Staff blog



What Should I Know about Earthquakes if I’m Planning a Trip to Japan?

On 1 January 2024, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale (and an intensity of shindo 7 – the maximum – on the Japanese scale) struck just off the coast of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. Over one thousand aftershocks of lesser intensity followed, as well as a tsunami that reached over 6 metres in height in some places. As we write this, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is over 200, hundreds were injured, and additional scores remain missing.

On 11 March, 2011, of course, a much larger earthquake struck Japan – the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country, and the fourth most powerful earthquake recorded globally since modern seismography began in 1900. The ensuing tsunami reached over 40 metres in height in some places, and over 20,000 people died.

Japan is located on Asia’s “Ring of Fire”, which encircles most of the Pacific Ocean, from Chile to Indonesia, and contains anywhere from 750-900 volcanoes.

So should you worry about your safety if you’re planning a trip to Japan?

Well, 127 million people live in Japan, and for the most part, rather than worry, they take precautions. As you should do wherever you live – against storms, tornadoes, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

The most important thing to know about getting caught up in an earthquake in Japan is that the country has the world’s most stringent building regulations. Safety measures built into tall buildings include extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers.

During the 2011 earthquake, which remember, was the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, not one tall building collapsed (and very few other structures collapsed).

So what should you do?

If you’re inside a building, stay inside. Shelter under a table or a desk, or in a doorway. Sit rather than stand.

If you’re outside, move into open space. Don’t shelter near buildings or anything that might fall on you. Again, sitting is likely to be more comfortable than standing.

If you’re driving, come slowly and carefully to a stop, and stay inside your car. Don’t stop on a bridge or under an overpass. Don’t stop in a place where other things might fall on your car. When the shaking stops and you resume driving, be careful of cracks in the road and other hazards.

If you are near the ocean, listen for recorded warnings (accompanied by sirens) about possible tsunamis (you won’t miss them, and they will also be in English). Every coastal area has clearly marked tsunami evacuation points, and if you look, you will be able to find signage directing you to them. Japanese around you will be delighted to help you, even if their English is not great.

So what are some other practical steps you can take to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster (not only in Japan)?

• Travel with a mobile phone powerbank, and keep it charged
• Keep your important documents on you, and in your hotel, keep them in a handy place so you can easily grab them if you have to evacuate in a hurry
• Similarly, keep important medication in a handy place, so you can grab and go
• Bear in mind that in the aftermath of a disaster, you may not have access to electricity for several days; if so, you will want to ration your use of your mobile phone
• Japan’s disaster response mechanism is well-developed; if you are in a remote area, don’t panic – help will arrive
• The important things – water and food – are widely available throughout Japan; for example, there is a convenience store in every community (and thousands in the big cities). These businesses are historically among the first to resume operating after a disaster, even during local and regional power failures, with generator power
• But to tide you over for the first 24 hours, keep snacks on hand – in your bag and in your room
• Consider travel insurance, which is useful not only in the event of a disaster but in case of more ordinary travel-related hassles such as flight cancellations, lost luggage and illness

“Be prepared”, as the Boy Scouts say, and we at THE J TEAM are constantly updating our crisis and disaster preparedness procedures. During the month since the Hokuriku earthquake, we have spent considerable time renewing our preparedness procedures and updating our first aid skills. We recommend asking your DMC about their destination risk-assessment and preparedness procedures, as part of your event planning.

Millions of people travel to Japan every year and never encounter a problem, but it’s always best to be prepared. Be flexible. Stay calm. Don’t worry!

Yamaguchi, Japan is one of The New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2024

Last year, Japan-based writer Craig Mod put Morioka, Japan on the map when he nominated the city for The New York Times’ 2023 list of 52 Places to Go.

In the Times’ list, Mod wrote:

Until this past October, Japan maintained some of the most stringent travel restrictions of any major country. Now, travelers are beginning to stream back to popular destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

The city of Morioka, in Iwate Prefecture, however, is often passed over or outright ignored. Circumscribed by mountains, it lies a few hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, the Japanese high-speed rail lines. Morioka’s downtown is eminently walkable. The city is filled with Taisho-era buildings that mix Western and Eastern architectural aesthetics as well as modern hotels, a few old ryokan (traditional inns) and winding rivers. One draw is an ancient castle site turned into a park.

There’s also fantastic coffee, including one of Japan’s third-wave originators: Nagasawa Coffee, whose owner, Kazuhiro Nagasawa, is so committed to his beans that he uses a vintage German-made Probat roaster, which he personally imported and restored. Azumaya serves up all-you-can-eat wanko soba, which comes served in dozens of tiny bowls; Booknerd offers classic Japanese art books; and Johnny’s, a jazz cafe, has been open for over 40 years. An hour west by car: Lake Tazawa and dozens of world-class hot springs.

After the list was published, Mod was mobbed (see what we did there?) by the Japanese media, who wanted to know what he saw in Morioka. In a follow-up piece for the Times, Mod wrote, “After a decade of this work I’ve become sensitive to cities and towns with strong socioeconomic foundations that elevate their residents, enabling them to live rich, full and creative lives. Cities that feel — to distill it to a single word — healthy. Morioka felt exceedingly healthy … The city of Morioka enables its residents to thrive.”

Is Morioka last year’s news? Well, if you’re going by the calendar, yes, but this year’s list has just been published, and Mod again picked out a smallish Japanese city that you have probably not visited for the paper’s readers.

Here’s what he wrote about Yamaguchi, Japan:

Yamaguchi is often called the Kyoto of the West, though it’s much more interesting than that — and it suffers from considerably less “tourism pollution.” A compact city of about 190,000, it lies in a narrow valley between the Inland and Japan seas.

With its impeccable gardens and its stunning five-story pagoda, Rurikoji Temple is a national treasure. The city’s small winding lanes offer an assortment of experiences: pottery kilns like Mizunoue, situated on the grounds of Toshunji Temple; chic coffee shops like Log and Coffeeboy, and older-style options like Haraguchi; and wonderful counter-only shops that serve oden, or one-pot dishes. Just a 15-minute walk south is the hot-springs village of Yuda Onsen.

Given the tourist crush in Kyoto, Yamaguchi has also been offering a smaller scale — but no less historic — alternative to Kyoto’s Gion summer festival for some 600 years. Yamaguchi’s Gion Festival, which features parades, costumes and dancing, also takes place in July; 2024 will be its first year operating again at full tilt since the pre-Covid era.

Many of The J Team’s clients want to see the crown jewels of Japanese tourism: Kyoto’s temples and gardens, Kamakura’s temples and buddha, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, the many excitements of Tokyo and Osaka, and so on. But there are other Japans, and we are always thrilled when clients ask us for a glimpse of them as well. Ask us!

The Japanese ‘Secret’ to Living (Nearly) Forever? The Food!

Kazuyoshi Miura is Japan’s second-leading goal scorer, but he hasn’t scored for his country in 23 years. He’s not sitting around at home, though; since scoring his 55th international goal, he has played over 400 matches, and this week joined Portuguese club Oliveirense on loan from Yokohama FC.

Later this month Miura will turn 56 (!), and his astonishing longevity as a football player made us think about Japanese longevity in general.

Among G7 nations, Japan claims the longest longest average life expectancy, due primarily to low mortality rates from ischemic heart disease and cancer. But as recently as the 1960s, Japan had the shortest average life expectancy among G7 countries.

So what changed? Mainly, diet.

Japan’s low mortality rates from ischemic heart disease and cancer are believed to be attributable mostly to the typical Japanese diet, which is characterized by a high proportion of vegetables (including seaweed) and fish, as well as the introduction (since 1945) of “Western” dietary staples (mostly consumed in moderation) such as meat, milk, and dairy products.

So yeah, we’re talking about Japanese food! Again! Check out our previous posts on the use of the word “oishii”, the legendary Copenhagen restaurant Noma bringing formal kaiseki to its place of birth in Kyoto; Japan’s most famous food-related brand – Kobe beef; and the myriad options for vegetarian and vegan travellers to Japan.

Oishii – it’s not (just) the taste!

We’ve posted a lot about food recently – we commented on Noma bringing formal kaiseki to its place of birth in Kyoto; we marveled at the marble in Kobe beef; and we noted that there are myriad options for vegetarian and vegan travellers to Japan.

Now we think it is high time to talk about some language about food, and share what is, probably, one of the most frequently used Japanese words: “oishii” (pronounced, oy-shi).

If you look in the dictionary, the translation will be given as “delicious”, and other words complimenting a food’s taste. Indeed, the Japanese characters used to write “oishii” can be translated literally as “beautiful flavour”.

When you share a meal with Japanese people, you are more than likely to hear a lot of conversation and comment that includes “oishii”. Therefore, if someone has bought or cooked a meal for you, it is most appropriate to use the single word, oishii, to show your appreciation.

However, after decades living and working in Japan, we think it is a disservice to the word to restrict the use of “oishii” to a celebration of taste and texture only. The word has come to encompass so much more. When a Japanese person prepares a meal (either one that they cook or buy at a restaurant) they are thinking about the whole experience. Much more than the sensory experience on the palate. In fact, the time of day, the setting, the assembled guests, the tableware, the arrangement on the table, the ingredients, the cooking, … each element of the meal experience combine and mingle to create the sensation of “oishii”.

Oishii is an extremely difficult word to define succinctly in English, but perhaps rather than just signifying “tasty”, its use may better express overall enjoyment of the food and experience. Most travellers to Japan will have many opportunities to use the word. Best of all, liberal deployment of “oishii” will have a deep and positive impact on the people receiving your compliments.

The Best Place in Japan for Vegetarians Is …

A few weeks ago we wrote about Kobe beef, but what if you’re not a meat eater?

As we wrote in the beef post, prior to the arrival of foreigners, Japanese were not big meat eaters. Coastal Japanese ate plenty of fish, certainly, inlanders trapped wild game, and the rest was vegetables (and seaweed!).

Today, unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find vegetarian restaurants as it was 150 years ago. [The good news is, public transportation is much improved since that time!]

Still, Japan is slowly rediscovering vegetarianism, and in the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka it’s not difficult to find vegetarian restaurants.

And in Kyoto, it’s easy.

Because Kyoto is the base for most of Japan’s main Buddhist sects, it has long (since the 13th century) been a center for shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist temple cuisine.

Like a great deal of food in Kyoto, shojin ryori is notable for its beautiful presentation, and for using seasonal ingredients.

You can find casual vegetarian cafes in Kyoto, and more sophisticated cuisine, though travelers on a budget can almost always dine affordably at good restaurants by going there for lunch (and ordering the set lunch) rather than dinner.

One important note: if you are strictly vegetarian, you will want to confirm that the restaurant prepares its dishes with dashi (stock) made from konbu (kelp) rather than bonito flakes, which is much more common. We’re very happy to provide suggestions of vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto and other cities. Hit us up with questions!