This is the second in a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
For the disaster-hit coastal areas of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, tourism is more than just a business. It’s a way to impart a more accurate picture of how the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis affected the region and to preserve fading memories of the disaster.
Eight years on, the number of tourists to coastal areas of the three hard-hit prefectures is growing but has not recovered to pre-disaster levels, the prefectural governments say.
In Fukushima’s Hamadori coastal region, the number of visitors in 2017 was only 68.2 percent of that seen in 2010. The equivalent statistics in Miyagi’s hardest-hit areas of Ishinomaki and Kesennuma were 80.7 percent and 79.2 percent, respectively, while in Iwate’s coastal area it was 66.8 percent.
But various tours and attractions are giving travelers reasons to visit.
Junichi Konno, senior managing director at the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization, which was set up by local governments and businesses, says disaster-related tours are key resources for local communities trying to promote tourism there.
“These coastal regions provide opportunities to learn about the importance of life, not just sightseeing spots and entertainment,” Konno said.
Some of the tours are being called fukkō tourism (reconstruction tourism), which are aimed at improving the understanding of the horrors of natural disasters and the municipalities’ rebuilding efforts. For that purpose, having people who can retell stories from the disaster is important, said Hiroaki Makino, a senior researcher of heritage tourism at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation.
One tour package in Fukushima Prefecture, for example, gives guests a glimpse of the real situation close to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, where the massive quake and tsunami triggered meltdowns in three of its six reactors and the ensuing explosions released large amounts of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment.
Emil Truszkowski from Poland, a sightseeing guide and YouTuber who lives in Saitama Prefecture, signed up for a tour in mid-January because he felt the public and media outside Japan tend to have misconceptions about the effects of radiation in Fukushima.
The 31-year-old said he wanted to find out “what is really happening in areas within 20 kilometers of the power plant,” he said in a telephone interview with The Japan Times.
Truszkowski took part in the tour, run by nonprofit organization Nomado, along with three visiting Polish friends. Over two days, a local guide took them by car to the town of Namie, which lies as close as 4 km from the plant, and passed through neighborhoods near the stricken facility, carrying a radiation monitoring device. They also stopped at the village of Iitate, more than 30 km from the plant.
The tour had a profound impact on Truszkowski.
In some areas there were plenty of people; others, just a short distance away, were deserted. What surprised him most, however, was when a resident revealed Namie’s biggest concern.
“The resident said the town doesn’t have enough stores and hospitals,” said Truszkowski. “Radiation is their third concern.”
Currently, Namie has one dentist and one health clinic, compared with 21 medical institutions before the disaster.
The town only has two convenience stores, five fewer than before the nuclear calamity, and no supermarkets have resumed operations.
Nomado began operating tours to within a 20-km radius of the plant in 2012, with a goal of spreading understanding of the reality faced by local communities, said Miyuki Aota, who assigns guides to visitors.
She said around 13,300 people in total, ranging from individual travelers and university students to educators and doctors, have participated.
Although Nomado doesn’t have precise figures for the number of foreign participants, Aota says around 50 non-Japanese went on the tour last year.
“The media now gives less coverage to the current situations in Fukushima Prefecture, so we feel we must convey the reality” to visitors, she said.
Hideo Ouchi, one of the organization’s tour guides, said Namie is the place, in particular, that he wants his guests to see. “People would understand better what life is like here if they visit the town,” said the 82-year-old.
An evacuation order issued after the nuclear disaster emptied Namie, which had a population of over 20,000 before the crisis began.
Since the order was lifted for 20 percent of the total area in March 2017, the population has slightly rebounded to 910 as of the end of February this year, according to the municipal government.
“We believe that the most important thing for tourism in Namie is for people to come over here to see, hear and feel the current status,” said Takaaki Kanno of Machizukuri Namie, an organization that works on community development through public-private cooperation.
“We are suffering from the damage caused by groundless radiation rumors,” added Kanno, who is on loan to the organization from the municipal government.
Machizukuri Namie plans to offer multiple tour options and experiences that will give participants a chance to hear firsthand accounts of the disaster, and further down the road, link the tours to a planned roadside rest area featuring shops and a parking lot, as well as a memorial park, to attract more visitors.
Elsewhere, there are many other local tours and programs designed to help keep the memories and lessons learned from the March 11 tragedy alive.
The tourism promotion association in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, offers a tour to the hard-hit coastal regions and the ruins of the former Okawa Elementary School, where 74 pupils and 10 teachers were killed or presumed dead after waves engulfed the area.
Toshiko Saito, 77, is one of about 10 people who provide firsthand accounts on the association’s tours, called Ishinomaki Daishinsai Manabi no Annai, which roughly translates to “A tour to learn about the Ishinomaki quake disaster.”
Saito heads the local tourism volunteer association from which the storytellers hail. She said she takes visitors to sites, such as near the remains of the former Kadonowaki Elementary School, and uses presentation boards and images portraying the immediate aftermath of the tsunami to illustrate the magnitude of the disaster.
“My guests have often told me they could finally understand the impact of the disaster, thanks to my accounts and the materials,” Saito said, and storytellers often receive thank-you letters from guests.
In fiscal 2017, 8,052 people took part in the tour, compared with the fiscal 2012 peak of 28,182, according to the tourism association.
“I hope participants will learn about disaster preparedness as well as our predicaments,” Saito remarked.
Masayoshi Kono, one of seven storytellers in a group that is part of an association promoting tourism and local products in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, said he takes his guests near a three-story building in the city center as a way to give them an idea of the sheer size of the tsunami.
Waves as high as about 15 meters swallowed the entire reinforced concrete structure, rising almost to the top of its chimney, even though it was located more than a kilometer from the coast.
The building at the time housed Yonezawa Shokai, a packaging material store, and a sign showing the height of the waves, which Kono says hammers home the impact of the disaster, adorns the side of the chimney.
“I personally think the building is a must-see from a disaster readiness standpoint,” said Kono, 62. “It represents the extent of the devastation downtown.”
“Japan is prone to natural disasters,” he added, “so I want my guests to use our accounts and the 2011 disaster as lessons and remember from time to time.”
Tsunami-hit coastal region has much to offer tourists
Beyond educational tours related to the March 2011 disaster, Tohoku’s Pacific coast has a lot to offer tourists.
In addition to its attractive scenery and delicious local food and sake, shopping streets built after the disaster and seasonal art festivals are also fun to visit, noted Junichi Konno of the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization.
Here are some of the attractions recommended by local tourism officials:
Most of the events for the Soma Nomaoi festival, featuring hundreds of people on horseback dressed as samurai, take place in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.
The highlights of the three-day festival, which dates back more than 1,000 years, are on the second day, with a procession through the streets, a horse race and a scramble for sacred flags in the city’s Hibarigahara field.
Several municipalities that host the festival were hit hard by the 2011 disaster, but the annual event, which starts on the last Saturday of July, was still held that year. This year, it will start July 27.
Last year’s festival had an attendance of 131,200 over the three days, according to the organizer.
The town of Matsushima is particularly popular among Chinese and South Korean tourists.
Zuiganji, a Zen Buddhist temple built in 828, and Godaido, a Buddhist hall on a small island in Matsushima Bay, are among the town’s main draws, a prefectural official said.
Others include shops that allow customers to grill bamboo-leaf-shaped steamed fish cakes called sasa kamaboko, as well as the Matsushima Fish Market, which is famous for its sashimi rice bowls and a restaurant near the market offering all-you-can-eat grilled oysters.
Ryusendo Cave in the town of Iwaizumi is touted as one of the three most popular limestone caves in the country.
The cave, along with five kinds of bats living there, is designated as a national treasure by the central government. Ryusendo is believed to stretch more than 5,000 meters, of which 700 meters are open to the public, according to its official website.
Popular spots in the cave include Moon Palace, where light-emitting diodes illuminate the interior to evoke images of a lunar landscape, three underground lakes known for their clear, cobalt blue waters, and the First Underground Lake Observation Deck, where people can view the lake from above.
The site recorded at least 2,594 visits by foreign nationals, many of them Taiwanese, between April 2018 and January 2019, according to the Ryusendo Cave Office, not including tickets purchased at vending machines.
This is a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.