyo’s streets are operating but "dark." Some 32,000 of them (one for every 22 or 23 residents, Yumi estimates) have dispensed soft drinks, cigarettes, toys and even batteries citywide for several generations now.

Today, 100 days after the disaster, while the vending machines are still working, they’re not lighted and often dispense warm drinks rather than cold. It’s part of a wide effort to save as much electricity as possible, given the crippled, post-earthquake state of the energy grid on Honshu, Japan’s main island.

As we navigated the Tokyo Metro en route to various sights and attractions, Yumi directed my attention to the “Saving Electricity” campaign posters plastered about, in nearly the same numbers as those urging Japan to "gamboro'oh."

Her husband works for a local power company, so she's particularly attuned to what’s happening on the energy front. After we passed through some turnstiles in the Metro at Shinjuku Station, Yumi led me to a video screen displaying the day’s citywide energy use. We are at only 65.1% of total capacity in the early afternoon, "so we’re in good shape," she tells me.

As we descended to the subway tracks on the Hanzoman line, we took the stairs. We also took the stairs at our destination station because many escalators have been turned off, as have many moving walkways, building lights and other electric-powered conveniences.

Even the iconic, 1,085-foot Tokyo Tower — usually a brilliant red and white — is only illuminated in a minimal blue scheme for about two hours after sundown each evening.

It's all an adjustment, said Yumi, but a minor one compared with the psychological blow from the ecological and nuclear crises.

"It’s similar to the period after World War II, when the Americans came, introduced many Western ways and it resulted in big cultural changes for us," she told me. "In some respects, this might be even a bigger change ... in how we think of ourselves."

Yumi thinks Japanese self-esteem has taken a hit, but she and many of her compatriots are grateful for the support and help that foreigners, particularly Americans, have furnished in the last couple of months. She also wants American and other foreign tourists to return — as soon as possible. She’s heard among her colleagues that there’s been a 50% drop in foreign arrivals since March.

Trying to do their part to encourage tourism recovery, Yumi and her fellow tour guides created a video clip in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, thanking people around the world for their support and assuring potential visitors that Japan is safe for travel. The video can be viewed below.

Of course, seeing is believing, and that's why I'm in Tokyo, and will spend a week here and in Kyoto as a guest of the Japanese National Tourist Organization.

I’m happy to report that Tokyo is a great pleasure to visit (apart from warm vending-machine drinks and having to take the stairs here and there).

The city is alive and well and welcoming. Japan may be questioning itself at this critical time but this visitor has nothing but admiration for this resilient and (soon, I’m sure) resurgent nation.
 

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