Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit Namie and Tomioka. These two cities are located a few kilometers away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This article recounts my day trip to the former exclusion zone that was set up in 2011. This area had been evacuated in the aftermath of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
You’ll discover with me a railway line suspended due to lingering radiation; a farmer dissatisfied with Japanese Prime Minister; a road where getting out of vehicles is prohibited; a 9-meter high anti-tsunami seawall and a city undergoing reconstruction. But before we dig in, let me first explain how this tour came to be and the reason why I agreed to join.
An invitation to the abandoned areas around the Fukushima power plant
I was kindly invited by Japan Wonder Travel to do a day trip to the area that was affected by the Fukushima disaster. Since February, this agency provides guided tours in the hard-hit region. Their goal is to expose the daily life of the victims. Additionally, they attempt to showcase the ongoing remediation efforts carried out around the power plant.
When Takuto Okamoto from Japan Wonder Travel invited me to visit Fukushima, I thought, at first, he wanted to take me to some of the tourist spots in the Prefecture, such as Aizu-Wakamatsu. I was far from imagining that he was offering me to go to Namie and Tomioka, two coastal cities devastated in 2011.
Sightseeing in areas that were irradiated by the Fukushima nuclear fallout wasn’t part of my weekend plans. Nonetheless, this invitation was the best way for me to learn more about this remote area of northeastern Japan and I jumped on the opportunity.
Sharing unbiased thoughts about the experience
To be crystal clear: I am not contractually bound to Japan Wonder Travel. This article isn’t an on-demand piece the agency requested me to write. Rest assured, I have complete freedom of expression and the content of this article fully reflects my view on the topic. I am not paid to recommend traveling to sites prone to health risks.
Beside reviewing this unconventional tourist experience, I also aim at sharing more background information regarding this area of the Fukushima Prefecture. First, I will provide you with a summary of the events leading to the situation in this desolate part as it stands now. Then, I will discuss the Fukushima Disaster Area Tour in greater details.
If you are in a hurry or you think you are informed enough about Fukushima, you can click on this link. This will take you directly to the beginning of my travelogue.
Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster: causes and consequences
On March 11, 2011, a 9-magnitude earthquake strikes off the coast of the Tohoku region. This is the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the History of Japan. As a matter of fact, and from a global perspective, merely one to five earthquakes will reach 9.0 up the Richter scale every century.
This monumental earthquake unleashes a tsunami with waves reaching run-up heights of up to 40 meters. Freakish ocean waves surge up to 10 kilometers inland. The onshore area first hit by the earthquake is now completely ravaged by flooding.
A nuclear power plant out of control
The Fukushima-Daiichi power plant is located on the coastal shore of Japan impacted by both natural disasters. The nuclear reactors, operating at the time, stop automatically when the first tremors hit. However, a wave surmounts the 10-meter wall supposed to protect the nuclear complex. Water rolls into the plant engulfing the cooling power system vital to the reactors.
The temperature inside the reactors becomes quickly uncontrollable. The authorities’ first reaction is to resort to high-pressure injection of seawater into the reactor core to cool it down. In the meantime, steam is constantly released into the air to reduce the pressure of the overheating turbines. Highly radioactive water is released into the Pacific Ocean during the process.
All these measures do not prevent the worst-case scenario from happening. Several explosions are generated in reactors 1 and 3. Day one after the natural catastrophe occurred, a radioactive leak is now detected. Inside the nuclear power plant, the level of radiation is extreme. On March 15, 2011, radiation levels reaching 400 millisieverts per hour are recorded in the vicinity of the third reactor core. In comparison, the threshold for natural radiation is on average 2 millisieverts per year. Notwithstanding high radiation exposure, workers remain on site in order to seek a sustainable solution.
The situation is increasingly tense as the weeks go by until the situation finally stabilizes. Still, the lands surrounding the Fukushima atomic power plant aren’t left unscathed by the disaster.
An uninhabitable area around the nuclear power plant
The Japanese government is taking hasty but necessary decisions to protect inhabitants. As of March 11, 2011, residents living within a 20-km radius around Fukushima-Daiichi are evacuated. Whereas, inhabitants located within a radius of 20 to 30-km around the plant are ordered to stay indoors. At last, the latter group is evacuated on March 25, 2011.
Overall, the number of displaced residents exceeds more than 100,000. The area encompassed within the 20-km radius around the atomic power plant remains banned from access – except for the land rehabilitation unit.
Later in March 2011, other villages were included to the exclusion zone upon the recommendation of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Most of these lands are under the supervision of the municipalities of Iitate and Katsurao. These two cities are located on the northwestern side of the 20-km radius around the power plant. This decision was driven by health concerns for the inhabitants in the event of long-term exposure to radiation, after observing that, because of the winds, the nuclear fallout had shifted toward their direction.
In May 2017, the Act on Special Measures for the Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima is revised. The government designates special areas of reconstruction and revitalization within several parts of the exclusion zone. Pursuant to the law, the ban on access is lifted for the designated areas on April 1, 2017. There, the annual radiation doses are less than 50 millisieverts. Nonetheless, residents are only allowed to move back to areas where the radiation doses are less than 20 millisieverts per year.
Today, the evacuation zone still covers 371 km². Geographically, this represents less than three percent of the Fukushima Prefecture. During my trip, I passed through this area several times. I also visited places now accessible since the ban was lifted in 2017.
Here is where my story begins.
The Fukushima Disaster Area Tour
The day starts early morning. We have to catch a bus in front of Tokyo Station at 7 o’clock. Although I’ve been living in Japan for more than two years now, I’m still not a morning person. Fortunately, the excitement of visiting one of the last Japanese regions I never went to is stronger than my bad habits. I get out from bed miraculously ahead of schedule.
I arrive at the meeting point only a few minutes before the departure time. I’m greeted by Takuto and his colleague Fumito Sasaki. Once the travelers onboard, the pair announces that the bus ride will last about three hours and a half.
On the road, Takuto explains that he used to live in the area affected by the Tohoku earthquake. With this tour, he intends to improve the public perception of Fukushima. Since the nuclear disaster happened, many efforts have been made to rehabilitate these lands.
He then provides us with two Geiger counters each. These small devices can measure radiation exposure and detect when it reaches the ‘harmful to health’ threshold.
A glance at the device indicates that the radiation in Tokyo is 0.11 microsieverts per hour. Nothing to worry about: this level is completely normal. Radiation is everywhere and a natural part of the environment we live in. This number will serve as a key reference for the rest of the day. By comparing the natural radiation level to other numbers observed throughout the trip, we’ll be able to assess whether it is dangerous to live or travel near Fukushima-Daiichi.
Trip to Namie
We’re gradually moving away from the outskirts of Tokyo. It is a quiet drive to Iwaki on roads surrounded by lush green vegetation. City of more than 300,000 inhabitants, it barely made the cut when the evacuation was ordered in 2011. Conversely, residents of the neighboring municipalities of Hirano, Naraha, and Kawauchi were asked to leave their home following the nuclear incident.
At this point, the numbers indicated on the Geiger counters increase slightly. It’s also here that we first encounter the “black boxes”. These big cubic bags are piled up in abandoned fields. They aim at storing materials contaminated by the radioactive plume.
This is our first real-life confrontation with traces left by the nuclear incident: a shock to the conscience. It is quite obvious that the units in charge of cleaning the zone have no clue on how to proceed with the contaminated materials. Cleaners keep storing them wherever there’s empty space until a better solution is available.
Surroundings of Namie station
We arrived in Namie, one of the first cities impacted by the disaster of Fukushima-Daiichi, pretty quickly. Our first destination is the main railway station. The bus drops us right in front of it, in a district which seemed to be a former bustling part of town. The few buildings still standing are suffering from decay. Still, a taxi is waiting for a customer outside the main exit of the station, as if everything was fine.
Once inside the station, Takuto explains that the railway line serving Namie has been divided into two since 2011. In fact, the next stop, Futaba station, is encompassed within the exclusion zone. Which makes Namie station an improvised terminus.
Despite the service interruption, some forty passengers keep using Namie station daily. They were more than 2,000 before the tragedy. The decline of railroad users is another consequence of the dramatic population decrease in Namie. Since the lifting of the ban on living in town, only 800 locals came back. The municipality had 21,000 inhabitants in 2011.
We walk the streets of Namie for a few minutes to confirm this situation. We can eyewitness many abandoned shops and houses on our way. We travel back in time seven years earlier every time we look through storefront windows. Time has stopped right when locals decided to never return.
This post-apocalyptic stroll ends in no time. We then hop on the bus towards another destination.
Mr. Yoshizawa’s farm
After a pause in a small curry shop, we are back on the road heading to the cattle ranch of Mr. Masami Yoshizawa. Along the fields, we notice some more stacked black bags containing radioactive waste.
Mr. Yoshizawa’s farm is located only a few meters away from one of the storage areas. Several cows are grazing in a hilly pasture ran through by many electricity pylons. These are probably connected to the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant.
When we arrive, part of the herd eats delicious pineapples. Completely unrelated, but still quite surprising.
Our encounter with the owner of the ranch gets me back in the mood. Mr. Yoshizawa expresses his disappointment for the government’s decision-making almost immediately.
We had already been made aware that he was an angry man by looking at a car and a tank stationed at the entrance of his homestead, on which were displayed his grievances. A trailer carrying a metallic cow statue is attached to the vehicle, both covered with banners addressed to the authorities in Tokyo. With this car, the farmer had driven all the way to the national capital to claim higher compensation for the victims.
Fukushima farmers’ situation
In 2011, evacuation of the areas situated nearby the plant forced farmers to give up their cattle. More than 30,000 pigs and 10,000 cows were left without water or food on contaminated pastures. To prevent health hazards, the government sought permission from the farmers to slaughter the animals. Farmers who accepted were compensated.
This was not the case for Mr. Yoshizawa who can’t afford to abandon his herd. Unfortunately for him, his choice doesn’t allow him to live off farming. Nobody wants to buy meat produced a few kilometers away from the Fukushima power plant.
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prefers to organize the Tokyo 2020 Olympics disguised as Super Mario rather than facing reality in Fukushima.” Masami Yoshizawa
He explains that some of the cows which survived developed strange symptoms. A dozen of them has white spots on their skin. For Mr. Yoshizawa, there is no doubt that these are direct consequences of the nuclear incident. Surely it is TEPCO’s fault i.e. the company monitoring the now defective nuclear plant.
The farmer surmises that local people haven’t been properly compensated for their losses. He also states that the government is constantly minimizing the nuclear incident when commenting on its impact.
A fight between health security and the local economy
Masami Yoshizawa’s story reminds me of a conversation I’d a week earlier with my employer. Max Hodges visited the affected areas of Fukushima several times in 2011. He photographed the exclusion zone at the most critical moment. And his photos have been published in prestigious newspapers. It’s a New York Times article on which he contributed that revealed one of the biggest Japan’s food scandals.
After setting foot in the exclusion zone illegally, Max went on to visit farms located in the surroundings. There, farmers hadn’t been warned against the presence of radiation in their pastures. As a result, the contaminated meat had already been sold to markets and restaurants all over Japan.
“A farmer couple was living in a contaminated area with their newborn baby. They didn’t even know it. They sold their cattle as if everything was normal. After the New York Times article, they had to move to a safer place.” Max Hodges
This story had shown the Japanese authorities’ inability to control the flow of the irradiated material. It also raised public awareness on topics like food safety.
Max also published a photo essay focusing on Shoji Kobayashi’s daily life. The survivor had decided to stay in the exclusion zone despite official directives. The lives of Mr. Yoshizawa and Mr. Kobayashi sound quite similar. In my opinion, it is difficult to know whether their decisions were driven by nostalgia, madness or relentlessness. In any case, I invite you to take a look at Max’s photos. You will grasp a better understanding of the daily struggles of people living close to the power plant.
I’m leaving the farm thinking Mr. Yoshizawa’s situation is probably more complex than our interview showed. I have little hope for the cause of the farmers residing in the area. I wish them to be brave.
Radiation isn’t the only danger in the Fukushima exclusion zone
When we travel by bus, we cross the uninhabitable zone several times. Notwithstanding the fact that roads encompassed within the zone are still subject to high radiation, traffic remains normal.
“The authorities say that you have to cross this road as soon as possible.” Takuto Okamoto
It is prohibited to exit vehicles when driving in the exclusion zone. It’s also completely forbidden to use these roads on a two-wheeler. These rules are designed to protect drivers and passengers from radiation and thefts.
Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. But nowadays, the extraordinary situation of the Fukushima Prefecture has seriously undermined security in the region.
Although the situation has improved since 2011, residents are still in distress. This explains many lootings and attacks on vehicles.
Japanese police do its job even in the exclusion zone
During the day, we noticed several police patrols and surveillance cameras. In Fukushima, the mission of the police is to protect the inhabitants against potential attacks. They also ensure that looters or urban explorers don’t enter the prohibited area.
This task seems difficult considering how broad the perimeter is. On top of that, the thousands of abandoned houses and stores are perfect spots for urbex. Had the bus stopped (and radioactivity been lower), I would have been keen to further capture photos of these buildings reclaimed by nature.
But the problem remains that, when in this area, the Geiger counter regularly sends alarming sound signals. The device indicates loudly that the radiation is abnormal all along this road. The counter reads 4 millisieverts for a short time period. One sure thing, decontamination in Fukushima isn’t over yet.
Who decontaminates the irradiated areas?
One topic remained unspoken during the trip: the methods used to decontaminate lands. From the bus, we’re able to see workers in the exclusion zone wearing a simple work outfit. Takuto clarifies the situation when a visitor asks about the working conditions of these people.
“The people in charge of decontamination can only work 7 hours a day for 4 consecutive months. They must then take 2 months off before they can return to the exclusion zone. Some companies pay them 15,000 yen a day to do this job.” Takuto Okamoto
The amount of 15,000 yen is tantamount to 135 US dollars approximately. If this is true, these workers are paid 3 times more than the minimum wage in Fukushima Prefecture. It’d be better work conditions than those relayed by the international press in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster.
Newspapers had revealed that homeless people were hired to clean the exclusion zone. Criminal networks would have benefited from the vulnerability of persons in precarious situations. These poor people were deemed working for a meager income under unacceptable conditions.
In 2016, I went to Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku. I eyewitnessed an unusual number of homeless people near the main train station. Sendai is located just sixty kilometers off of the nuclear power station. It is safe to assume that most of these people were waiting for a job opportunity in the exclusion zone.
But there are many other issues pertaining to the working conditions around Fukushima-Daiichi. Leaving aside the illegitimate business the mafia has developed thanks to the incident.
Indeed, it seems that the remediation work remains way too harsh even for 15,000 yen a day. In 2014, four subcontractors’ employees sued TEPCO. They claimed that their compensation wasn’t high enough compared to the serious risk of radiation exposure they were facing. Some of the workers would be subject to exposure beyond the annual 50 millisieverts allowed. It is an easy guess that the workforce turnover is insane. Most newcomers would rather prefer to go back home after a few days’ work.
Unfortunately, Fukushima will keep requiring manpower for quite some time. Decontamination is far from over. As a matter of fact, it will roughly take 30 to 40 years to fully dismantle the nuclear power plant. A monstrous workload which will cost more than 10 billion US dollars to Japan.
Namie shoreline is no longer a threat
Our bus is getting closer and closer to the coast. After passing through bumpy forest routes, we arrive in a completely different environment. The area is flat and there are no households or even trees on the horizon. We’re standing in the middle of a field of tall grass.
It took me few minutes to realize that we’re looking at a formerly inhabited area. Seven years ago, houses and shops were erected all along that road. That was all before the 2011 deadly waves.
I was with Felix during this trip. He’d already visited the ravaged coast of Iwate Prefecture for Nipponrama. He had traveled to Kamaichi, a coastal city located 270 kilometers away from Namie. This municipality was one of the most affected by the tsunami. To bolster the revitalization of the region, the authorities have decided that it will be one of the Rugby World Cup 2019 host cities.
Felix wasn’t surprised by the sight that was before his eyes.
“The coastal area of Namie looks a lot like what I saw in Kamaichi.” Félix Goux
Few people outside Japan can imagine the true extent of the 2011 tsunami. Hundreds of kilometers of Japanese shores have been razed during this sad event. More than one million buildings were significantly destroyed.
But the Japanese government doesn’t intend to let plate tectonics win the fight. It attempts to regain control over these newly greenfield lands in every possible way. Even if it means further altering the seafront.
Nine meters of concrete to protect from future tsunamis
The bus stops in the middle of these newly-formed prairies. We can now observe a gigantic white concrete structure through the windows. This building looks like a wall. The guides invite us to reach the structure which is a few meters walk away. Once at the bottom of this monument, I realize that this isn’t merely a wall. The façade is inclined, and the top of the 9-meter high piece of concrete can be reached by climbing a series of stairs.
Once at the top, we discover what remains out of sight beyond the structure: a beach, then the Pacific Ocean. Authorities have built a huge embankment to protect the coast from future tsunamis.
At this point, we’re only six kilometers away from the Fukushima-Daiichi atomic power plant. Yet the Geiger counter reads 0.011 millisieverts. Here, radiation is the same as in Tokyo. This is solid proof that the remediation plan bears fruit. The efforts and sacrifices of many workers do pay off.
From the top of this immense embankment, we can only see a couple of buildings that haven’t succumbed to tremors and waves. Amid these buildings, stand the remains of blue walls surrounding what used to be a primary school. Our guides lead the way down the structure to bring us closer to it.
The epic story of Ukedo schoolchildren
When we finally reach the school, Takuto starts recounting the survival story of the children who were there on March 11, 2011.
Japanese schoolchildren regularly practice mock prevention exercises in response to natural hazards. One of the core safety rules requires gathering on the playground soon after an earthquake is over, when safe to walk. Students and teachers of Ukedo School should have applied the procedure and rush to the playground after the big earthquake.
Fortunately, they decided to trust their gut and did not follow the standard safety instructions that day. They managed to run away and take refuge on a hill located 1.5 kilometers away from the school before the killer wave swallowed the city. This was a lifesaving decision and no casualties were reported.
After this moving storytelling, we have a few minutes to spare to take pictures of this building. The blue walls of the school contrast with the surrounding greenery invading the plain.
Once the 15-minute break over, then again, we hop on the bus. This time, we’re heading to Tomioka, another city victim of the Fukushima-Daiichi radioactive leak.
Tomioka, a city under reconstruction
Again, we pass through the exclusion zone as we are now accustomed to. We reach an industrial area right after a road sign announcing the end of the uninhabitable zone. Our bus stops in the parking lot of a spanky-new supermarket.
Hiroko Nakayama, a resident of Tomioka, gets onboard. After introducing herself, she begins a guided tour of her town. She briefly explains the situation of the inhabitants who have been relocated here.
Since the reopening of Tomioka, the authorities have offered the former inhabitants to resettle. To facilitate their returns, new residential neighborhoods were built for the occasion. These districts are composed of lookalike apartment blocks and small houses with gardens. To access these homes, former inhabitants must consent to their erstwhile house being demolished. Unfortunately, few people have agreed so far.
“The average age of the Tomioka inhabitants is now 70 years old. Whereas it was lower than that of Tokyo before the tragedy.” Hiroko Nakayama
Younger families have chosen to never return. Many of them are still accommodated in refugee camps. Subsequently, only 17 children are currently schooled in town, while they were a thousand before the 2011 disaster.
What is truly surprising is that displaced people who decided neither to return nor destroy their home are still paying local taxes. Tomioka inhabitants continued to be subject to taxes even though the city was inaccessible.
The cherry blossom festival, a sign of hope
Before the disaster, Tomioka was popular for its cherry blossom festival. One of the streets in town had been nicknamed the “Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms”. A vegetal tunnel was shaped by the movements of tree branches on both sides of the alley, covering the sky transformed into a beautiful pink cherry blossom ceiling. After several years in the exclusion zone, workers had to trim many irradiated branches, hence disfiguring the renowned alley.
Besides, only a fifth of the street has been reopened to the public. The rest of it is still included in the exclusion zone. It is blocked by a basic 2-meter high fence and camera-guarded.
That didn’t stop locals from reorganizing their festival last spring. Hiroko Nakayama sounds very proud that this event was able to take place again after all these years.
Today, the exclusion zone still encompasses 390 hectares of Tomioka. Cleaning units are progressively clearing up the streets. Mrs. Nakayama hopes that the cherry blossom festival will recover to its past glory thanks to everyone’s efforts.
The nuclear power station was the cornerstone of the region
We wrap up the visit of Tomioka with a sunset at the parking lot of a supermarket that has recently reopened. The sun slowly disappears behind a sushi place on the other side of the road. The walls of this restaurant are also affected by decay. Obviously, its owners decided not to return to Tomioka. The name of the business is displayed on a massive billboard at the entrance: “Atom Sushi”.
“The names of businesses in the area often referred to the nuclear power plant before the tragedy.” Fumito Sasaki
Now, these names read like bad taste jokes for area residents. Reflecting on the whole situation back in the bus to Tokyo, I am slightly uncomfortable. And yet people I am close to know I’m fond of dark humor. But not this time.
The appraisal of radiation
After traveling another 250 kilometers, our bus stops before Tokyo Station. Here we review altogether the various radioactive doses we were exposed to during the day. Takuto shows us the screen of one of the Geiger counters carried around all along the tour: “0.02 millisieverts”. This dose isn’t dangerous for humans, even if exposed to it in the long run. It’s even less than the 0.04 millisieverts announced on the Japan Wonder Tour website.
“A flight from Tokyo to New York exposes you to 1 millisievert.”Takuto Okamoto
This astonishing comparison marks the end of the day. As I return home my perspective on the Fukushima Prefecture has considerably changed. I thought this trip would give me a Manichean view of the disaster-stricken areas. It did not.
My review of the Fukushima Disaster Area Tour
In sum, this is the most riveting excursion I have ever participated to so far. The everyday life of the inhabitants and nuts & bolts of the disaster are extensively discussed. Besides, the cost of the trip is affordable considering that the transportation fees to Fukushima are included.
But I’ll be honest with you, this tour isn’t for everyone. I saw a lot of hope in the eyes of Takuto Okamoto and Hiroko Nakayama. But I can’t help but think about the fate of Mr. Yoshizawa and the other victims of the nuclear incident.
I am concerned that this tour might be too gloomy for people traveling to Japan for the first time. Unless you happen to be into ecology or sociology. I would especially recommend it to expats and tourists who have already been to Japan several times. Clearly, you need to have an in-depth understanding of Japanese society to get a good grasp of most of the information you will be provided with when in Fukushima.
For my part, this tour allowed me to witness an inconvenient truth. A world 250 kilometers away from Tokyo, no one dares talk about in the Japanese capital city. As if not mentioning the situation in Fukushima would erase the problem.
I’m fully convinced that this trip isn’t dangerous for your health. The situation is currently under control (at least inland). The problem isn’t there.
One doesn’t easily wipe out the scars left by a nuclear disaster. All the efforts in the world won’t revive pre-2011 Namie and Tomioka. Their inhabitants still have a long way to go to recover and return to a normal life. I wish them to be brave.
The trauma the entire Japanese nation suffered won’t vanish either. I know that many people won’t share my opinion. But I honestly think that Fukushima is the one historical event with the greatest impact on Japanese mentalities. Much more than the financial bubble burst in the 90’s. Much more than the Imperial Japan surrender in 1945. Much more than Westernization in the nineteenth century. And much more than the isolationist policy implemented in the 17th century. This nuclear disaster has revealed a new facet of the Japanese society. I invite you to enroll on the tour if you want to get a better understanding of it.
As far as I’m concerned, I think that Japan will have to look for safer and sustainable solutions to produce energy quickly. Otherwise, its people will live in constant fear that such a catastrophic event repeats itself. And the same goes for the rest of the world.
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this kind of guided tour. Would you be keen to visit these inhospitable areas and get to learn more about the Fukushima disaster? If you have a question or want to share your opinion on this issue, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section. I’d be happy to read them and will answer your comments as soon as I have some spare time.