We had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.
When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.
We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.
We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.
It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.
Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels
The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.
The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970′s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.
The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.
I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.
It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.
There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.
The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
– written by Josh Thomas
When it comes to international travel, getting the most for your money is a big deal. While we usually recommend withdrawing local currency from an ATM as soon as you arrive, there are certain times when it makes sense to purchase currency in advance.
Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, explains that buying in advance allows travelers to shop around for the best rate and hedge against exchange rate fluctuations that might affect their buying power. Buying in advance can also give you peace of mind if you’re traveling to a place where ATM’s might not be prevalent, or if you’re concerned about your card being declined.
Below are Rowlands’ tips for getting the best deal when buying foreign currency.
1. Shop around — and shop online. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people assume their friendly travel agent or supermarket will look after them. Think about it: They are in business to make money, and you are a captive audience. Politely decline and go and surf the net. You can cover the whole marketplace from the comfort of your home.
2. Plan ahead. Don’t leave buying your currency until the last minute. When buying online, you need to allow enough time for your payment to go through, your identity to be confirmed and your currency to be delivered.
Get the Best Exchange Rate
3. Beware of “free delivery” offers. What really matters is how much currency arrives on your doorstep. What’s the point saving five bucks on delivery if it costs you $15 worth of currency? Look out for extra hidden charges, and try to find out how much you are paying in total and exactly how much currency you will receive. The benefits of a great exchange rate can be totally negated by commissions and handling fees.
4. Avoid Saturday delivery. There is often an extra charge to get money delivered on weekends. Some companies will deliver to your work address during the week, but make sure you have a secure place to keep your travel money safe.
5. Get together with friends. If you order your currency in bulk, you will have greater buying power. Even online bureaus are happy to negotiate for larger amounts. Call or send an e-mail asking for their best deal.
6. Ask for a price match. If you’ve found a better deal elsewhere, ask a company to match it.
7. Check the money market. Compare the deal you are offered to the market rate. Visit XE.com and look at how much profit margin has been added. You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.
8. Beware of the credit/debit card trap. The bureau will probably inform you it has a small charge for debit cards. This is quite reasonable with such tight margins. But very often that’s not the end of the story; most credit cards and many debit card providers will treat your transaction as a cash advance. Check the small print or call your provider. If someone tells you there is no additional charge, get that person’s name. Sign up for Internet banking and pay using a bank transfer to avoid hidden charges. The last thing you want is a 3 percent charge plus interest on your statement when you return from your vacation.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
9. Don’t be fooled by buy-back “guarantees.” Read the small print: Is what you are getting really worth paying for? You might be better off shopping around for the best deal for unwanted currency when you get back home. Never assume you have to take your unwanted currency back to where you got it from. Take it home, cash it in and shop around for the best buy-back rates available.
– written by Mark Rowlands and Sarah Schlichter
We’ve all heard about the funny questions cruise passengers ask on big ships. “Do the crewmembers sleep onboard?” Or “What time’s the midnight buffet?” And so on. But what about the more rugged independent traveler types who favour small expedition ships? Let me tell you, the ask-before-you-think mentality is just the same. Here are some gems picked up on a recent expedition cruise.
6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise
12. Passenger to guide while embarking on hike from the beach: “Do I need to wear my life jacket for the walk?”
11. Passenger to naturalist guide on bird-watching hike: “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us to bring our binoculars.”
10. Passenger on crowded Zodiac on leaving the ship for a hike: “Should I extend my retractable walking poles now or shall I wait till we’re ashore?” Bear in mind that a) retractable walking poles have a spike on the end and b) Zodiacs are inflatable.
9. Man to officer as the small ship spins gently around its anchor chain in a secluded but windy bay: “Are you deliberately making it do this? Is it to make it shake off the barnacles or something?”
8. Man to marine biologist on snorkel expedition, having surfaced and waved his arm: “Hey! What’s this fish down here?” (Marine biologist, quietly, through gritted teeth, from some distance away: “There are hundreds of fish ‘down there.’”)
7. Passenger to crewmember as we head for an uninhabited island with a broad sweep of empty beach: “Will there be bathrooms when we get ashore?”
6. Passenger to crewmember on viewing a pod of hundreds of dolphins surrounding the ship: “Exactly how many are there?”
“You Want What?” Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests
5. On leaving the ship for a donkey trek across a remote and uninhabited area: “Will I need ID for the donkey ride?”
4. Passenger to naturalist: “If we drive the ship (all 1,200 tons of it) at those three dozing sea lions floating in the water over there, will they wake up?”
3. On boarding a fishing boat to go whale watching: “How wet am I going to get?”
2. A puzzling one while on the whale watching boat: “Is the whale under the water?”
1. And perhaps my favourite, again, from passenger to hapless naturalist: “Is that the same whale we saw earlier?”
We all ask foolish questions from time to time — what are your funniest stories about silly travel questions? Submit them in the comments below.
– written by Sue Bryant
For months I had been preparing for my eight-week trip to South America. As I bought new gear, I would toss it into my backpack without a second thought. It wasn’t until the morning of my flight that I dumped everything onto the living room floor — with less than six hours to determine what would make the final cut.
Space was at a premium because whatever I chose, I’d have to haul around on my back for two months. I’m typically a light packer, used to asking myself, “Is this necessary?” The items below answer that question with a resounding yes!
When you find yourself without electricity (Cabo Polonio, Uruguay), without street lights (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile) or simply in a situation where you want to be a considerate roommate (someone WILL be sleeping before you set out your toothbrush and pajamas), a headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Mine proved its worth by day three (of 60).
Hooded Silk Sleep Sack
My silk sleep sack, which folded up into itself and fit inside a quart-sized zip-top bag, felt luxurious … especially in hostels and budget hotels where the alternative was a sheet that was the texture of sandpaper. Bonus: In altitude, it provided me with extra warmth when the temperatures dropped.
Compression sacks are perfect for consolidating less-needed items; when I was in warm-weather locales, the sack eliminated the extra space taken up by my fleece and jeans.
iPod with Customized Playlists
I created a “sleep” playlist that served me well on overnight bus rides and when sharing rooms with snorers. To build up a little anticipation for your trip, you can create a playlist with popular and current music in your destination. When you return, you’ll have an instant souvenir with music you likely just heard on the road.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
Go on, laugh. But don’t take TP for granted, even when you have to pay to use a toilet. In many parts of the world you’ll need to provide your own. (See Five Tips for Bathroom Preparedness.)
I was in an area known for mosquitos and I hadn’t taken any malaria meds. Upon checking into my hotel, I noticed there was a hole in the window screen. I whipped out the duct tape, covered the holes and hoped for the best. (For other uses, see Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find at Your Drug Store.)
Or as I call it, a cover-up, beach towel, pillow, pillowcase, sarong and blanket. Oh, and yes, a scarf.
Quick-Dry Travel Towel
This was a good alternative in spots where bath towels were the size of washcloths. It also proved useful at the beach. Bonus: Sunshine really speeds up the drying process.
Biore Cleansing Facial Cloths
After an overnight bus ride or just a few days sans shower, using one of these made all the difference. I will never travel without facial cloths again.
Thankfully I never used this, but it took up permanent residence in my daypack. It was at the ready if there was an abundance of stray dogs or if I was walking alone in the dark.
I never had to use it as such. Instead, it doubled as a change purse. Had I needed to hand it over, it was heavy enough to be believable, yet it didn’t hold enough to impact my travels.
Money Safety Tips for Travelers
Again, another multi-purpose item: a laundry bag, wet clothes bag, muddy shoe bag, beach bag, shopping bag, snack bag, trash bag … you name it.
And finally, don’t forget your sense of humor and patience.
– written by Lori Sussle
It’s an argument that can be all too familiar this time of year: Where should you spend the holidays? Whether your husband’s parents want you to trek cross country to be with them for Thanksgiving or you’d rather skip Christmas with the grandkids and take a Caribbean cruise instead, holiday travel decisions can be fraught with anxiety — and a side helping of guilt.
Christopher, who didn’t want his last name used for fear of upsetting his in laws, says that he and his wife have been dealing with onerous holiday expectations for their entire 19-year marriage. “It’s burned any joy of the holiday season right out of me,” he says.
Although the couple has tried to come up with a compromise — one year they’d pony up for expensive cross-country flights, the next year they’d stay home and celebrate alone — her family isn’t buying it, he says. And forget about taking a vacation with just the two of them during the holiday season. One year when they tried to make excuses, he says, the family decided, without asking, to come to their house instead.
“We have not been able to get to a point with her family where we have been able to break away to do stuff on our own,” he says. “Their point of view around Christmas is that they are going to steamroll you. You either hop on or you get crushed.”
Away from Home for the Holidays
Sometimes the guilt doesn’t come from your family; it’s self-inflicted. This year, I was going to go on a Christmas markets cruise through Europe with my husband over the holidays. When I told my parents about the plan, their silence spoke more than recriminations. I ended up moving the cruise to earlier in December — and inviting my dad.
Emily Harley-Reid threw off her own parental guilt one Thanksgiving and went to Machu Picchu, leaving her husband and son behind. “They LOVED having a guys’ weekend,” she said. (She did bring her mother on the adventure.)
Harley-Reid says that she has tried to get friends to break their own shackles and go in on a T-day mountain or beach rental. So far, she’s had no takers. “I just want to spend a few days bonding and relaxing with dear friends and immediate family instead of driving 1,100 miles in two days, often through snow and ice,” she says. “Everyone turns down the idea because of the massive guilt trips.”
What Not to Do When Traveling Over the Holidays
Has guilt ever influenced your holiday travel plans?
– written by Chris Gray Faust
Home of the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole is one of the best places on Planet Earth to see wildlife in winter. This is not to slight nearby Yellowstone National Park. It’s just that the “hole” that is Jackson Hole concentrates a lot of animals in a relatively small, convenient space. So on a recent day off from skiing, my wife and I tried to see how many furry critters we could spot in one day.
Because we were staying at Spring Creek Ranch, which overlooks the town of Jackson, we took a wildlife tour with Kurt Johnson, Spring Creek’s chief naturalist. Armed with a BS in wildlife biology, an MS in natural resources and a van full of optical gear, Johnson knows wildlife better than Batali knows pasta.
Before we’d even left the ranch Johnson spotted some long-eared mule deer, including a 400-pound buck. Mule deer, like many animals in cold habitats, grow larger than their cousins in more temperate areas. But there are exceptions to every rule: We also passed a northern shrike, a tiny, innocuous-looking songbird that impales its prey on thorns until they bleed to death. Tough neighborhood.
Winter Vacations Without the Skis
Our first stop was on the eastern edge of the flat, rectangular National Elk Refuge,
where about 7,000 elk spend the winter. You see extremely healthy specimens here: elk cows that weigh up to 500 pounds and bulls of almost 900 pounds. Just 100 feet from us, a bull with huge antlers picked a fight with another bull. For a minute or two they banged heads, popping rim shots we could hear over the howling wind. But then, with the females long past their September estrous period, the boys suddenly forgot why they were fighting, and resumed grazing side by side.
To the north of the elk stood a few bison, notwithstanding signs indicating that this is an elk refuge. Johnson lends his clients binoculars and a telescope so powerful that we could see vapor from the bisons’ breath. Farther to our right, on a bluff near the road, four bighorn sheep watched us warily. That 200- to 250-pound animals with NFL chests can scamper up these cliff faces is an unlikely adaptation, but that’s why it works.
In less than an hour we’d seen four large mammals on our wish list, plus trumpeter swans and adorable Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks. “Think we’ll see any carnivores?” I asked. Johnson said, “Maybe.” Good answer.
Cozy Winter Getaway Ideas
He drove us to the Gros Ventre River, where two moose waded in the frigid water. I’d watched moose wading here in summer, green water dripping from their fur, but now it had started to snow, and these moose had iceballs clinging to their coats.
Moose weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. A huge bull moose rested on a bank near us, blinking stoically as icy flakes pelted its eyes. It’s their overlapping upper lips that make moose look dim-witted, but watching one of these hump-backed creatures wait out a squall, you understand its ability to survive without mastering rocket science.
Our return route led alongside the refuge again. Suddenly, Johnson pointed to a coyote on the field. Coyotes are elusive creatures: We hear them at night near our house in Pennsylvania, and we find their scat in the morning, but they never show themselves in daylight. This one paraded right past us, offering as good a look at Canis latrans as you’ll ever get outside a zoo. It was a big one, too. “Coyotes are so large here,” said Johnson, “visitors think they’re wolves.”
A local had told us about a pack of especially ambitious coyotes that had attacked an elk a few days earlier. This coyote, though, trotted toward an elk that was already dead. Just as it got there, a bald eagle swooped down to the carcass. When the food is this good, the most unlikely companions will do lunch.
Our 10 Favorite National Parks
– written by Ed Wetschler, executive editor of Tripatini
It’s the most accessible winter sports destination in the United States: You can fly nonstop to Salt Lake City from any major gateway, take a 35-minute van ride to Park City, and hit the slopes that same day. Moreover, Park City’s three ski resorts — Deer Valley, the Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort — offer free lift tickets to first-day arrivals. Between the three resorts you’ve got 9,000 acres of downhill terrain (Vail, the largest single ski resort in the U.S., has 5,300) and accommodations at all levels (starting at $40 a night at Chateau Apres). Plus, you don’t even need a rental car because Park City has the best shuttle system in ski country.
Pretty sweet. But the three resorts have found ways to make things even better this year. Here’s what’s new:
1. The Orange Bubble Express
The Canyons is huge — 4,000 acres huge — and its endless glades are a big draw for advanced skiers and snowboarders. But up until this year, everyone had to take one gondola up from the base village; not only was the line huge, but getting to the gondola — located at the very far end of the village — was a hardship. And these boots were not made for walking. So this year the gondola has been moved to the center of the village, which is also where the cabriolet from the parking lot ends. Moreover, there is now a second lift, the Orange Bubble Express, which has heated seats (ahhh) and a bubble top to keep out the elements.
2. Zip Lines
Canyon Mountain Sports (435-615-3440) at the Canyons has two new zip lines: an intermediate zip line that takes you on an 800-foot tree-top ride through the Red Pine area, and an advanced zip line that flies across the canyon between Lookout Peak and Red Pine Lodge, spanning more than 2,111 feet. Ticket prices haven’t been released yet; expect something like $20 for the longer run. Not to be outdone, Park City Mountain Resort has a new summer and winter Flying Eagle Zip Line ($14) as well as a ZipRider ($20) on which you can race your friends (just in case skiing or snowboarding don’t provide enough thrills for you).
3. New Restaurants at the Canyons
There are several new restaurants — and they’re both kind of surprising. The Farm, which features locally sourced, seasonal cuisine like the entree shown below, is the sort of place you’d expect to see at Deer Valley, the zillion-star resort at the other end of Park City. The Farm’s executive chef, John Murcko, was recently named the best chef in Salt Lake City. A second place, Bistro at Canyons, is the first certified glatt kosher restaurant at any American or European ski resort. It has an Orthodox synagogue next door, too, so you can finally find out if davening really does stretch your leg muscles for skiing.
4. Deer Valley Resort’s Better Grooming
Deer Valley, which readers of “Ski Magazine” have named the best resort in North America for four years in a row, has slopes so flawless that my Colorado friend wonders if they bleach the snow. Even so, the place has four new snowcats, including two Prinoth Beasts that upgrade trail grooming by 40 percent. Improving Deer Valley’s grooming by 40 percent is like boosting Scarlett Johansson’s attractiveness by 40 percent.
5. Kids’ Stuff
Deer Valley is decidedly not snowboard friendly, but in every other way it’s exceedingly family friendly, so this winter the resort is rolling out a new children’s outdoor play area next to the Snow Park Lodge as well as a trail map designed just for children and families. The map is light on the snowcat and heli-skiing, but strong on more parent-approved ways to enjoy the place. Deer Valley has also installed four new conveyor belts to transport kids and beginner skiers up the mountain. Meanwhile, Park City Mountain Resort has a new Beginners Zone with two conveyor belts for ski and snowboard students of all ages.
6. The Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort
The new dirt-work foundation for Park City Mountain Resort’s 22-foot superpipe doesn’t sound that important. After all, you can’t even see it. But it will allow the resort to open the facility earlier in the season; that’s pretty remarkable, because even without this new foundation, onthesnow.com had singled out Park City Mountain Resort for having the best terrain parks in America. (Of the three resorts, P.C.M.R. is also the one with a lift that’s right in town.)
7. Snowmamas Rock!
Snowmamas.com, a new microsite sponsored by Park City Mountain Resort, is an online community of moms (and dads) who live in town. They’re real people, too; their faces are on the site, and you’ll run into some of them in town. They tell visitors about local deals and offer insiders’ tips to us flatlanders. And best of all, there’s an “Ask a Snowmama” widget on the site, so you can get answers to specific questions about gear, baby sitters, shopping, child-friendly restaurants, anything.
– written by Ed Wetschler, the executive editor of Tripatini.com, the travel social media site a.k.a. “Facebook for travelers.”
I may get pelted with geraniums for admitting this, but here goes: Claude Monet’s ultra-famous gardens in Giverny, while objectively artful, left me cold. It’s like the painter left his vision behind but took the soul of it with him to the grave. They’re just too … perfect.
I visited Giverny as a port of call on a recent Seine River cruise. It was clear that the Impressionist’s two gardens, which he created so he could paint his visions of paradise, are unspeakably lush and immaculately tended (the place has a team of full-time gardeners). And yes, as you amble through his water garden, wander over the iconic Japanese bridge and peer into the pond to see if the water lilies are flowering yet, you can almost imagine yourself in one of his paintings.
To me, though, there was something sterile about the place, despite the perfectly tended pathways and the thousands of visitors with whom I shared my wanderings, and in spite of the whizzing sound of cars passing by (one thing the glamorous photos don’t show you is that a two-lane highway separates the garden by the house from the water garden). The fluorescently illuminated gift shop, as big as a barn, was full of cheap crap-knacks, such as “Lady with a Parasol”-on-magnet or “Water-Lily Pond”-on-polyester-scarf, that are meant to appeal to the masses. Indeed, Monet’s garden, as a daytripper’s jaunt from Paris, draws a half million visitors per year.
If you’re in the area, the pilgrimage to Monet’s place is obligatory, but keep it short. A better way to spend a day in Giverny is to wander into the heart of its village. Grab a stool in the bar at the ancient Hotel Baudy, where the artists who followed Monet to Giverny bartered paintings for food (their work still hangs there). Check out the artists’ studio in the back garden that’s been preserved as it was a century ago. And feel free to wander through the garden that for Baudy’s owner is as much a labor of love as was Monet’s. It’s got lavender and geraniums, benches you can sit on, and forested alcoves for private musing. It may not have that pond full of water lilies. But it’s got soul in spades.
Slideshow: Top 10 Undiscovered Destinations
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
While I’m not sure I’d call myself a “lazy traveler,” I do like to keep things as simple as possible. After countless road trips and plane rides, I’ve developed a few tips and strategies that will make your next trip more comfortable. These tips work for short or long trips and do not require a degree in rocket science in order to apply them to your travel style.
1. Wear slip-on shoes. Whether you are working your way through airport security or headed out on a long road trip, slip-on shoes make life much more relaxing. At the airport you don’t have to be “that guy” blocking up the security line because he’s untying his shoes. Just make sure you have clean, hole-free socks — and ladies, if it’s summertime, we recommend a fresh pedicure.
Airport Security: Your Questions Answered
2. Books and e-readers are nice, but audio books are better. Carrying an iPod or mp3 player is much easier than lugging around a book or Kindle. On our last flight, my husband and I actually shared headphones, each using one earbud, in order to finish up a book we’d both been listening to in the car via my mp3 player. It was a riveting storyline and our two-hour flight was over in no time.
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
3. Always pack a hat. Having a hat is essential to comfortable travel. It not only warms your head, but if necessary it can also be used to cool the neck by tucking hair up into it. Hats shield the eyes from outdoor glare, and can block the light if you’re trying to catch a few Z’s at an airport or on a bus. And if you haven’t washed your hair in a few days? A hat hides a multitude of sins.
Another Reason You Should Always Pack a Hat
4. Bring bills. This one may seem irrelevant in the age of ATM’s and credit cards, but I find it’s always nice to have a little traveling cash on hand in order to tip the cab driver or buy a sweet treat from a street vendor. You might even discover a cool little cash-only restaurant — yes, these establishments still exist, and the smaller the town, the more likely that you’ll stumble across one. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out on the world’s best eggs Benedict just because you didn’t have a little cash in your pocket.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
5. Keep headache medicine and antacids readily available. No matter how laid-back you are about traveling, there’s bound to be something that causes a little headache or upset stomach along the way. Travel usually comes with a change in diet, which can be tough on the digestive system, and lack of sleep or dehydration can result in a headache. It’s better to be prepared than to have to track down a $10 aspirin in the airport or at a tourist trap.
Avoiding the Airplane Cold
– written by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer, a journalist and freelance writer from Northern Colorado. She is also the Mayor of HeidiTown.com, a blog about Colorado events and festivals.
Almost six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated much of coastal northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, I found myself on an express train bound for Fukushima, to see for myself what had changed, what stayed the same and what is gone forever.
I lived in Fukushima for many years, in a place called Iwaki City, where I was a participant on an international exchange endeavor called the JET Program. I was fortunate to be placed in Fukushima, for it is a beautiful place full of fascinating people.
In the days and months following the quake, Americans frantically canceled their travel plans to Japan, refusing even to lay over in one of Tokyo’s airports for a brief few hours. As if one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history and the catastrophic tsunami weren’t enough to make visitors leery, the blown-out nuclear facilities at Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant complicated matters even more. To date, tourism in beleaguered Fukushima prefecture is down more than 60 percent, according to Hisashi Ueno, a director at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Taking up about as much land area as the Bahamas, Fukushima is one of Japan’s larger, rural prefectures. But prior to March 11, there were probably even Japanese people who couldn’t find Fukushima on a map. It’s tragic and unfortunate that Fukushima went from relative obscurity to international infamy. But there is a charm and a beauty to Fukushima that must not be overshadowed by radioactive fear.
Autumn in Japan
When I returned to America from my most recent trip, a colleague offhandedly commented that I’d best keep my irradiated self away from her vicinity. She was joking, of course. But her wry sentiment is reflective of a larger social stigma growing around the word Fukushima. And while people’s apprehensions about going anywhere near a place with a melted-down nuclear reactor are reasonable, it’s important to emphasize that Fukushima is not in a state of apocalyptic nuclear fallout.
Half a year after the quake, Japan is back on its feet. It’s not even wobbly. Trains and buses operate to the usual standard of perfect punctuality. The iconic temples of ancient Kyoto (far, far from the epicenter) have remained open to visitors. The neon city of Tokyo still bustles and flows with life and activity, albeit in a slightly more energy-conscious manner. The sumo and baseball seasons are well under way, stadiums packed with cheering fans.
Right now I would not discourage anyone from traveling to Japan — for it is a fascinating country and its people are the most hospitable and generous on Earth.
Fukushima is no exception. As I traveled through the prefecture for one week in mid-September, I saw so much that had changed, and even more that was exactly the same as I left it. Fukushima’s rolling green mountains and warm summer nights were as familiar as Sapporo beer and cheap sushi. The residents I encountered, both foreign and Japanese, did not seem discouraged or beaten, but rather cautiously optimistic about the future to come.
There is a phrase in Japanese — it’s the motto of the elementary school where I worked for three years — Makeji Damashi; an accurate translation of that might be Undefeated Spirit. And spirit is one thing that runs in no short supply in Fukushima.
Hearts of Cherry Blossoms (Japan)
Yes, a significant nuclear disaster took place along the prefecture’s northeastern coast. And today there is still a mandated no-go zone encompassing a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear reactor. But that area is small when compared to the prefecture as a whole.
Outside of the evacuation zone, life has largely returned to normal for much of the prefecture. Clean-up efforts are well under way, children have been back in school since April, and the shortages of water, gasoline and supplies that crippled the region in the weeks following the quake are all a thing of the past.
So if you make a trip to Japan (and I encourage you to do so, particularly in the spring or autumn, when the scenery and weather are most lovely), do not be afraid of traveling north of Tokyo. For more intrepid travelers, Fukushima might just become the next big thing off the beaten path.
Here are a few recommended places to see:
Tsurugajo: An ancient castle in the old samurai town of Aizu-wakamatsu, it’s astonishingly beautiful in the spring when more than 1,000 cherry trees burst into bloom.
Mount Bandai: Topping out just under 6,000 feet, Bandai is a relatively easy hike with rewarding views to be found on any of its six major hiking paths. Make sure you find the old hot spring, bubbling steamy water just off the main route.
Goshiki-numa (Five Colored Lakes): These lakes were formed 123 years ago by a volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai, which deposited minerals into the lakes, giving each of them its own mysterious color that changes with the seasons.
Aquamarine Fukushima: Iwaki’s famous aquarium was hit hard by the tsunami but has reopened to the public, featuring a re-creation of the nearby Shiome sea, where rivers flow into the ocean and meet colliding currents. The result is a diverse and fascinating biome that can be viewed in the 540,000-gallon centerpiece tank.
– written and photographed by James A. Foley, www.jamesafoley.com