Rebuilding after Japan's tsunami

Return to Japan

Unsurprisingly, tourism in Japan has taken a hit since the March earthquake and tsunami, with overseas visitor numbers down 33 per cent on the previous year (January to August), according to the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

One couple keen to lure travellers back is Katy Morrison and Jamie Lafferty. The Englishwoman and Scotsman nudged out 2000 applicants to become Travel Volunteers - essentially tourism ambassadors - undertaking a 100-day journey visiting, and blogging from, all 47 prefectures.

Lafferty says a highlight so far has been taiko drumming with a sensei, or master, from the Kodo group while on Sado Island in Niigata prefecture.

He says visiting Onagawa and Ishinomaki, two of the towns worst hit by the tsunami, was important. "It was extremely humbling to spend time with the volunteers who have been mucking in since almost immediately after the disaster," Lafferty says.

Popular UNESCO sights, including the shrines of Nikko in Tochigi prefecture, are virtually empty, which according to local guides was unheard of before the disaster.

Organised by tour operator Real Japan, the project is supported by hotels, restaurants and volunteer guides.

The couple's final destination will be the disaster-affected Tohoku region, where donated Christmas gifts will be given to children.

See http://travelvolunteerblog.net/.

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The guide you gotta get

Tapping New York from a New Yorker's perspective might be easier with the launch of the website iGottaGuide.

The website's founder, 23-year-old Keith Petri, hit upon the idea after contrasting experiences while travelling in Italy.

"I was in Rome at the Colosseum and didn't enjoy it because it was like walking around Times Square - full of tourists," Petri says. "Then I got to Florence. I had a friend who was dating a local and he showed us the city in a way we could never have experienced through a guidebook."

It included a pre-dawn visit to a bakery where breads and pastries are sold to local businesses between 3.30am and 5.30am. "The best way to travel is to connect with someone who knows the city inside and out," Petri says.

On his website (which recommends tourists take off the "fanny pack" and Hawaiian shirt) travellers search for an activity, book a tour, select a date and confirm a guide's availability.

The diversity on offer includes a ride in a Cadillac hearse to learn about the life and death of well-known locals, which costs $US45 ($46); jogging in Greenwich Village ($60) or taking a tour of a 19th-century Brooklyn brewery while enjoying craft beers along the way ($55). Petri says while most guides (who set their prices) and travellers are both Gen Y, he's hopeful age and experiences will expand with Boston and Philadelphia the next destinations.

Guides are screened and will be rated with reviews on the website.

"We really want to enable people to share their personal, local expertise as guides and help people to have experiences they'd otherwise never have access to - or even be aware of."

See igottaguide.com.

Very personal finance

Smart Traveller would normally consider credit cards in underwear hazardous rather than a natural fit. But US-based Clever Travel Companion says it has created comfortable underwear with hidden pockets to stash cards, passports and other treasures from the prying hands of pickpockets. The cotton boy short for women and boxer brief for men have two front pockets with zippers that only you - and the X-ray at airport security - will be able to see. Garments cost $US29.90 each.

See clevertravelcompanion.com.

Click for your top stay

It's time for Victorians to stand up and be counted in the people's choice honours for the 2011 RACV Victorian Tourism Awards. Online guest reviews will help determine the winners in the categories of best accommodation service and accommodation satisfaction.

The incentive for your time online? You go into the draw for RACV cruises and vouchers. Voting closes on October 31 and awards announced on November 14.

See racv.com.au/travel.

Send news items to smarttraveller@fairfax.com.au.

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