Disaster Tourism: Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
Last winter I suggested to a friend who was visiting from Australia that we go out for sushi; he was not keen on the idea, somehow under the impression that the fish in the surrounding Japanese waters maybe radioactive, referring to the Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.
On the 11th of April 2011 an earthquake happened off the east coast of Japan most significantly causing a huge tsunami which devastated a large portion of the coastline. One place hit by this huge wave was the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The defending wall was not quite tall enough to protect the building and, as a result, some crucial parts were damaged; most significantly the back-up power for the power plant itself. As a result, two of the reactors went into meltdown and released huge amounts of radioactivity into the air. The area was immediately evacuated, but the effects have continued. Exact details of the scale of the disaster are difficult to source; both the government and the owners of the plant TEPCO have been secretive since it happened.
Of course, I knew about the disaster from the news but I didn’t really know much about it; Luke’s comments open my eyes to the scale and infamy of the disaster.
So a year later, when I was given the opportunity to visit the Fukushima disaster area for myself, I decided to take this opportunity. As a professional tour guide, I knew that nobody would create a ‘dangerous’ tour. However close we were getting to this disaster site must not be too close has to be damaging to my health, surely. But then what is the point of a tour if you don’t get close to where the actual event took place? I had to find out formyself, from both a tour guide point of view, and a curious millennial.
My wife Mayumi and I very easily met our guides Takuto San and Fumi San from Japan Wonder Travel (https://japanwondertravel.com/) at Tokyo Station at 8am the morning of our departure. Our guides were both welcoming and smartly presented and the minibus, a brand new Toyota, was parked up and ready to go. We were even told, thankfully, that we were allowed to eat our breakfast in the minibus; the early start made this a welcome sound – missing or even rushing breakfast is something I try and avoid at all costs.
So here we were. Brave adventurers traveling into an area made infamous by its radioactivity and its ability ‘not’ to sustain human life. Disaster tourism. Lets go.
Our journey to the area was both interesting and relaxing. Particular highlights include one member ofthe group getting excited by driving over the Shunto expressway through the heart of Tokyo, and an enjoyable, informal discussion about our favourite places in Japan. We were each given geiger counter, a small yellow device whichpick up the level radioactivity and which would, inevitably, lead to a “who can get the highest reading” game.
After about two and half hours, the first stop on our tour was the town of Namie, one of the worstaffected places. Trying to rebuild after the disaster, evidence of abandonment is still clear with a real post-apocalyptic vibe.
The curious millennial inside me was getting a huge buzz – what a unique place- and the tour guide in me, seeing how anybody might find such a place incredibly interesting.
One place of particular interest was an oldnight club which got my attention as therewas a six-foot picture of Liv Tyler on thefront.
Nine years on, town has now begun to open public services and post office has reopened in town and the local people are able to use this for many daily services. Construction was taking place in the town; a new apartment block being built. Namie has a new town centre; with a series of eateries and souvenir shops, it’s a very pleasant place to spendtime and a world way from the ‘Liv Tyler Nightclub’ vibe only a kilometre or so up the road.
After a delicious noodle and bento lunch and picking up some local Sake, our group drove to what is now known as “Hope Farm”. Just after the disaster, the owner of Hope Farm, Mazami Yoshizawa, was told he must leave immediately for the meltdown was taking place only 10km away (although it must be noted that the world ‘meltdown’ was not used by TEPCO or the Government until months after the disaster). Concerned about his livestock and unable to abandon them, the following day he returned to his farm to take care of his cattle. His neighbours’ cattle were not so lucky.
In the following weeks, the government, now armed with more information of the scale of the disaster, informed the farmer that the cattle must be slaughtered; the ground they lived on was contaminated, thus the cattle were and therefore unable to ever be eaten.
Devastated by the news, the farmer did not have the heart to do such a thing so, in defiance of the government’s orders advice, he has continued to take care of his cattle on the farm. He’ll never sell the cows, but he’ll never ever put them down.
Now he lives a life of campaigning against both nuclear power and exposing the huge cover up operation which has happened since the disaster. His efforts have seen him protesting in Shibuya, meeting members of the Japanese Government, flying to France to give a speechand perhaps even influence Germany to abandon it’s nuclear power programme. It was a pleasure and an honour to meet Yoshizawa San and hear his story.
The cows, you’ll be please to hear, are very happy. A local bento company provides the cows with plenty of feed, particularly pineapple offcuts which they seemed to love when we visited. In fact, to this man’s the cows have actually done quite well out of the whole situation as they have had a much longer life than they would have otherwise and have no apparent side effects from the radiation. Plus, they seem to really love pineapple!
We began our journey back towards Tokyo. On the way, we stopped to see some of the damage, not from the nuclear disaster, but from the Tsunami which caused it. This school stands only meters away from the coastline and is lucky to be standing. Can you see theclock? Time has stood still here since the disaster.
A story of hope: the school masters got news of a Tsunami heading for Japan. Unsure of what to do, the teachers had minutes to make a decision – stick to school policy and not leave the school, or try and get to higher ground as quickly as possible. The entire school ran for more than one kilometre over farmland making it to the hill – every single one survived.
Traveling towards our final destination, Okuma, we saw some of the more memorablesights out of a bus window – the now infamous Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
This is as close as a member of the public can get. We played geiger-counter bingo, seeing who could get the highest reading – a bizarre things to do out of context, but actually lots of fun. Along the roads surrounding the power plant, there was again a post-apocalyptic vibe, although surprisingly lots of traffic all using the same road as us. Lining the road were abandoned shops, gas stations, homes and public buildings. There was even a large electronics store which has been due to open days after the disaster full with brand new stock and left completely abandoned – preserved perfectly in time.
Our final stop Okuma was a town of hope. Situated only about 10km from the plant, Okuma is a place of rebuilding both the town and people’s lives. Perfectly set close to the coastline and surrounded by Japans wonderful mountains, Okuma has been repopulating for just over a year now. The government, along with TEPCO, the owners of the plant, have put incentives in place to help people return, have built hundreds of new homes for both families and everyone else, a new train station and even a TEPCO information office in the centre of town to help rebuild relationships. Honestly, I really liked this town and would happily live here.
We were joined by a guest guide who lived in the area when the disaster hit. She talked about the immediate after effects of the disaster and how, despite the seriousness of the situation, the government tried to, in her opinion, hide the whole truth. However, she is happy with the rebuilding of the town and, although hasn’t yet moved back, would like to come home in the near future.
We drove back to Tokyo reflecting on our day. Tiring? Certainly. Enriching? No doubt. Enjoyable? Perfectly so. My professional opinion is that it’s a fantastic day out – well organised, interesting, comfortable and unique experience. A trip to Japan with The Adventure Tourism Company will have this trip included. Thanks to Japan Wonder Travel for making it possible.
My overwhelming emotion from my day in Fukushima wasn’t one of tragedy, nor one of pity. It was a feeling of hope. That every single day, this place will improve, build, get better. Almost of envy, in fact, by how much potential this place has and the spirit which is driving people.
Fukushima, what a magical place you are. Thank you Japan Wonder Travel, Takuto San, Fumi San, our driver and the wonderful people of Fukushima.