For a first time visitor, Japan can be an overwhelming experience on many counts. But what knocks you out totally is the kindness and courtesy bit. Of course one has read about the Japanese culture of politeness and punctuality. But in a world that is getting as impersonal as busy, to get so many bows and smiles right from arrival at Tokyo 's Narita International Airport to your hotel, indeed comes as a surprise.

We are about a dozen Indian mediapersons visiting the land of the rising sun on an invitation from Canon. This country of 128 million, had stirred the conscience of the world at the devastation caused last March by the massive earthquake and the tsunami that followed and horrendous images from that mega tragedy are still entrenched in the mind's eye. As more horrors unfolded in terms of nuclear radiation leaks, sympathy turned into admiration as people around the world watched the Japanese take this series of horrendous natural disasters on the chin in a calm, dignified and stoic manner.

But what this disaster did to this third largest economy and the psyche of its people can be seen from our tour guide Sumiyo Tarai's quiet response on the disaster: “Today (Thursday) it is 337 days after the earthquake and tsunami; yes a lot of things happened after that and tourism took a big hit, but things are getting better,” she said.

But the grim reality is that in 2011, for the first time in 31 years, Japan recorded its first trade deficit, with imports of fossil fuels rising to meet the country's energy shortfall. Imports of oil and liquified natural gas to offset the loss of nuclear power, along with muted global growth and a surprisingly strong yen have all added to this deficit. “We have 47 nuclear reactors but only two are in operation after the tsunami; earlier 30 per cent of our energy was nuclear, but that has changed after the tsunami,” she sighs.

I ask her about a number of people still wearing masks and she says: “Oh, that is because they have a cold or some other infection and they don't want to pass it around. It is not radiation.. please help us tell the world that there is no nuclear radiation here.”

On our first evening we go to the happening Roppongi Hills and watch in absolute fascination the dazzling city of Tokyo from the 52nd Observation Floor of the Roppongi tower. It is an unusually clear day and we are able to get a good view of the snow covered Mount Fuji, about 120 km away from Tokyo . “You are very lucky, Mount Fuji is visible from Tokyo only 30 days in a year,” says Sumiyo.

As the sun sets, the magic of this awesome city unfolds as all the hi-rise buildings for which Tokyo is famous, glitter away, with Tokyo Tower occupying the pride of place. She adds that Tokyo , a city of 13 million people, has 15 different subway lines and this is the “fastest, cheapest, most convenient and safest mode of transport.

Clearly seen from that height is the Shinjuku metro station which handles a mindboggling number of three million passengers a day; this is considered to be not only the busiest train station in Japan , but the entire world, she claims. And of course the punctuality of Japanese trains is legend; we murmur and sigh in collective discontent that there might not be time during this trip to sample Japan 's famous bullet trains.

Even though the guide is optimist about tourists returning to Japan , I don't see too many, particularly western tourists, and there are seem to be more Japanese people at that tower than outsiders. The kind of hit tourism has taken is reinforced when we troop into Moti, an Indian restaurant in Roppongi, which is not exactly busy. Moans the head waiter, “Our restaurant used to be full till 4 a.m., but look at it now… the tourists have just disappeared.”

But what are we doing in an Indian restaurant in a place renowned for its excellent Japanese cuisine? Ah, watch this space for that story.

(To be continued)

rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on February 12, 2012)
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