Almost six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated much of coastal northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, I found myself on an express train bound for Fukushima, to see for myself what had changed, what stayed the same and what is gone forever.
I lived in Fukushima for many years, in a place called Iwaki City, where I was a participant on an international exchange endeavor called the JET Program. I was fortunate to be placed in Fukushima, for it is a beautiful place full of fascinating people.
In the days and months following the quake, Americans frantically canceled their travel plans to Japan, refusing even to lay over in one of Tokyo’s airports for a brief few hours. As if one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history and the catastrophic tsunami weren’t enough to make visitors leery, the blown-out nuclear facilities at Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant complicated matters even more. To date, tourism in beleaguered Fukushima prefecture is down more than 60 percent, according to Hisashi Ueno, a director at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Taking up about as much land area as the Bahamas, Fukushima is one of Japan’s larger, rural prefectures. But prior to March 11, there were probably even Japanese people who couldn’t find Fukushima on a map. It’s tragic and unfortunate that Fukushima went from relative obscurity to international infamy. But there is a charm and a beauty to Fukushima that must not be overshadowed by radioactive fear.
When I returned to America from my most recent trip, a colleague offhandedly commented that I’d best keep my irradiated self away from her vicinity. She was joking, of course. But her wry sentiment is reflective of a larger social stigma growing around the word Fukushima. And while people’s apprehensions about going anywhere near a place with a melted-down nuclear reactor are reasonable, it’s important to emphasize that Fukushima is not in a state of apocalyptic nuclear fallout.
Half a year after the quake, Japan is back on its feet. It’s not even wobbly. Trains and buses operate to the usual standard of perfect punctuality. The iconic temples of ancient Kyoto (far, far from the epicenter) have remained open to visitors. The neon city of Tokyo still bustles and flows with life and activity, albeit in a slightly more energy-conscious manner. The sumo and baseball seasons are well under way, stadiums packed with cheering fans.
Right now I would not discourage anyone from traveling to Japan — for it is a fascinating country and its people are the most hospitable and generous on Earth.
Fukushima is no exception. As I traveled through the prefecture for one week in mid-September, I saw so much that had changed, and even more that was exactly the same as I left it. Fukushima’s rolling green mountains and warm summer nights were as familiar as Sapporo beer and cheap sushi. The residents I encountered, both foreign and Japanese, did not seem discouraged or beaten, but rather cautiously optimistic about the future to come.
There is a phrase in Japanese — it’s the motto of the elementary school where I worked for three years — Makeji Damashi; an accurate translation of that might be Undefeated Spirit. And spirit is one thing that runs in no short supply in Fukushima.
Yes, a significant nuclear disaster took place along the prefecture’s northeastern coast. And today there is still a mandated no-go zone encompassing a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear reactor. But that area is small when compared to the prefecture as a whole.
Outside of the evacuation zone, life has largely returned to normal for much of the prefecture. Clean-up efforts are well under way, children have been back in school since April, and the shortages of water, gasoline and supplies that crippled the region in the weeks following the quake are all a thing of the past.
So if you make a trip to Japan (and I encourage you to do so, particularly in the spring or autumn, when the scenery and weather are most lovely), do not be afraid of traveling north of Tokyo. For more intrepid travelers, Fukushima might just become the next big thing off the beaten path.
Here are a few recommended places to see:
Tsurugajo: An ancient castle in the old samurai town of Aizu-wakamatsu, it’s astonishingly beautiful in the spring when more than 1,000 cherry trees burst into bloom.
Mount Bandai: Topping out just under 6,000 feet, Bandai is a relatively easy hike with rewarding views to be found on any of its six major hiking paths. Make sure you find the old hot spring, bubbling steamy water just off the main route.
Goshiki-numa (Five Colored Lakes): These lakes were formed 123 years ago by a volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai, which deposited minerals into the lakes, giving each of them its own mysterious color that changes with the seasons.
Aquamarine Fukushima: Iwaki’s famous aquarium was hit hard by the tsunami but has reopened to the public, featuring a re-creation of the nearby Shiome sea, where rivers flow into the ocean and meet colliding currents. The result is a diverse and fascinating biome that can be viewed in the 540,000-gallon centerpiece tank.
— written and photographed by James A. Foley, www.jamesafoley.com