This summer I went to the Tohoku region on a grant from the Japan Foundation; a few American journalists also came along in order to report on the destruction that remains in the northern areas after the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11th.
The first thing you notice is the smell of rotten tatami mats. Upended, lying supine, in stacks on the fetid ground, these mats are in various places along our walk, along with shards of wood that break up the landscape — creating tawny waves of rubble. It reminds me of Katrina. In “Goodbye to All That“ John Jeremiah Sullivan writes this about New Orleans: “It looked contrary to the laws of physics, to the point where you saw it in miniature, a toy box overturned by an angry child.” Northern Japan looks the same, with ships cast ashore and left there, and houses that exist in name only.
When I got back to the US, a friend sent me a few pages to proofread from the Travel Guide to Aid Japan. It’s a pocket-sized book that just came out, and features artists, fashion designers, entertainers, and other international celebrities and their favorite places to go in Japan. All the proceeds go to help rebuilding the country (which still needs assistance months later) and you can find copies in Kinokuniya and other Japanese bookstores worldwide. Although it’s still not safe to travel to parts of Fukushima for obvious reasons, the rest of the country is fine to visit and is honestly a little desperate for tourists nowadays. A few recommendations from the book are below:
Matthew Barney: Artist
Matthew Barney recommends Yakushima Island, a small, subtropical island in southern Japan, where you can find antediluvian trees, tiny deer, wild monkeys, and a lot of moss. It’s a far cry from Tokyo, though the ancient cedar forest was supposedly featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film, Princess Mononoke. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and around 30,000 people travel there each year there to see “Jomonsugi,” a 7,000-year-old tree.
Andrew WK: Singer
Andrew WK loves Pachinko, a game similar to pinball that one can find businessmen and sandy-haired dudes in sweatshirts playing throughout Japan. Andrew WK has been playing the game since he first visited the country as a 13-year-old with his mom, who would let him cut loose in the afternoons and wander around the city. The first time he played, he supposedly won the jackpot, which, he says, “was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Jane Birkin: Singer and Serge Gainsbourg’s Muse / Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Mother
Jane Birkin, mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, lover of Serge, has been to Japan countless times in her life. She recommends the Golden Gai area in Shinjuku as one place to go to experience a rowdy night in Tokyo. This area in the western part of the city serves drinks in ridiculously small bars which often hold about 6 seats. If you have linebacker shoulders and gesticulate wildly, watch out — you will get spilled on at some point.
Derek Lam: Fashion Designer
Derek Lam suggests you head to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo if you want a little bit of a “New York atmosphere” during your trip. This was the hotel featured in Lost in Translation, so drink some Suntory in honor of Bill Murray before you head out to sing karaoke with the locals.
Tyler Brûlé: Editor-in-Chief of Monocle
Tyler Brûlé, the secretly Canadian editor of the international “lifestyle” magazine, Monocle, is a shopping fanatic who enjoys wandering around Aoyama and other Tokyo consumerist havens as well as Kamakura, a tourist spot about 30 miles south of Tokyo that has beautiful beaches and a giant bronze statue of the Buddha. In the travel guide, he suggests going to “Kamakura for curry and pancakes and Tokyo for everything else.” The former creator of Wallpaper* and current columnist for the Financial Times also wrote about visiting Japan back in April, a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, explaining, “The fastest track to rehabilitating Japan is to get the world to sample what I believe is the best food, drink, service, hospitality, infrastructure, retail and scenery anywhere.”