Travel volunteer Jamie Lafferty beats the drum for travellers to return to Japan
There was something about the sensei's focus that was intimidating, never mind the hunk of oak he was wielding. The approximate size of a baseball bat and weight of a bowling ball, he could have bludgeoned a horse to death with that thing, but instead decided to take his fury out on an enormous taiko drum. Unfortunately he insisted I put my hand on the opposite side of it first.
“Don't move it,” he said, disappearing around to the far end.
Then came the sonic boom, and my fingers exploded from the drum skin. I leaned into it, but the next blast again sent them quivering from the surface like little fish trying to get back to water. And it hurt.
Somewhere above the stomach-churning bass I could hear the sensei laughing. In hindsight, I think he was just glad of the company. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, foreigners have been a rare sighting on Sado Island in Niigata prefecture – they're been a rare sight almost anywhere in Japan.
Unsurprisingly almost 100% of holiday bookings were cancelled in the aftermath of the earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and emergency at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Humans can be a pretty skittish flock in times of perceived menace – and there is no greater bird-scarer than the words “nuclear disaster”.
That's understandable, but what makes less sense is people continuing to stay away now. Yes, the immediate area around the Fukushima plant is a write-off, but that's it in terms of any nuclear issue. When we passed within 60 miles of the site, the radiation level was still lower than it would be on an average day in New York. A recent BBC documentary revealed that an estimated zero people will die as a result of the plant's problems. No one – not a soul.
But still, the world needs to be convinced. Which is good news for us, because the fear of others has given my fiancee Katy Morrison and I the chance to explore Japan as travel volunteers. In just 100 days, it's our job to visit all of the 47 prefectures, writing a daily blog as we go. It's harder than it sounds: Japan isn't anywhere near as compact as we thought it would be (it has more land than Germany; and from top to bottom covers a greater distance than London to Moscow) and it's split between several thousand islands.
On the upside, as we move around the country we've been able to enjoy some of its biggest and best attractions while they are relatively tourist-free. The UNESCO World Heritage sites, in particular, have been a real surprise. Nikko, home of a sprawling network of temples and shrines in honour of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period, was a genuine pleasure to visit, with only occasional school-groups to make it feel at all busy. Meanwhile, newcomer to the list Chusonji – the Golden Hall – in Iwate prefecture was virtually deserted.
Bizarrely, despite endless amount of data being available in daily newspapers, some of the Japanese themselves seem to think that “anything north of Tokyo” is potentially hazardous. But our real job is to show the wider world that everything is normal in Japan.
We're not short of ammunition. It's a tremendously varied country, with almost endless attractions, beautifully defined seasons, generous people, law, order and an admirable dedication to neatness and functionality. Then there's the weirdness – the rabbit cafes, the people dressed as anime characters, the insistence on nakedness in spas – and the food, the combinations and tastes of which are limitless. It's impossible for us not to have a good time; if other people choose not to, well, we're starting to think that's their fault.
James Lafferty is travelling around Japan as a travel volunteer in an effort to promote international tourism back to Japan and support its weakened economy. For more information about his adventures in Japan, visit the Travel Volunteer website.