Japan Travel & Natural Disasters | Prepared for the Worst

A girl stands in front of a large ship that was washed ashore during the 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku

It’s no secret that Japan is a country that is prone to many natural disasters. The nation has a long history of coping with mother nature’s ire and this in turn has shaped much of the local culture. Moreover, things seem to be getting worse lately and 2018 (when this article was originally written) has been a particularly bad year. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve likely heard of at least one of the recent tragedies that has rocked Japan this year. From that earthquake that jolted Hokkaido to the torrential rainfall that threatened to submerge Kansai International Airport, it’s been mighty scary out there lately.

As anyone who has been to Japan already knows, the country is home to dramatic mountain ranges, exquisite onsen, and vast lakes. That said, far fewer are aware that these natural wonders belie a terrible temper. You see, Japan is poised along the so-called Ring of Fire and this area’s seismic activity is responsible for much of the nation’s beauty. From ancient times, the Japanese have had to content with Mother Nature’s whims and the ever-present possibility of earthquakes and/or typhoons. As such, the locals are well-adapted to her tantrums. Still, these natural disasters can be cause for concern but with the right preparation, they shouldn’t deter you from having the experience of a lifetime.

What follows are a few morsels of safety advice to keep in mind when planning a visit to Japan…

Typhoons Come in Autumn

A massive typhoon bears down on Japan and ruins travel plans

Truth be known, typhoons are one of the most common manifestations of Mother Nature’s fury. Every year during early autumn, the Japanese islands get pounded by strong winds and heavy rains. Hell, there’s one on its way as I write this! Recent news aside, in most cases, these storms pass by with minimal damage and even fewer fatalities. Nevertheless, typhoons are often known to disrupt all sorts of transportation, Expect bullet trains, buses, boats, etc. to all grind to a halt when a major typhoon hits. In most cases, travelers have no recourse but to wait out the delay but many times you will be able to request a refund.

Luckily, typhoons do not strike without warning. Their paths can be predicted days in advance and this makes it easy to adjust travel plans as need be. If you’re planning to make the trek to another city when a typhoon hits, then consider going earlier or extending your stay. With few exceptions, these storms pass relatively quickly and last a day at most. In metropolitan cities like Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll find more than enough indoor fun to keep you busy so this shouldn’t be too big of a damper on your trip. If you need suggestions, you can always shoot me an email or message me on social media.

Note that typhoon season lasts from June through early November but most storms strike during the month of September. If you’re traveling to Japan any time during late August or early October, it would behoove you to keep the following tips in mind.

  • Stay up-to-date with typhoon tracking. These days, the information is almost always available in English. Google is your friend here.
  • Contact your airline well in advance if you are scheduled to fly out when a typhoon is approaching and try to change your reservations.
  • Refrain from using transportation when a typhoon hits. If you absolutely need to get around, subways are usually still running; however, heavy rains can make the stairs inaccessible or dangerous at some stations.
  • Avoid being outdoors in a typhoon due to the threat of dangerously strong wind gusts. All things considered, it’s best to just wait it out indoors.
  • Stay the hell away from the beaches. More often than not, many of the typhoon fatalities are caused by fools who wanted to watch the wave action. I’m guilty here too so don’t think I’m preaching!
  • Do not put yourself in danger trying to take videos or photos of the typhoon. I don’t need my readers winning Darwin Awards.
  • If possible, keep your distance from windows and definitely do not go out on the balcony unless you want to get blown away
  • Purchase some food items before the storm hits to keep in your room. If there are no nearby supermarkets, convenience stores are always a reliable option in a pinch.
  • Beware of potential flooding (more on this later).
  • If you are in a remote area, try to learn about emergency evacuation routes. This information is critical for those along seaside locations.

Basically, don’t be an idiot like me and travel when there’s a typhoon…

Japan is Earthquake Land

A Japanese building is demolished following a major earthquake

Earthquakes have shaped Japanese culture more so than any other manifestation of mother nature’s ire. Over the the nation’s many years, quakes have leveled many of the major cities. The aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 can be seen in this picture following that dreadful quake. Thankfully though, while earthquakes are a near weekly phenomenon, most are so mild that they are barely noticeable. Still, in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, it’s best to know what to do in case of a worst case scenario.

First off, you need to be aware that Japan has stringent building codes regarding earthquake safety. Furthermore, innovative construction techniques continue to result in stricter building regulations over the years. As such, newer properties are structurally secure against all but the most severe quakes. While these man-made wonders may shake and sway, you’re actually safer inside than out should “the Big One” strike. As scary as it may seem, the Japanese make their buildings to withstand the worst tremors.

This all said, older buildings, particularly those constructed prior to the 1980’s, do not fare as well. After all, the current codes are all more recent than some of these buildings. While structural damage is rare, these edifices are more prone to fire or broken glass than their modern counterparts. Still, regardless of the age of a building, it’s always best to know where the emergency exit are located. Also, here are a few more tidbits of advice to keep in mind when traveling in Japan…

  • Get to know the layout of your local area as there is almost always an earthquake evacuation space. More often than not, the sports fields of public schools are used as evacuation areas. This is because they provide a wide open space with no tall buildings around. Public parks are usually another good choice for a safe area. If you can’t find any of this information, ask your hotel or vacation rental host.
  • Never take an elevator during an earthquake. It’s emergency stop will activate, trapping you inside for up to several hours. #NotFun
  • Try to assist children, the elderly, and the injured or disabled in the event of an evacuation. Children are more likely to panic or cry. If you are traveling with children, it may be best to talk with them about emergencies in advance.
  • Whether you are indoors or outdoors, stay away from the windows as these can occasionally break in powerful earthquakes.
  • Take cover under sturdy furniture if you are indoors during a strong earthquake.
  • Do not evacuate a building until the shaking has ended. Going down stairs when the ground is shaking is extremely dangerous.
  • If you are outside, do not go into any building until the shaking has ended.
  • If you are indoors, head for the innermost part of the room or building. Do not stand in doorways, near windows, or near any object that could fall on top of you.
  • Railways almost always come to a halt in the event of a major earthquake. This is a safety measure. The trains will restart shortly thereafter if there is no damage to the tracks or if the damage can be repaired quickly. Should the trains be ground to a halt, consider opting for the bus when possible.
  • Do not run, push, scream, or panic. Earthquakes are scary but not as scary as a stampede of frightened people. Panicking in the event of an earthquake can be more dangerous than the tremor itself. Japanese people are taught from childhood how to keep their composure during earthquakes. If you are not sure where to go or what to do, just look around you and follow suit.
  • Watch out for falling objects. A building is not likely to collapse but unsecured items can fall or get thrown around. This can include things like aisles and racks full of loose items in shops.
  • Check for a tsunami warning following a large earthquake if you are in a coastal area (more on tsunamis later).
  • While you do not need to evacuate the building for minor earthquakes, there may be a need to bail if the tremor is strong enough.

Japan Can be Prone to Flooding

A person in Japan wears rain boots due to flooding

One of the things about Japan that many foreigners find unsightly is the omnipresence of concrete canals and drainage ditches. While these oddly placed eyesore are a bit of nuisance, they serve a good purpose. You see, in the event of major flooding, these canals and ditches serve to divert water away from populated areas. As such, most of Japan’s major cities are largely impervious to chronic floods but smaller flash floods are still something that you may still need to worry about. Note that waterfront areas and low-lying lands at the base of mountains are at a much more significant risk.

Should it be raining cats and dogs, be sure to keep the following in mind…

  • Do not attempt to drive through floods. Even waters that look still or shallow can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. Additionally, deep or rising waters can potentially trap your inside your car.
  • In Japan, floods rarely strike without warning and are usually the result of a typhoon, heavy rainfall, or a tsunami. Keep track of flood warnings and gather some basic supplies in advance. Place your important documents (such as your passport) into a sealed, waterproof covering. Good quality plastic ziplock bags are a cheap and easy option here.
  • To be safe, try to head for higher ground if possible. Should this prove to be a challenge, opt instead for the higher floors of your building.
  • Should you find yourself at the base of a hill or mountain, be very wary of the threat of landslides. More so than the rain itself, these are the real danger to be on the lookout for.
  • Major cities rarely have big floods but small flash-floods can occur. Avoid going into subway entrances or any staircases that looks flooded. Try to avoid walking through any flood water as even if it is shallow, there may be debris which you cannot see. It’s best to wait it out in a dry, safe building until the waters subside.
  • Tsunami can sometimes cause flooding in low-lying coastal areas so keep an eye or ear out for warnings. I’ll cover this particular threat more in the following section.

There’s Always a Threat of Tsunami

A warning on a sign post in Japan to be careful of tsunami

The image of the tsunami is something that is irrevocably linked to Japan. I mean, the English word is directly borrowed from Japanese after all. While tsunami are perhaps the most notorious natural in Japan, they are not the towering waves that one might imagine. Instead, tsunami are a type of fast moving wave that are generated by seismic activity. As such, most of them rarely reach over 1 meter tall. Despite their stature though, tsunami really pack a punch and are more than powerful enough to knock you down and drag you out to sea. In fact, the tsunami that devastated northern Japan in 2011 hit the coast with such force that it practically leveled building.

Due to improvements in technology, tsunami are no longer the unexpected killers they were throughout history. By tracking seismic activity under the ocean, it is possible to predict the path and force of any resulting waves. still, an earthquake does not need to occur close by for a tsunami to strike Japan. In fact, tremors as far away as Chile has generated tsunami that have hit Japan. If one is going to strike, you’ll have a few minutes notice to get to safety so be sure to keep on the alert and follow directions closely.

Here are a few more bits of advice to keep in the back of your mind should you encounter a tsunami…

  • If you are in a coastal area when an earthquake hits, check for a tsunami warning. You can find information in English here.
  • Head immediately for higher ground if your area is at risk for tsunami.
  • Some areas have seawalls in place that act as a barrier against tsunami. While they usually work, do not go near them if a tsunami is expected. Water from the wave still has a chance of spilling over the top if the wave is big enough.
  • If you do not have much time before a tsunami hits, take only what small valuables you can quickly gather. If you have a bit more time, bring a small bag of clothes and other essentials. Do not take large luggage if it will hinder your ability to flee in time.

More General Tips for Japan

A tourist in Japan charges their cellphone with a mobile battery to be mindful of safety

To close, here are a few more tips to keep in mind. Note that these apply to most situations and should be thought of a preventative measures to hedge against the worst.

  • Register with your embassy in case of an emergency.
  • Keep a power bank handy in case of electrical outages. Likewise, having a bottle of water and a bag of nuts on you could never hurt.
  • Don’t panic! Ask a local, your hotel staff, a station staff, or a police officer if you are not sure what to do.

While the advice in this article might have you wanting to cancel your trip, remember that more than 127 million people live here year-round. Though it’s best to be prepared for what could potentially happen, chances are high that your travels will go off without a hitch. At the very worst, you’re likely to experience some minor shaking in a minor quake so don’t worry and enjoy your stay in this awesome country.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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