Seeking Serenity after the Storm
The effects of a monstrous earthquake & tsunami in March are still being felt in Japan, but Karuna Ezara Parikh is amazed to find a country of remarkable resilience
Report by KARUNA EZARA PARIKH -
When I heard that Japan Tourism were offering to fly me business class to Okinawa to bask in 26 degree sunshine, I thought cynically — desperate times beg desperate measures. Nonetheless I accepted the assignment, curious, perversely perhaps, to see how a nation would cope with disaster as it endured in March this year. I spent five days there, and returned with perversion firmly kicked in the face. Let’s put it this way: this is a country that’s dealt with Hiroshima. Make no mistake, they’ve had their share of senseless tragedy and unfair disaster. To recover from disaster requires careful planning and management, and ‘management’, is one English word the Japanese do understand — in fact, embrace.
Okinawa is a two and a half hour flight from Tokyo, and save the famed clockwork precision this culture celebrates, is a world apart. Time slows down for this little prefecture in Japan’s south-west. The most frequent question I answered the week prior to leaving was “Japan has beaches?” And you can add an exclamation after that question – such is the universal look of surprise accompanying it. Yes. I hate to have to stress the point, but Japan is an island, and they tend to have beaches. And as I would shortly see – my, what beaches they have! They consist of vast, vast stretches of centuries of crushed coral, white and endless. As you walk down, tiny crabs skitter, making it look like a little tumble of wonderful, exotic shells is headed involuntarily for the water. The water itself is a magnificent blue within which a dozen shades undulate. Untarnished still by the invariable tackiness widespread tourism creates, pale crystalline aquamarines and deep mysterious indigos beg you to dive right in. And people do. Japanese families swim, surf, scuba dive and jet-ski. I’m a good traveler, so when in Rome… Following suit, I jump right in. As I snorkel in shallow water, tiny blue fish weave their way in and out around my legs, sea cucumbers breathe peacefully, and everywhere a landscape of unbroken coral reef creates the sort of underwater architecture I thought was exclusive to Australia.
Japan has played Pied Piper to the 21st century. So when they’re serving pork, fried fish, sushi and beef, the part of me that had overreacted to claims of contaminated Japanese meat, and thought that it would be dolefully vegetarian for the length of my stay is quietened, and the foodie in me rejoices.
My entire time here, the word ‘radiation’ is never mentioned. Perhaps because the distance between Okinawa and Fukushima is just under 1800 kilometres, which, to give you a rough idea, is about Srinagar to Mumbai. Okinawa is southwest Japan, and Fukushima is northeast.
The Japanese, of course, recovered from the most searing human adversity in the years following World War II, and they seem determined to bring that same spirit to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami recovery. A writer should not deal in clichés or stereotypes, but I am struck by how much of the Japanese response and rehabilitation has acquired a technical, scientific hue. This is the sort of place where even the girl in the candy striped socks on the corner has an ‘app’ she wants to invent, and the teenager with glasses and a video game strapped to his wrist can tell you exactly how an atom loses its energy through radioactive decay. But he doesn’t. They don’t talk about the disaster. The only signs of it you see are the donation collection boxes at the cashier in every shop. If science is their religion of choice, rationality tells me they aren’t going to expose themselves or their children to radioactivity. Japan has played Pied Piper to the 21st century. So when they’re serving pork, fried fish, sushi and beef, the part of me that had overreacted to claims of contaminated Japanese meat, and thought that it would be dolefully vegetarian for the length of my stay is quietened, and the foodie in me rejoices.
I spend the entire stay in Okinawa in a state of resort-induced bliss. I sunbathe, seashell hunt, take photographs and go on short walks to the Zanpa Cove lighthouse, from where the 360 degree view is so spectacular it is beyond description. I check out the 14th century Shuri Castle, where I am secretly Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, stealthily roaming the ancient structure, running light fingertips against the cool walls. In the evening I am Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation as I walk down the Kokusai Dori – a two kilometer stretch that was once a marshland containing a black market but is now solid ground, and very hip. I buy sunhats, t-shirts, trinkets and souvenirs, and find to my joy that while the urban legend about wine bottles containing dead snakes (“for manly strength” wink-wink), is true, the one about exorbitant prices is not. Like India, it is a constant toss-up between the modern and the traditional. Unlike India, the two worlds exist, even in their incredible levels of extremity, for the most part harmoniously. From the constant bowing and seaweed dinners to teenage girls in schoolgirl uniforms and young Yakuza boys, the place is a delight, not done justice to in a mere five days. The veneer of Japan has been captured in every movie cliché; somehow it is everything you could possibly have imagined it would be, and then some.
Another cliché that holds almost heartbreakingly true is that the Japanese live by honour. Their honesty, simplicity and quiet ‘correctness’ is remarkable, especially in light of recent events. There isn’t an ounce of self pity pertaining to the disaster, and that fraternal strength is not simply impressive, it’s positively humbling. If you really want to do Japan a favour, put away your cheque book, and get on a plane instead. I cannot stress what a great disservice is being done to the country by rejecting its beauty and pleasures, as the world has done since the tsunami. The only complaint the people have is: “nobody comes here anymore”. In the months after the tsunami and earthquake, it’s time to change. It’s time to stop punishing Japan for being punished. I’m not asking you to go to Fukushima, but when you plan your next holiday, consider Okinawa. Take the word of a sun-tanned, windblown, sushi-ed out traveller – I promise you won’t regret it.