Japanese Travel Interrupted by Disaster

Japanese Shrine
Temizuya, for water purification, at Tsuwano’s Taikodani Inari Shrine

Destination: Japan

Book: There’s a God for That: Optimism in the Face of Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Meltdowns (NEW October 2012) by Joseph Honton

Note: Preview  of a book not yet in the bookshops. But you can preorder on Amazon.

The travel section of this book gives a tour of some lesser known areas of Japan and introduces history, religion, food and culture.  But it goes way beyond being a travel book because of the timing of the author’s visit.

Matsue, Yomegashima, Japan
Buddhist statue at Yomegashima Island, in Matsue, Japan

Joseph Honton travels to Japan frequently with his Japanese wife.  In There’s a God for That, he tells us about a journey on the southwest coast of the main island of Honshu, Japan in the prefecture of Shimane. He says,

This is not the Japan we know.  Here there are no gilded pagodas, no reflecting pools, no refined gardens.  The pace of life is different too: shopping districts don’t have those boisterous hucksters, buses aren’t crammed with the weary-eyed, and trains wait at platforms just a little longer. This place is like a cabin in the woods compared to a mansion in the city, where the necessities of life are all that count.  This is the other side of Japan.

And he is literally on the other side of Japan from the disasters that happen on March 11, 2011.  While Honton wanders through reminders of Japan’s past, a past he loves deeply, his idyll is interrupted by the present– news of a massive earthquake and the following tsunami and nuclear disaster.  The couple is 900 kilometers (559 miles) away from the tragedy that is happening on the opposite coast and north of the rural, mountain-ringed territory of their travels.  But the tragedy is so enormous that as word filters out of the stricken areas, the whole country gradually becomes involved.

Kita-hiroshima, Kagura, Japan
Hiroko Honton with Yamata-no-Orochi, played by the Kita-Hiroshima Kagura Troupe

The book starts happily with a chapter called Celebrating–a discussion of the many holidays and festivals in Japan.  Honton and his wife travel sometimes together and sometimes alone, visiting gardens, museums, theaters, shopping areas, just like your usual travel book. When the news of the earthquake comes over the television, Honton worries about how to react. He says,

…I found it surreal.  Yet with everything around me happening in such close imitation of a normal day, I could almost believe that everything really was normal…How should I behave? What is the respectful way to acknowledge the gravity of what has happened?…Do I carry on with my travel as planned, or will that be viewed as insensitive?”

At first Honton continues to explore the lesser-known countryside with his visits punctuated by news reports.  After a few days, he and his wife abandon their planned itinerary. And when the nuclear plants become hazardous, Honton abandons his travel book narrative to educate the reader on the geological forces behind earthquakes and the physics of tsunamis and nuclear reactors.  He becomes a crusader, strongly opposed to the use of nuclear power and he spells out his reasons.

Hiroshima Peace Park
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with the cenotaph in the foreground, and the Genbaku Domu in the background.

In a country where the first two nuclear bombs used in war exploded, the damage and evacuations caused by this recent nuclear incident have spawned a strong anti-nuclear movement, in a culture used to calm acceptance and obedience.

Even following the disasters in Japan in 2011 from the United States we could cry for the human tragedy, but the bald facts quoted by Honton starkly remind us of how awful it was.

The seaside town of Futaba, population 7,248,  lost 90% of their homes in the first day; 15,000 confirmed dead throughout the area and 8,000 swept out to sea.

By 24 hours after the tsunami, reports began coming in and continue to get worse as the nuclear plants cause mass evacuations.

  • Tomioka, pop. 15,696, 767 resident’s homes gone, whole town evacuated.
  • Namie, pop. 21,531, 50 dead, 2000 people lost homes, then because of irradiation evacuation, nearly all the remainder lose their homes as well.
  • Namu, pop. 21,531, 50 dead, 2000 homes swept away.
  • By Saturday, March 12, at 8:18 p.m., 139,000 people have had to evacuate from the nuclear zone.
Tsunami Relief Efforts in March, 2011, Japan
Doctors and nurses soliciting tsunami relief donations at Kokura Station. (March 2011)

The book ends with a rather odd third component, a short fantasy tale, a sort of Japanese ghost story.

There’s a God For That packs an enormous amount of information that would be helpful to a traveler to Japan, not to mention the more current information about the aftermath of the triple disaster that hit in March 2011.  Honton’s fascination with the country and its culture dips into worship.  At times he might have been better to tell us what he saw and let us draw our own conclusion rather than gushing about his object of affection.

However, to his credit, he recognizes this trait. In talking about Lafcadio Hearn, a travel writer who wrote about Japan in the late 19th century, Honton explains that Hearn also was not Japanese, but was married to a Japanese woman.  He was criticized for being overly romantic and Honton says, “I am just as guilty as Hearn was, of having an overly romantic view of Japan.  I find it all so endearing: the ancient architecture, the fine craftsmanship, the traditional arts, and the polite customs.”  He goes on to say that he is not as enamoured with the present-day Japan–and certainly the explosion of a nuclear plant might make one want to retreat from modern technology.

This is a good little book for a traveler’s library. Besides the merits listed above, it is well written and intelligent, contains maps that make locations crystal clear, and contains a lengthy glossary of Japanese words. And besides, Honton’s advice in the face of uncertainty as to “the right reaction” is worth the price of the book: he watched carefully to see what the Japanese were doing. On  the other hand, it is packed with unfamiliar terms, and despite the glossary, many are not explained. The book is definitely for those who want to know more than a surface gloss about Japanese culture.


Worshipers at Izumo Taisha statue.
Worshipers bowing at the statue of Ōkuninushi  (matchmaker)and Inaba-no-Shirousagi at Izumo Taisha (the spiritual birthplace of Japan).

Have you ever been visiting a country when a large disaster struck? Did you leave? Stay and observe? Stay and help?  Share your story.

Disclaimers:  The book was furnished for review purposes, and Amazon links earn me a few cents each time you use them to shop at Amazon because they are affiliate links. It costs you no more to shop through these links, but it does benefit one of your favorite websites. THANKS!

I am deeply indebted to Joseph Honton for allowing me to use these lovely photographs to illustrate this article. Please respect his copyright.


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Japanese Travel Interrupted by Disaster

  1. What a fascinating story. I visited part of the area affected by the tsunami before the tragedy struck. It’s hard to imagine that much of what I saw was washed away. I’m glad the author shared his experience.

    1. Donna, I didn’t realize you had been in that part of Japan before the Tsunami. Must have been a very eerie feeling to watch the news when it happened!

  2. I worry about this. Mostly — and selfishly — about being in a country when anti-Western riots begin and not knowing how to get out. It’s the risk we all take when we travel somewhere exotic.

    1. I guess I’ve worried more about disease than dis-ease, but then I haven’t gone anyplace more exotic than Thailand and Cambodia in their quieter moods.

  3. We have a number of friends and acquaintances – Hawaii musicians – who were either in Japan during the tragedy or who visited afterwards. On both accounts, “surreal” seems to fit. One musician talked about being on the 26th (I think) floor of his hotel, feeling the earthquake and making his way downstairs to find taxis and buses jumping like popcorn on the pavement. We talked with him a few days afterward and he was still shaken. Another friend visited tsunami ravaged areas and says that no matter what we might imagine, it’s worse. It’s a shame that we seem to have a media blackout of what’s going on there.

    1. Yep, Kris, it is always striking how much we do NOT learn about in our news reports. This book was interesting because the traveler was way outside the earthquake and tsunami zone and yet it affected everyone across the country. (Like 9-11 did in the U.S., I imagine.)

    1. Japan is such a formal country in their way of interacting, that the traveler in this book was concerned about whether he was going to say the wrong thing. Should one pretend everything was normal, or should one bring up the tragedy?

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