Post-Japan-Earthquake Travel Agent Fams

After the Japan earthquake, two travel agents offer first-hand reports from recent fam trips
Travel agents on a recent fam to southern Japan // (c) 2011 Donna Johnso
Travel agents on a recent fam to southern Japan // (c) 2011 Donna Johnso

About the Authors

Nathan DePetris
Nathan DePetris is owner and COO of Pride Travel, a full-service leisure agency that also specializes in catering to the needs of gay and lesbian clientele. He chairs southern California ASTA’s Young Professional Society, has sailed on more than four dozen cruises and traveled to almost 40 countries. DePetris holds several industry certifications, most notably from CLIA, the Travel Institute and various destination visitors’ bureaus, including Japan, Korea and Thailand.

Donna Johnson
A travel consultant for 12 years, Donna Johnson currently works for Beatty Group International in Beaverton, Ore. Her focus has been Europe and Hawaii, but she’s planning on expanding to include Asia and the Middle East. She says her favorite thing to take on a trip is “a friendly smile.”

Cover Story

Read two TravelAge West editors' impressions of Southern Japan as a destination worth visiting.

More Images

Tokyo's train stations are as crowded as ever. // (c) 2011 Pride Travel / S. Nathan DePetris

Tokyo's train stations are as crowded as ever. // (c) 2011 Pride Travel / S. Nathan DePetris

Shirakawa-go, one of Japan's numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, was part of a recent travel agent fam. // (c) 2011 Pride Travel / S. Nathan DePetris

Shirakawa-go, one of Japan's numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, was part of a recent travel agent fam. // (c) 2011 Pride Travel / S. Nathan DePetris 

toA Post-Earthquake Visit
Nathan DePetris

When I was recently offered the opportunity to travel to Japan, I jumped at the chance to see how the tourism industry was recovering from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Seeing what my clients can expect once they arrive better enables me to continue selling this amazing destination.

The devastation from the earthquake and tsunami were cataclysmic, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s hard to imagine anyone recovering from the horrors that we witnessed nightly on television broadcasts, but Japan is one of the most advanced and powerful nations on the planet, with a long of history being able to recover from the depths of despair and then excel to new heights.

As I made my way around Tokyo, I didn’t see any visible damage to the city from the earthquake, the one exception being that the very top of the Tokyo Tower is slightly bent. The subway and trains are back on schedule with no service interruptions. One thing clients will notice, however, is that Tokyo is in the middle of an energy shortage. With two of its largest power-generating stations out of commission, residents, businesses and hotels are doing their part to avoid brown-outs. The bright lights of Shinjuku, Ginza and other Tokyo hot spots turn off a little earlier these days. Shopkeepers dim the lights until you enter; then they raise them up to allow you to see clearly. Most buildings — including hotels — have raised the temperatures on air conditioners in order to save on energy, making lobbies stuffier than usual. Clients will still have full control over air conditioning in their rooms, however.

For those worried about the possibility of being exposed to radiation, daily reports are included in all major newspapers comparing Japan’s ambient radiation to other modern cities in the world. Imagine how surprised I was to learn Tokyo’s average daily ambient radiation is lower than that in New York, Bangkok or Paris. Sharing this information with clients will help to put their minds, and those of their loved ones, at ease.

One thing that was noticeable is how Australians and New Zealanders have been quick to return to Japan, taking advantage of some of the most competitive pricing for air and hotels seen in years. Many Japanese businesspeople expressed their eagerness to see travelers from the U.S. and Canada return soon as well — to them this is the sign that the tourism industry is heading toward a full recovery.

Although I did not have the chance to visit Tohoku, the region most affected by the earthquake and tsunami, I did get to meet with some of the local Japanese volunteers. I learned from them that there are thousands of volunteers helping in the region. This is great news for Hiraizumi in Tohoku region, which was recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status (status was also awarded to Japan’s Ogasawara Islands at the same time). While in Tokyo, I was offered and reviewed itineraries being produced by some of Japan’s largest tour operators to attract visitors into the area to take advantage of new UNESCO status.

After visiting, I am now confident that my clients’ travels to Japan will be smooth and without problems when they visit. During my trip, I saw that both Narita and Haneda airports were both operating as usual with an added bonus: The immigration and customs lines were extremely fast. The devastating effect of the earthquake and tsunami will take Japan years to recover from. Travel professionals can do our part in helping to speed the process along by continuing to support this exciting destination and promoting the return of our clients.

Travel Agent Fam Visits Southern Japan
Donna Johnson

The Japan National Tourism Organization sponsored three travel agent fam trips recently to bring travel professionals from the U.S. to their country. The goal was to show their partners in the travel industry that Japan was, once again, vibrant and appealing. I was privileged to attend one that focused on the southern part of Japan, visiting Osaka, the Island of Kyushu in the south and Kyoto.

The recent natural disasters that have devastated this lovely nation brought tourism to an abrupt halt. The world has watched and has been impressed by the attitude and strong heart of the Japanese people as they work to recover and rebuild. Because we flew into and out of Osaka, I did not actually see areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami. However, I always felt safe. Other than the lack of Westerners, life seemed to be normal, with teenagers filling a shopping street in Osaka, schoolchildren visiting castles and shrines and couples posing at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.

Three days into the seven-day trip, we arrived in Ibusuki, on Kyushu, one of the southernmost islands of Japan. Once we arrived, our group of agents stayed at the Ibusuki Hakusuikan, a traditional Japanese hotel (called a ryokan). Our rooms were a combination of Japanese and Western styles, with the sleeping option of beds or futons, depending on the guest’s choice.

The Ibusuki area is known for its hot springs. Some of this hot water flows under the volcanic sands into the sea causing the sand to be quite warm. While it is possible to take a “sand bath” at other places locally, the Hakusuikan has elevated this activity to new heights of bliss. Sand baths are said to help cure everything from arthritis to skin conditions, and Shimotakehara told us that Boris Yeltsin had recently spent several days at the property, using the sand bath many times.

Here is the process: Put on your yukata. Go to the bath area and get your sand yukata (different color) from the attendant — mine covered me from neck to ankles so no sand got inside. When you are ready, make your way to the sand where attendants will dig a small trench for you. Next, lay down in the trench with a towel under your head and, using a large rake-type tool, attendants will cover you with warm sand. Ten to 15 minutes of sweating later (there are clocks within sight), you sit up, uncover yourself and get up again.

When I first thought about doing this, I was afraid it would be like being buried alive, but it’s more like wearing one of those lead aprons you must wear when you have x-rays.
After the sand bath, guests go to the lady’s bath area (or men’s, as they are separate), rinse off under a shower and leave their sandy yukata in a bin. There are many shower stations available where guests can sit on a small stool and take a shower (soap and shampoo provided). After a quick shower, guests grab a small towel and move to the mineral baths (all in privacy of the ladies- or men-only areas). There were several pools with different temperatures and/or minerals. Try one or try them all! One small pool even had a way to sit under a waterfall of the warm water so it massaged your shoulders.

On the travel agent fam trip, I discovered that Kyushu Island has much more to offer as well, including old Samurai homes; an active volcano; beautiful gardens; amazing, cut crystal; temples and castles; incredible Satsuma china; and more.

Japan has had a tough time lately, but the people are ready and willing to receive visitors. I can’t wait to let my clients know about this unique, friendly, clean and safe country. 

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