The Udo Jingu Shrine in Miyazaki is revered as a birthplace of the gods. // © 2011 Japan National Tourism Organization
Read two first-hand reports from two travel agents fams held after the March 2011 Japan earthquake
On March 11, Japan suffered one of the worst disasters in the nation’s history with the combination of an earthquake and a tsunami, followed by a nuclear crisis. Today, Japanese officials are concerned about the lingering effect these events will have on the nation’s tourism. Declines continue despite reminders from officials that the area impacted by the disaster is relatively small and that independent testing has shown there are, in fact, higher levels of radiation in many other cities around the world, including New York. Even the U.S. Department of State, which tends to be overly cautious with its travel alerts and advisories, states that “the health and safety risks to land areas which are outside a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are low and do not pose significant risks to U.S. citizens.”
Still, many travelers are understandably hesitant to visit Japan. For those clients, we offer the following destinations, all of which are located in southern Japan, far from the tsunami zone, and provide visitors with the opportunity to experience the vacation of a lifetime.
Located some 600 miles from Tokyo, Kagoshima Prefecture’s relaxed pace makes it a welcome addition to an itinerary that includes the bustle of larger cities. Although Kagoshima is made up of 3,500 square miles (roughly one-third the size of Massachusetts), it is home to less than 2 million people, giving visitors plenty of breathing space to enjoy the numerous outdoor activities along the destination’s 1,600 miles of coastline. The area enjoys a mild climate, making it a popular, year-round playground.
Most visitors will find themselves starting their visit at Kagoshima city. The region is home to 11 active volcanoes, and the city’s main attraction is the prolific Sakurajima (Cherry Blossom Island) volcano. The volcano can be seen spewing plumes of smoke nearly two miles into the air several times a day.
A particularly lovely way to enjoy the volcano — and to take some great photos — is from the Iso Teien Gardens, the site of a villa owned by Shimazu Mitsuhia, who ruled the region in the mid-17th century.
Visitors can also enjoy an up-close view of the volcano by taking a ferry from Kagoshima to Sakurajima Island. Once an independent island, Sakurajima became a peninsula after a violent eruption in 1914 buried a nearby village and spewed 3 billion tons of lava into the strait separating the two land masses. Sakurajima features a visitor center that provides information about the volcano, in particular detailing the eruption of 1914.
The steaming lava sands surrounding the volcano are known for their healing qualities, and travelers flock here to enjoy the heated waters and soil.
The volcanic sands of Kagoshima are revered throughout Japan, with the most famous location being the nearby town of Ibusuki. Most of Ibusuki’s seaside hotels include special bathing houses, where visitors lay down on the black sand and attendants shovel hot sand on top of them from the neck down until their bodies are covered. Visitors stay under the hot sand as long as they can before heading to the natural hot springs (and cold baths) to rinse off. Guests believe that the minerals offer healing qualities as well as provide a natural beauty treatment.
Travel agents can book their clients at the five-star Ibusuki Hakusuikan resort. The resort features traditional-style rooms, as well as hybrid rooms for Westerners, all featuring views of the gardens or the ocean. Visitors can enjoy a black-sand experience as well as luxuriate in the massive Genroku bathhouse, which includes several restored, traditional Edo-period buildings. The resort is also home to Satsuma Denshokan (Legend Hall), a museum displaying art, ceramics and artifacts from the area.
A more Western-style experience can be found at the nearby, four-star Ibusuki Iwasaki Hotel. The resort, which features 285 rooms, all with ocean views, comes complete with a black-sand bathhouse, onsen (hot springs), as well as numerous recreational activities, including tennis, golf, hiking and watersports.
Adjacent to Kagoshima, located more than 550 miles from Tokyo, is the Miyazaki Prefecture, which also enjoys a temperate climate, small population and a gorgeous mountain and ocean playground.
Miyazaki offers a treasure trove of outdoor activities and it is also revered as the birthplace of the gods who created Japan. Many locations in the area have ties to these deities, but the most important site is the Udo Jingu Shrine. The shrine is built into a hillside, with much of the shrine located inside a cave, just above the Nichinan Coast. Getting here involves a fair amount of stair climbing, so less-mobile clients may want to take a pass, but despite its daunting appearance, the journey is well worth the effort.
Although there are many stories related to this location, it is generally believed that the mother of Jinmu, the first emperor of Japan, gave birth to him in the cave. As such, the spot is popular with people seeking good fortune in marriage and childbirth.
History buffs should head to Obi Castle, in Nichinan City, which was the main residence of the Ito clan during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867). The castle, which has been fully restored, was the frequent site of warfare between the Ito clan and Kagoshima’s Shimazu clan, and many of the outer buildings were damaged during those battles.
Visitors to Miyazaki who are looking for a contemporary experience should include the Phoenix Segaia Resort on their itinerary. The complex is made up of several hotels, as well as a variety of activity centers. The resort’s focal point is the 743-room Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort tower, which offers both traditional Japanese-style rooms and Western-style rooms.
Golfers can spend countless hours exploring the multiple options at the resort, which is home to one of the most famous golf courses in Japan, the Phoenix Country Club. The club features three, 9-hole courses and an 18-hole Tom Watson Golf Course.
Spa lovers also have plenty of choices. In addition to the in-house Banyan Tree spa, the Sheraton is home to one of the more dramatic outdoor hot springs in Japan. Set in a lush, ancient pine grove, the bath here feels like a setting in a child’s fairytale — guests cannot help but feel that wood sprites may be frolicking nearby.
The island of Okinawa has long had its own character, in part due to geography — being part of a group of islands at the southernmost end of the Japanese archipelago, 900 miles from Tokyo — as well as its unique history and culture. After visiting the island three months after the March 11 disaster, I can say with certainty that what nervous travelers will find on Okinawa is a warm and friendly welcome in a year-round tropical setting with some of the best active adventures anywhere.
Any discussion of Okinawa’s activities must begin with the region’s world-class diving and snorkeling. Due to a combination of unique currents and exceptional water clarity, Okinawa and its neighbor-islands offer some of the best diving spots in the world. The region has many fascinating dive sites to explore, including World War II wrecks and Yonaguni, the mysterious underwater ruins of a lost civilization.
During my visit, I dove with Reef Encounters, an outfitter operated by a couple of ex-pats from California. Reef Encounters has its own 40-foot boat and has arranged diving trips for all types of clients, from beginners to experienced divers, including Microsoft’s Paul Allen.
For visitors who want to experience sea life while on land, a visit to the world-class Ocean Expo Park Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is a must. The highlight of the aquarium is the enormous Kuroshio Sea tank, which houses three 30- to 40-foot whale sharks. Be sure to tell clients to visit during the twice-a-day feeding hour (3 and 5 p.m.) for an experience they will not soon forget.
Yanbaru Nature School offers another type of water experience with its guided kayaking excursions of the island’s mangroves during high tide. The outfitter handles all the logistics and equipment, however there are not many English speakers on staff, so guests should arrange the outing through their hotel concierge.
For a less exotic, but still memorable, activity, visitors should try one of the island’s many oceanview golf courses. I played at the Southern Links Golf Club and, like most of the courses on the island, it features lush fairways, challenging greens and stunning vistas. At Southern Links, greens fees are steep but not outrageous — compared to the rest of Japan at least — at about $200 to $300 depending on when you play. This fee includes a cart and the services of a caddie.
Okinawa is also home to one of the largest underground cavern complexes in Asia. At Okinawa World, visitors can walk a half-mile among the stalagmites and stalactites of the more than three-mile-long cavern, and then go back above ground to sample folk art and dancing demonstrations, local cuisine and cultural exhibits.
Okinawa has a wide variety of accommodations, but I recommend the Hotel Nikko Alivila. This 396-room seaside resort boasts a stunning beachfront locale on the west side of the island. The hotel is convenient to many activities while still being remote enough to feel like guests have their own slice of paradise.
Another option is the Okinawa Harborview Crowne Plaza, which is in the heart of Naha, the main city on the island. This property is more a business hotel than a resort, but it’s also comfortable for visitors.
The island of Okinawa offers an exotic Asian locale, with the relaxed vibe and beautiful scenery one would expect of a tropical paradise. Best of all, like the other destinations mentioned, travelers wary about visiting post=March 11 Japan will be far enough away from the areas hardest hit and can truly relax and enjoy an unforgettable vacation.