Eight hours and 26 minutes. I clearly remember the exact time I walked that day. On more than several occasions, I lost my way; on many more, the courage to keep going. By the time I had reached the railroad crossing just across from my home, my shoes were ripped, my feet covered in blisters and my stomach was rumbling, but, oddly enough, I had more strength than ever — home was just a few minutes away. Once I got there, this would all be over.
But it wouldn’t. The crossing gate was damaged in the earthquake and it continued to ring a false alarm of an approaching train, which both myself and the policeman standing there to guard, knew was never coming. Despite that, for safety reasons, he told me, he couldn’t let me cross. Home was so close and yet it was farther than it ever was.
The memory of that day hit me like a flashback as I stood in front of Futaba Station in eastern Fukushima this past December, overseeing the now completely wiped up land. I was there on a familiarization tour to learn about the recent developments in the area, which is now gradually beginning to open up to visitors as evacuation orders were partially lifted in March 2020.
We were just beginning the “Fukushima Futaba Town Story Walking Tour,” part of the two-day trip, as I imagined how nearly 10 years ago, most locals must have felt the same as I did when looking at my home through that crossing — longing to go back to a place they couldn’t. For me, however, the situation was far different — when the quake struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, I was in Tokyo, over 400 kilometers away from the epicenter off the coast of Tohoku and over 250 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where no fear of a tsunami, explosions and radiation, or evacuation was threatening my life. The case wasn’t the same for the 18,645 residents of Futaba and Okuma, the Daiichi plant’s two host towns. Nor the nearly 20,000 people who lost their lives and everything they had to the disaster in the Tohoku region.
There used to be life here
“There used to be life here,” says Tatsuhiro Yamane, our guide on this two-day trip of coastal Fukushima, the area in the prefecture most severely affected in the March 11 disasters and the triple nuclear hydrogen explosion at the power plant on March 12, March 14 and 15. Now a local Fukushima resident, Yamane was standing on a crossroad in his early 20s while working at a Kanagawa-based video production company at the time of the disaster. A series of coincidences eventually took him to Fukushima, where he now works as a private tour developer and guide in-line with the local government’s efforts to rebuild the disaster-affected areas.
“The sign ‘Nuclear power: Energy for a bright future’ used to be here on the main road. Everything happened here,” Yamane says, showing us the now very symbolic image of the town slogan boldly written on an archway over Futaba’s main street, in an old photo. The slogan was written over 30 years ago by a local elementary school student for a town competition. It signified the pride the townspeople felt to be the hosts of the source of energy for the people of Tokyo — their own came from elsewhere in Tohoku. The arch is now removed as it, too, has aged, but something tells you that most people wouldn’t want it there even if it were brand new.
On our walking tour around the town, we stop by at many places that make little sense to us — at times, those are just empty lands, at others, nearly collapsing buildings covered in wild moss. Yamane, however, introduces one building at a time. “This used to be a local ramen store,” he says, telling us a local secret of how the locals would eat half udon, half ramen after the ramen had finished for the day. The place was so popular, he says, that everyone would gather there for a few drinks after work hours.
Opposite the ramen store was a clothing store. Close to it was a pharmacy. A short walk from there was the local convenience store.
Now those are all empty, left untouched since 2011 after everyone evacuated the town. The local jewelry store still had some watch bands on display. The plant inside it is now covered in dust and has completely dried out from the years.
We stop by Yamane’s wife’s old house, where she lived with her mother at the time of the disaster. On March 11, when she came back from work in the evening, she found a note on the door from her mother, saying she had evacuated, telling her to do the same. Thinking she would be back soon, she only grabbed her glasses and phone charger and headed to the evacuation center. The next day, just past 5 a.m., they were told to evacuate further: areas within a 10-km radius from the power plant were evacuated. She never came back to her house until recently.
Her room, which visitors can peek in from the windows, is now covered in moss in what looks like a very natural yet extremely disturbing natural carpet. The bed and furniture are covered in dust, her old clothes are still hung in her open wardrobe. It’s a ghost town here but the memories of the life there was, stay untouched as if waiting for their owners to return.
Gradually opening up
Fukushima’s coastal area, which was most severely affected by the March 2011 disaster, consists of six towns and cities: Namie, Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, Naraha and Hirono, all of which were subjected to evacuation immediately after the nuclear power plant disaster. The hydrogen explosion at the Daiichi plant’s Units 1, 3 and 4 released high doses of radiation within over a 30-km radius from the plant to the northwest of the prefecture. Futaba and Okuma, the two towns hosting the power plant, were areas that many considered scraping off from Japan’s future map. Of the two, Futaba town, located just 4 km from the damaged plant, was the last to undergo partial lifting of the evacuation orders on March 4, 2020 — as of today, merely 4 percent of its land is deemed habitable. By 2022, locals hope to increase that percentage and start welcoming some of its residents back, but as of present, no one lives there.
High radiation has been a critical concern in the Futaba area, the majority of which is still categorized as a “difficult-to-return zone.” Almost ten years after the disaster, a vast continuing effort to decontaminate the coastal region, however, has brought the radiation levels down to doses perceived by domestic and overseas experts as standard, similar to those in most larger cities and those most of us acquire from artificial radiation, such as flying by airplane, taking an X-ray or dental imaging. We carried Geiger counters at all times during our visit, and none of the areas we visited exceeded the government-set safety threshold of 0.23 microsievert per hour.
Largely thanks to this, life is beginning to return in some forms in many previously deserted areas. In Futaba town’s neighboring Namie, where evacuation orders were partially lifted in March 2017, as of summer 2020, 1,449 residents had newly settled or returned (of 21,434) to the city’s now 20 percent habitable areas in three years. The convenience stores are now fully shelved, the local stores are open and occasionally, and you may even get stuck in a light traffic jam. To the south of Futaba, Tomioka has 88 percent habitable area and evacuation orders were also lifted in 2017, seeing over 1,200 (of formerly 15,937) old and new residents as of summer 2020.
Fukushima’s coastal area is also seeing many new facilities. In September 2020, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum opened in Futaba district as a facility owned by the Fukushima prefectural government to display the horror of what happened in 2011 and educate Japanese and overseas visitors about regional efforts to rebuild the affected areas.
The new facility stores some 240,000 articles in its collection, 150 of which are currently on display. Those include visual materials and documents on the immediate post-crisis measures.
J-Village, the national soccer training center in Fukushima Prefecture, a nationwide attraction that had been gathering hundreds of thousands of people in the area since its opening in 1997, (that was also chosen as the starting point for the Olympic torch relay), reopened in April 2019 after serving as a station for the decommissioning efforts and parking lot for local workers immediately after the disasters. The center now also welcomes travelers and training athletes as an accommodation facility.
Old houses are also turning into accommodation facilities. Co-minka, a local Japanese traditional house built over 70 years ago in Naraha about 20 km from the nuclear power plant, where evacuation orders were lifted in 2015 and 100 percent of the area is habitable, is now partnering with Airbnb to welcome guests and offer various local experiences.
And for the first time in nearly a decade, Futaba town’s quake-damaged local shrine reopened at the end of 2020, looking forward to welcoming back its former residents for the new year’s shrine blessings.
To Fukushima and back
For many of us who have spent the past decade learning about Fukushima from the news, the area has, to a great regret, become equivalent to fear. There are still many people who refrain from buying Fukushima products, fearing contamination. Produce from the area, however, we are told, is perhaps safer than anywhere else — local fishermen have set their own, much stricter safety criteria than this imposed by the government, passing every single fish through multiple tests before shipping it off to markets. It’s a matter of pride for them, we are told.
In between the fear of the unknown and the fear of the over-known (we can find any information to fit any purposes), by attending this tour, I realized how I had forgotten what a beautiful and culturally-rich place Fukushima has always been. To take our minds off from the triple disaster, we also visited Minami-Soma, about 30 km to the north from Futaba town, the host town of one of Japan’s most fascinating traditional festivals, the Soma Nomaoi festival, where hundreds of armor-clad participants on horseback parade through the streets of the city. We had the pleasure to meet Mitsuo Abe, one of the most respected individuals in the city, who has for many years participated in the festival and to date works in repairing and selling samurai armors and equipment used in Nomaoi.
We stopped by his store to try wearing traditional samurai armor from the Edo period, learn a few things about his life and work and what each ornament means. We also got to learn that wearing armor is not nearly as heavy as it looks like.
On our way back, we also briefly stopped at a former elementary school in Iwaki city, now occupied by the company of chopsticks manufacturer Iwaki Takahashi, a company owned by Masayuki Takahashi, a Kanagawa-born businessman who founded his company in Fukushima half a year before the triple disaster. Despite losing all his clients in the wake of the disaster, he chose to stay in Fukushima, a place he says is very welcoming for business starters. Today, his business is thriving despite many years of unforeseeable future.
As I looked at Fukushima’s many still empty streets, I kept wondering how long it will take before life truly returns here — or if it will ever do. As a Tokyo resident, I was a blind recipient of the electricity made in this town. I was also the blind recipient of the news I watched and read about the area and for years, I too, stayed away for safety precautions. And despite knowing that I shouldn’t, I can’t help but feel partially responsible for the many lives that were lost and displaced since 2011.
I also realize, however, that the subject of whether Fukushima is safe or not to visit is a debate to an extent similar to whether masks help in the prevention of COVID-19 — one will always find the information that fits their theory. This is why, while writing this, I don’t wish to enforce any conclusions. I can only say that the roads are now open for us to learn from our own experiences. If you want to see what it’s like there now, there are ways to. If not, that’s a choice too.
For reservations of “Fukushima Futaba Town Story Walking Tour” and “Fukushima Futaba Town Story Cycling Tour in Futaba,” see [https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/2094239](https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/2094239) and [https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/2099133](https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/2099133)