Why Japan should be on every Australian's list?
It's difficult today to take our eyes off Japan. We are transfixed by the tsunami disaster, which appears to have killed thousands or tens of thousands of people, as it was the first such natural catastrophe to have been beamed around the world on live television. Not even the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia was captured in such arresting, real-time terror.
In fact, Japan is a country that Australians find mostly uninteresting, the tourism figures tell us. Fewer than 100,000 Australians travel there every year, whereas the number of Australians travelling to neighboring China has become a flood of around 350,000 a year and is climbing towards 500,000 in the next decade, according to the forecasts.
Natural, you might think. China is so big and has all that history and many places of natural beauty.
It helps if you appreciate things like engineering. The punctuality and speed of the train system are legendary, so it's simple and quick to get around, even without a car. The "infrastructure" – roads, bridges, key buildings – are top-class. Everything is planned.
Even better, the Aussie dollar buys lots of yen these days, so all the old stories about how expensive Japan is have largely become irrelevant. And it's an excellent stopover en route to Europe as prices via both Japan and Korea remain competitive.
The thing I most like about Japan is the quiet dignity of its people. And, even if you don't speak Japanese, you can engage the locals by just making an effort to get up to speed on key words to help you get around.
Yet Japan is just not on the Australian radar. We spent the weekend looking at terrible pictures of awesome natural events. But the people bearing the brunt of nature's fury are people we collectively don't know. Even the former influx of Japanese tourists to Australia (800,000 a year) has halved.
The latest calamity is going to batter the Japanese economy, even though the damage is confined to a relatively small coastal region of Honshu island. It wouldn't hurt to pop in and say hello.
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