When Peter Baxevanidis left Japan, following the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the departure terminal at Narita Airport in Tokyo, was packed with people, mostly foreigners, anxious to leave the devastated country.
“There was barely a square patch of floor to be seen,” he says. In stark contrast, returning to Japan, over a month later Baxevanidis and his friend practically had the plane to themselves.
“The airport was like an abandoned, well, airport. The train station seemed quieter and the general feeling was tense and cautious,” he tells.
After the earthquake struck, people were confused as to whether they should stay or leave Japan, Baxevanidis said. “With the nuclear power plant continuing to pose a significant threat with explosions and leaks seemingly every day my friend and I decided to wait the event out on a beach in Thailand for two weeks,” he said. Uncertainty was rife amongst both the locals and expats, many of whom left the country to wait and see what would happen.
Baxevanidis arrived back in Yokohama, (about half an hour from Tokyo), against the advice of his loved ones. “Many of my friends and family pressed me not to go back but go back we had gone,” he said. “I made the decision to head south straight away to keep away for that little bit longer in case anything did happen.”
Whilst out of the country the significant aftershocks continued in Japan, Baxevanidis said. “When it was time for our return trip I was admittedly very hesitant, particularly with the Fukushima Power Plant still not under control,” he said, adding, “my hopes for everything to be okay were shaken a little when we got chatting to a Japanese flight attendant who remarked as we were landing in Tokyo, ‘Oh, you’re coming back, is it safe?'”
Resuming his Japanese travels in Kyoto, a region untouched by the earthquake, Baxevanidis was overcome by the natural beauty.
“The new sakura (cherry blossoms) had just come into bloom and from what I was told this was the best bloom for a number of years. I couldn’t help but feel like this held some sort of hope for the Japanese people but then again, Kyoto and the Kansai region felt nothing of any earthquake or the nuclear threat,” he said.
Japan’s disaster has affected almost every industry in some way, with tourism taking a major hit. Tourism to Japan has dropped 70 percent from last year and this is during their peak spring season.
“Many of the guests now in hostels or hotels are locals escaping the north. The majority of the locals we did get chatting to seemed extremely grateful that we had come back and for any tourists that had come in,” Baxevanidis said.
The Khaosan Kyoto hostel, where Baxevanidis and his travel companion were staying, has branches across Japan and is actively trying to bring tourists back to Japan with the #smilejapan Twitter and Facebook campaigns where they take photos of guests holding positive messages.
Of course not everyone is optimistic. “One lady from Fukushima, who was now staying down south in Hiroshima, believed that the power plant would explode and it would wipe out everything down to Osaka. She suggested we leave,” Baxevanidis said. Undeterred by the panic stricken woman he says “there will always be hysterical and paranoid people in the world”.
Closer to the disaster zone, people are staying positive.
“I met a Canadian man and his Japanese girlfriend who had just been up to Fukushima where her family were from. He said the city is extremely quiet but everyone seems very positive.”
The city, which is around 70km from the power plant, is just outside the evacuation zone. Tokyo is still experiencing rolling blackouts to conserve power, which will most likely continue over the next few months.
“This affects trains and transport to a certain degree, particularly with trains heading up north. Certain shinkansen (bullet train) lines have been shut down until the aftershocks recede in frequency and power,” Baxevanidis said.
Huge crowds continue to gather and protest publicly against nuclear power, without media support, Baxevanidis said.
“Every weekend in Tokyo there is the ‘Shift Energy’ demonstration, trying to encourage people to look for an alternative, less dangerous power source,” he said. “Interestingly, there is no TV coverage of these protests attended by over 5000 people.”
The owner of the hostel where Baxevanidis is staying in Yokohama, a man named Lee, is trying to organise a protest against nuclear power in the second biggest city in Japan. “Lee passionately informed me, according to a survey done recently, 40 percent of the Japanese population are undecided about nuclear power,” Baxevanidis said.
“It is the challenge of Lee and the Shift Energy campaign to try and swing those numbers against nuclear power without, it appears, any assistance from the media.”