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Japan's tourists choose top holiday destinations

travel Updated: Mar 09, 2012 19:48 IST
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Twelve months after the Great East Japan Earthquake caused devastation along the northeast coast of this country, perennial favorites of ancient capitals, beach resorts and mountain hotels equipped with "onsen" natural springs are the most popular destinations for Japanese tourists planning their vacations for the coming Golden Week, the series of national holidays during which most Japanese take a break -- this year falling between April 28 and May 6.

"Kyoto, Nara and Okinawa are already looking busy for this year's Golden Week holidays, along with most popular hot spring resorts, such as Hakone," said Aya Kihara, executive director of The Real Japan travel organisation.

"It's so busy this year that it is almost impossible for us to get accommodation at some domestic destinations," she said. "This year does seem a little busier than usual."

The winter has been colder than usual so not many people are expressing an interest in traveling to Japan's most northerly main island of Hokkaido, she said, but city breaks seem popular, while Kyushu, at the other end of the Japanese archipelago, is also attracting higher numbers of home-grown travelers.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation has also noticed a shift in demand for vacations to areas of the country away from places affected by last year's magnitude-9 earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered. Of even more concern are the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

"We are not getting any interest in packaged vacations in the Tohoku region, but demand is strong in Okinawa and Kyushu, as well as cities such as Kyoto and Osaka," said Yukiko Hiratsuka.

"Interest in Tokyo is a little better than last year, but it is still not as good as we hope it might be," she said. "And for overseas visitors, most are here on business rather than coming for vacations."

Japan's national Tourism Agency launched its global "Japan. Thank you" campaign last week, expressing the nation's gratitude for all the assistance it received last year and inviting people to visit the country.

As part of the campaign, towers in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Beppu, in Oita Prefecture, will be lit up on the night of March 11, the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

But while many travelers -- particularly those with children -- are heading for traditional resorts at home and abroad, including Guam, Saipan and Hawaii, others are heading directly for the areas most badly damaged by last year's disasters.

"It's not possible to go anywhere near the reactors because there is still an exclusion zone in place, but a lot of people want to go up there to help," said Kihara.

The Hotel Kanyo, for example, is booked up for the Golden Week holidays already. Standing on a headland overlooking the devastated coastal town of Minami Sanriku, the five-star hotel escaped damage from the tsunami and is the only major hotel still standing for many miles.

During the buffet breakfast, emergency repair teams rub shoulders with tourists wearing the traditional resort attire of indoor "yukata."

And for those who are determined to help out on the ground, a number of groups -- such as It's Not Just Mud and Peace Boat Japan -- are bringing together volunteers with projects that need to be completed in the disaster zone. Jamie El-Banna, founder of Ishinomaki-based It's Not Just Mud, said helping to rebuild this shattered community is a "holiday of a lifetime."