The northeast coastal region of Japan is still struggling to clear up after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, but the rest of this fascinating country is now unaffected and waiting to welcome tourists once again.
Japan trumpets 'welcome back' message
The street is as colourful as a cartoon. Racks of rainbow-bright playsuits, neon tights and towering platforms spill outside open-front boutiques. Teenaged girls in over-the-knee socks and mini maid dresses giggle as they tuck into strawberry and cream crêpes. Clutches of schoolboys with carefully coiffed J-pop inspired hairdos are loitering on corners.
The tableau of Tokyo youth culture is unfolding on Takeshita Dori, a pedestrianised street which has long been revered as a mecca for teen tribes - as well as tourists - in the heart of the hip Harajuku district.
The scene may appear to showcase just another standard day in the heart of urban Tokyo - apart from one crucial anomaly: there is not a single foreign tourist in sight.
On a typical day, it is near impossible to stroll from one end of the narrow street to the other without encountering several groups of foreigners - complete with widened eyes and cameras poised as they witness the more outlandish end of the Tokyo's teen fashion spectrum.
But this, however, has all changed since March 11. Masa Yamada, a shaven-headed shop assistant in skinny black jeans working at a store selling an eclectic selection of socks and tights, glances up and down the street: "You can see that things are the same here now as before the earthquake. But where are the foreign tourists? They're staying away but there's no need. There's nothing to be scared of. Life is back to normal here."
The subsequent tsunami which engulfed the northeast coastline was captured for the world to see in a myriad of images, from grainy mobile phone footage to broadcasts by helicopter-flying NHK reporters.
No less forgettable were the subsequent radiation leaks from the damaged Fukushima power plant, triggering a nuclear crisis and apocalyptic foreign newspaper headlines.
Fast forward some months and life in the capital has normalised. A little less neon and a greater awareness of energy saving aside as nuclear plant repairs rumble on, Tokyo today is not too different from pre-March 11.
Normal, that is, apart from the absence of one vital cog in the nation's existence: foreign tourists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, tourism was hit instantly by the disaster and has yet to recover: in March, overseas visitor numbers dropped 50 per cent compared to the previous year, followed by a record plummet of 70 per cent to 295,800 in April.
A further 50 per cent slump in visitors was subsequently recorded in May, despite the fact that many foreign government advisories lifted warnings against travelling to Japan outside the damaged regions less than a month after the disaster.
Meanwhile, from the tropical islands of southern Okinawa to the wild flower meadows of northern Hokkaido, plus hundreds of other tourist spots in between (all far from the troubled northeast region), vast swathes of the country remain tourist-free and open for business.
In Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, spring and early summer months are normally a time when the city is awash with foreign tourists wandering the lanes of Higashiyama, queuing to see Kinkakuji's golden pavilion, searching for geisha in Gion and sampling the tea ceremony in old ryokan. This year, however, it's a different story.
"The number of visitors from overseas to Kyoto has dropped 90 per cent," says Mitsuko Washio, the marketing communications manager at the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto, which has launched an array of discount promotions for the summer season.
"Regionally, the radiation threat has been the biggest factor in stopping international travellers from coming to Japan. But the Kansai region - including Kyoto and Osaka - is not near the area of devastation and is totally unaffected. Everything is functioning as normal."
It's a massive blow for the tourism industry: 2011 had been benchmarked as the year that Japan had hoped to top the 10 million visitor number for the first time - an ambition swiftly overshadowed by the tri-fold disaster.
As Japan continues with its clean-up efforts in the north, it is clear that the nation is facing not only the biggest rebuilding job since the Second World War - but also the PR job of the century to lure visitors back.
"Japan is still one of the safest places in the world for a holiday," says Kylie Clark, head of marketing for UK, Scandinavia and Middle East regions at the Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO).
"The country has bounced back from this disaster incredibly quickly and the people of Japan want visitors to come back, with many people relying on tourism for their livelihoods."
It's also a question of understanding geography, Clark adds. While it is advised to stay away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant (the British government recommends keeping a distance of at least 60km), other regions across the country are deemed completely safe.
"All the key spots in Japan, such as Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Hiroshima are very far from where the earthquake happened. The Fukushima power plant is 1,770 km from Okinawa - about the same distance between London and Sicily," Clark says.
Testimony to the sensitivity of the tourist office's mission is the fact that its website currently contains not only the standard tourist information - but also regular radiation postings for Tokyo. For concerned travellers, the radiation updates should come as some reassurance: a reading on June 21 showed Tokyo's radiation levels at 0.059 uSV per hour - less than the most recent equivalent readings for a raft of other destinations, including New York, Berlin, Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul.
Both regional food produce and tap water are also monitored rigorously around the clock by the government - with ample bottled water for sale in vending machines on every street corner for those who remain concerned.
International flights have long been running normally, as a spokesman for Emirates says: "We are following the advice of the International Air Transport Association which is based on guidance received from the World Health Organisation, International Atomic Energy Agency and other expert bodies. Currently, that advice is we can operate as normal to our two destinations in Japan - Tokyo and Osaka."
Once inside Japan, travel links are almost entirely unaffected: the Shinkansen bullet train network is up and running - complete with recently opened extensions in northern Aomori and southern Kyushu - and even Sendai airport, badly damaged in the tsunami, is open for business.
Meanwhile, Japanese tourist authorities are also increasingly targeting visitors from the Middle East, where a small but growing market has become stronger since Emirates and Etihad Airways launched flghts to Tokyo last year. The latest available figures for Middle East visitors show that during the first three months of the year, the highest number of travellers from the region hailed from Turkey (1,616), followed by Israel (1,597) and Saudi Arabia (605). Last month, the Japanese authorities stepped up their call for visitors from the Middle East with the launch of a new Arabic language JNTO website - the first of its kind - in a bid to help the nation's tourism revival.
"The number of visitors from the Middle East to Japan is still small at the moment," says Clark. "Air links from the region to Tokyo are still relatively new, so we are optimistic there is potential for strong growth in visitor numbers from the region to Japan.
"We also hope that the new Arabic JNTO website [www.alyaban.travel] will help convince Arabic speakers considering a visit to Japan that it is a fantastic destination for a holiday."
There are certainly stronger signs of interest from this region. Frederic Bardin, the senior vice president of Emirates Holidays - which did not feature Japan last year on their programmes but reintroduced Japan holidays this April following growing demand - says: "The figures have been encouraging. It is important to stress that only a very small part of Japan was affected by the disasters and that, if anything, the contribution of tourism to the Japanese economy can only be positive."
Conversely, among those travellers who are venturing to Japan, there is a clear sense that there has never been a better time to visit - both in terms of supporting the local economy as well as enjoying crowd-free tourist sights. Among recent visitors were Barrie and Marilyn Ellison from Derby in the UK Midlands, who, unlike many travellers, decided not to cancel their year-long planned trip to Japan to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
"We thought long and hard about going but decided that the Japanese being the efficient and determined race we believed them to be would have recovered sufficiently for it not to interfere too much with our trip," Barrie explains. "It was a decision we did not regret."
The couple, both 60, arrived exactly six weeks after March and visited Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima - all among the nation's most popular tourist spots, none of which was affected by the disaster.
"Our expectations were that we could suffer some power cuts, some delay with some of the trains and possibly some aftershock tremors," Barrie says. "But the only thing that we noticed was the almost total lack of European tourists and a couple of escalators that had been taken out of service.
"The only westerners we met were two Australian couples. And the cable cars at Hakone, which I believe are in the Guinness Book of Records as the busiest on the planet, were empty, as were most of the attractions we visited."
Duncan Metcalfe, a 35-year-old civil servant from London, is another traveller who enjoyed the unusual position of being one of very few foreign visitors - a fact which became clear while attending a sumo tournament.
"I was the only western face in the crowd at the tournament and actually noticed a Japanese man taking a picture of me, presumably as I stood out a little," he says. "I saw very few other western tourists on my trip and the flight was only about a quarter full when I flew over."
Describing his decision to visit, he adds: "For a while after March 11, I thought I would have to cancel because the UK Foreign Office had warned against travel to Tokyo, but this warning was lifted after a few weeks so I left my plans in place.
"I was obviously concerned about how safe Japan was at the time, especially with the radiation risk from Fukushima. I was also concerned about whether I would be made welcome by the Japanese people after such a disaster.
"But I was greatly impressed with the way in which the Japanese were 'getting on with things' and with the friendly welcomes. The only effect of March 11 that I saw were the lights being turned off in Shinjuku skyscrapers to save electricity."
Meanwhile, as temperatures start to increase in Japan, the start of summer means party season - from annual fireworks displays in Tokyo to music events such as the Fuji Rock Festival and countless local traditional festivals. JNTO has launched a campaign highlighting the reasons why it's a good place to holiday: from hiking among the mountains of Kyushu to enjoying the tropical beaches of Okinawa's subtropical islands and climbing Mount Fuji and making the most of the country's high-speed bullet trains.
It's a good time to save money, too: a growing number of hotels are dropping their rates and launching competitive initiatives to attract overseas visitors, including Hyatt's offer of 50 per cent off for every second night at participating hotels. Ten major hotels, including Tokyo's Hotel New Otani and the Capitol Hotel Tokyu, also joined forces recently to offer a special 10,000 yen (Dh454) rate a night - a significant reduction on their usual rates - for a limited period in July (it's worth staying tuned to the JNTO website for other forthcoming discounts).
One of a string of tour operators working to lure foreigners back to Japan is InsideJapan Tours, a UK-based operator for international travellers, which saw 49 per cent of its bookings cancelled after March 11 but is slowly building up customers once again.
"We are desperately trying to get the positive message about Japan out there and the tide gradually seems to be turning from disaster to recovery," says James Mundy, travel consultant and PR at the company. "We are telling people that now is a great time to travel. It's like the 'golden days' of travelling in Japan when we started more than 10 years ago - there are barely any foreigners, people go even farther out of their way to give you a warm welcome and the cultural experience is even richer."
So confident is InsideJapan Tours of the nation's safety and suitability as a destination that it is also organising tours to the northeast Tohoku region. This summer, the company is sending one family to attend a trio of local festivals known as "the Big Three", while another group will join a volunteer organisation and help clean up tsunami-hit areas at the end of their holiday. "The fact that the Big Three tour is in Tohoku will highlight the fact that not all of the region was physically devastated by the tsunami and earthquake and show that the region is gradually recovering," says Mundy.
Either way, Japan will be hoping that it's only a matter of time before the foreign tourists - complete with incredulous eyes and cameras - will once again become an everyday part of the urban landscape in Harajuku's Takeshita Dori as well as other tourist hotspots across the country.
If You Go
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh5,455, including taxes. Emirates (www.emirates.com) also flies to Osaka from Dubai for Dh6,395 return, including taxes