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Fukushima tourism aids healing

By Agence France-Presse in Namie, Japan | China Daily | Updated: 2016-03-07 08:07

It's almost five years since the tsunami and nuclear disaster forced survivors to leave town

 Fukushima tourism aids healing

A tourist shoots a video of an abandoned house in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, last month, years after a tsunami struck the town and caused an accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant. As the fifth anniversary of the disaster approaches, a growing number of visitors are joining Fukushima-related tours. Toru Yamanaka / Agence France-Presse

Shinichi Niitsuma enthusiastically shows visitors the attractions of the small town of Namie: its tsunami-hit coastline, abandoned houses and hills overlooking the radiation-infested reactors of the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant.

Five years after the nuclear disaster emptied much of Japan's northeastern coast, tourism is giving locals of the abandoned town a chance to exorcise the horrors of the past.

Like the Nazi concentration camps in Poland or ground zero in New York, the areas devastated by the Fukushima disaster have now become hot spots for "dark tourism" and draw annually more than 2,000 visitors keen to see the aftermath of the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century.

No place like Fukushima

"There is no place like Fukushima - except maybe Chernobyl - to see how terrible a nuclear accident is," Niitsuma said, referring to the 1986 accident in Ukraine.

"I want visitors to see this ghost town, which is not just a mere legacy but clear and present despair," he added, as he drove visitors down the main street of Namie, which lies just eight kilometers from the stricken nuclear plant.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake off Japan's northeastern coast sparked a massive tsunami that swept ashore leaving 19,000 people dead or missing.

Namie's residents were evacuated after the tsunami sent the nuclear plant into meltdown and none has yet been allowed to move back over radiation concerns.

Niitsuma, 70, is one of 10 local volunteer guides organizing tours to sights in Namie and other Fukushima communities, including tightly regulated restricted areas.

The volunteers take visitors through the shells of buildings left untouched as extremely high levels of radiation hamper demolition work.

The guides use monitoring dosimeters to carefully avoid radiation "hot spots".

A tsunami-hit elementary school is another stop on the morbid tour. Clocks on the classroom walls are stopped at 3:38 pm, the exact moment killer waves swept ashore.

In the gymnasium, a banner for the 2011 graduation still hangs over a stage and the crippled nuclear plant is visible through the shattered windows.

Former high school teacher Akiko Onuki, 61, survived the tsunami that claimed the lives of six of her students and one colleague, and is now one of the volunteer guides.

"We must ensure there are no more Fukushimas," Onuki said of her reasons for wanting to show tourists her devastated former home.

Chika Kanazawa, a tour participant, said she was "shocked" by conditions she saw.

Keeping cows in protest

"TV and newspapers report reconstruction is making progress and life is returning to normal," said the 42-year-old from Saitama, north of Tokyo. "But in reality, nothing has changed here."

Dairy farmer Masami Yoshizawa still keeps some 300 cows in Namie.

They live off the radiation-contaminated grass in defiance of a government order to have them slaughtered.

As Yoshizawa showed the herd to the gathered tourists, he explained he keeps the cattle alive in protest against plant operator Tokyo Electric Power and the Japanese government.

"I want to tell people all over the world, 'What happened to me may happen to you tomorrow'," Yoshizawa said.

The disaster forced all of Japan's dozens of reactors offline for about two years in the face of public worries over safety and fears of radiation exposure.

But the government has pushed to restart reactors, claiming the resource-poor country needs nuclear power.

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