Fukushima is the name of both a prefecture in Japan
and the city that is its administrative centre. Furthermore the name was also given to a nuclear power station (NPP) on the eastern coast of the prefecture. It is this NPP in particular that the name Fukushima has become mostly associated with – due to the triple reactor meltdown and explosions at the plant in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami
in northern Honshu in 2011. That's why it is often referred to as a triple disaster.
As such Fukushima is generally classed as the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl
. And just as with the latter, an exclusion zone was declared around Fukushima-Daiichi NPP from where all inhabitants had to be evacuated. However, quite unlike Chernobyl, the Fukushima disaster caused hardly any direct fatalities (two workers were drowned by the tsunami and one died from cancer that may have been caused by radiation). Yet the evacuation order and soil contamination are on a similar scale. A massive clean-up operation was quickly begun and is still ongoing. As is the decommissioning of the NPP, which is expected to last decades.
More background info: – coming later! Sorry, but I have to leave the writing of a full detailed background section here for another time, as other, more pressing obligations have to be given priority. But due to evident demand I still wanted to upload this (incomplete) chapter, with at least personal impressions and descriptions of the Fukushima Tour I was on in April 2019, and also upload an accompanying photo gallery as soon as possible.
But for proper background info I have to refer my readers to other sources, on the Internet in particular, of which there are plenty. This chapter is – for the time being – mostly just about what the tour was like. And after all that's what fellow dark tourists need to know the most.
What there is to see: First of all, it may still come as a surprise to some that it is even possible to visit Fukushima – the exclusion zone around the stricken Fukushima-Daiichi NPP, that is. The plant itself remains out of bounds to normal tourists. On the other hand, access to the city of Fukushima was never restricted. In fact many inhabitants of the exclusion zone were actually evacuated to that city rather than from it.
Some of the previously evacuated areas have meanwhile been declared open again, and former residents are encouraged to return – though so far only relatively few have done so (see below). Those parts would in theory be explorable by visitors on an independent basis now, provided you have your own means of transport and at least some decent grasp of Japanese. Otherwise you'll have to go on a tour. That's what I did.
At this point the relevant episode of the 2018 Netflix series “Dark Tourist” has to be mentioned. The “tour” depicted in this series, however, wasn't actually a real one, as I gathered from speaking to various people when I was in Fukushima myself. Apparently it was largely staged for the sake of the “show”, which may explain why it was so grossly exaggerated and often hysterically sensationalist in its overall approach – see my detailed review of the series
! It certainly did not represent Fukushima adequately or fairly and is full of factual errors and misunderstandings (or possibly, even worse, it's deliberately misleading viewers). No wonder the series caused a lot of unhappiness in Fukushima …
There are a few genuine Fukushima tour offers
, however, including day-return excursions from Tokyo
for groups by van. But the pick of the lot has to be the one outfit actually based there and operating out of one of the more recently reopened towns formerly in the exclusion zone, namely Odaka. As this outfit is also associated with a guest house near that town's train station, it lends itself to much more in-depth touring of the area, which is why I picked them.
In fact I did two separate tours with them spread over two days. The first was their regular 'standard tour', which lasted from ca. 10 a.m to 4 p.m. – which in theory makes it possible to do as a long day-return trip from Tokyo
too. And that's what the other two participants, a couple from Australia
did, when I was on the tour. They had taken the same early-morning train to get to the arranged pickup point and then were dropped off at a different station after the tour, from where they made their way back to Tokyo in the evening (via Sendai). However, I had arranged an overnight stopover in Odaka and went on a second, custom tour the next day (which was of a similar length). I had asked for the second tour to be focused more on the tsunami of 3/11, so it complemented the standard tour very well, which concentrated more on the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster and subsequent clean-up efforts.
Day 1, in more detail:
We were picked up at the train station of Tomioka, which is where the JR Joban Line trains currently terminate, since the line was severed by the imposition of the exclusion zone. Normally, the standard tours starts at Odaka station (with connections to Sendai), but we had the tour tailored to start at this more convenient pickup point to the south of the zone.
On arrival our guide/driver handed out a 22-page information pack full of diagrams, facts and figures, maps, charts, photos, and what not, compiled by the tour operator themselves, plus a glossy 26-page brochure by TEPCO (the company that ran the NPP) about the current decommissioning efforts. That's obviously more than could be instantly digested, but a few points were picked out and explained by the guide when they became relevant as we went along (otherwise this material was to take home and study there after the tour – good!). In addition, we were also given a three-page document that a) made a statement about the Netflix series (distancing itself from it) and put it in relation to what this tour would be like instead, and b) two maps showing the exclusion zone before and after the recent (2017) lifting of the restrictions for the outer zones. Furthermore, we were all given personal exposure accumulation measurement devices that we had to clip to our clothing. At the end of the tour it would show us our total radiation exposure (see below).
Our first actual port of call was the “TEPCO Decommissioning Archive Center
”, which is not so much an archive but an informational exhibition about the disaster and the clean-up efforts. Since it is run by the company responsible for the plant you'd expect a glossy PR show, and to a degree that is indeed what you get. But it does also outline the unfolding of the disaster very well, the measures taken, and the state of the decommissioning at the present time (when fuel removal from the destroyed reactors was the current priority). There's an intro film and several of the display are interactive and involve animations and/or more screens. All these come in English versions, but many of the panels and labels for physical exhibits are in Japanese only. In the centre of the main hall is a walk-in installation with large-scale image projections to emulate being actually at the plant. All around it are various displays, including two with comparisons to the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island
(unfortunately in Japanese only), as well as a scale model of the entire Fukushima-Daiichi NPP complex. On balance, despite a predictable slight bias towards TEPCO, I found this stop at the info centre wholly worthwhile and rewarding.
We then carried on driving through Tomioka, which despite having recently been reopened for residents, is still largely a ghost town
. Heading for Route 6
, i.e. the road passing through the Red Zone that is open for general traffic – though you are not allowed to stop and get out of your vehicle – we saw plenty of abandoned homes, shops, petrol stations, and so on. North of Tomioka town, roads branching off to the side are either blocked or guarded. Indeed, there is security personnel to be seen all along this route. Also along it, just outside Tomioka, we passed that Pachinko hall (gaming arcade) that the team filming that Netflix series
illegally entered and nearly got arrested in the process.
However, we carried on along Route 6 and our next stop was for a lunch
break, but not at that restaurant featured in the Netflix series, where they proceeded to (pretend to) panic over the safety of the food (the rules are so strict here, it was probably safer than anything in Tokyo, but researching and mentioning that would probably have dampened the sensationalist thrill-of-danger appeal, no matter how unrealistic that was). Instead we used the canteen
that was set up for TEPCO workers. So there were plenty of employees in various uniforms, work outfits or simple suits (the office staff, I guess) all around us. It reminded me a bit of the canteen at Chernobyl NPP
– except of course the food here was Japanese (and actually quite good for a canteen!).
After lunch we proceeded to Okuma
, which is a completely abandoned ghost town
right within the Red Zone
(i.e. total exclusion zone), which can only be entered with a special permit. This had been arranged in advance for us by the tour operator, so our guide just had to hand over the paperwork at the checkpoint and we all had to produce our passports for inspection, then some ticks were made on lists and we were waved in by the guards. (Note: Netflix didn't have that permit, so none of what is described in the following sections featured in the series!)
We parked and got out to walk down one street of this eerily quiet and deserted place. We were not allowed to enter any buildings but at many points you could peek in, including an abandoned clothes shop still full of wares hanging from their pegs and racks, still intact, if a little faded from the years that have passed. Looking through windows you could see plenty of dead plants, last watered in 2011. Outside, a few abandoned cars were still parked, including a rather flashy sports car, grass growing all around it. Vending machines by the road looked like you could still use them. There has evidently not been any vandalism! This is Japan, after all.
At one house there was a small poster attached clearly only recently, with some Japanese signs and a figure in Arabic numbers. Our guide explained that this signified that the owner of the building had reached some agreement over compensation for the house. So these negotiations are also still ongoing! Anyway, the general atmosphere of this street is better captured through images than prose, so take a look at the photo gallery below
After Okuma we headed towards the coast south of the NPP. Here we explored the ruins of a former fish nursery that was destroyed by the 3/11 tsunami. The huge wooden roof of the main hall was still partly intact, but a neighbouring building had been semi-flattened. An ancillary building next to it showed evidence of the force of the waters: the concrete walls facing away from the sea were dramatically bent outwards! On to one section of a broken concrete wall somebody had sprayed some graffiti … and it's a rather unexpected slogan: “TEPCO will last for 1000 years”! Without going into how well previous promises of 1000 year longevity have ended in history, I found it surprising to find so much confidence expressed so close to the disaster-stricken reactors. But I learned on this tour that opinions vary widely in the area. While some still want nuclear energy and fully trust TEPCO, others have lost any such trust they may once have had. Division and controversy remains.
At this point we were also given a demonstration of the difference between ambient radiation (i.e. in the air) and on the ground. Just holding the dosimeter up in front of our eyes the reading for background radiation wasn't so high, but once the sensor was placed on the ground in between the grass it shot up to ca. 13 μSv/h. It goes to show how important top-soil decontamination is. By the way, at lots of points along the way we saw huge piles of plastic bags containing such soil in large storage plots all over the area, and we also saw yet more soil being collected. So the operation is still ongoing. Apparently there are currently (April 2019) 16 million such bags!
Then we carried on to an abandoned hospital
. Sadly entering and taking photos was not allowed – empty, deserted, and crumbling hospitals always have a special atmosphere, I find, between intriguing and creepy (see e.g. Pripyat
!). However, from the edge of the hospital car park, which is located atop a hill, we got a good view over the Fukushima-Daiichi NPP
, including the four stricken reactors, the iconic chimney stacks, and: those ca. 800 water tanks for storage of all the tritium-contaminated water that has been accumulating at the plant. The many cranes in the distance also gave an impression of the activity at the plant. But this was as good a visual impression as we would be able to get on this tour.
Afterwards we visited one of the abandoned school buildings in the zone, but again we were not allowed to enter and could only peer in through the windows. It looked like the lessons in the class rooms had been interrupted for the evacuation only moments ago.
Heading further north we drove on the stretch of Route 6 closest to the NPP, and at one point we were able to see parts of the plant that were not affected by the disaster (blocks 5 & 6). Here LED signs above the road gave the ambient radiation figures. At the time we passed through that was just under 0.85 μSv/h. In the Netflix series such a reading caused hysterical panic (probably just put on), but it really isn't all that high. It's still less than what you have to expect aboard a jet airliner.
At the guest house, we took off our personal exposure readers. We were told beforehand that total exposure on the tour would not exceed 5 μSv. And indeed, the display showed 4 μSv. So, in case you were still wondering: it is perfectly safe to go on these tours. Forget the sensationalist panic that some media people seem to prefer over reality …
I had specifically asked for the second day of touring – now as a custom tour for just my wife and myself – to be more focused on the tsunami damage and subsequent recovery process rather than on the nuclear disaster. And since the latter was already well covered on the standard tour, this turned out to be a good idea.
We started out by visiting and talking to
(with our guide acting as our interpreter) a few people in the area, in particular returnees
to the ex-evacuation zones of Odaka
. After a short stop at a local collective market with several private stalls selling home-grown vegetables (all with a safety certificate) as well one for arts and crafts (unique souvenir-buying op!), we drove to the house of an elderly returnee, 93 years old and still sharp. We discussed nuclear physics, German
politics and even Brexit
. Unbelievable. At the other end of the world in an OAP's Japanese living room!
After that we visited a school in Namie that had been rebuilt after the 3/11 disaster. This gave a stark impression of the skewed demographics of the local population. Most of the returnees are older people, young families are still very much the exception. So this three-story school catered for only about a dozen pupils at both the Elementary and Junior High level with a luxurious staff-pupil ratio of 2:1 – unheard of elsewhere. On our tour of the school we did get glimpses of classrooms with just a single pupil or sometimes two. Many of the other large rooms were deserted. From the balcony it was possible to see the coast in the distance. And that's where we would head next.
Namie's coastal areas
were badly affected by the tsunami and almost completely destroyed. Its fishing harbour boats ended up stranded all over the area. Now it is undergoing massive reconstruction. The fishing harbour
was already largely finished when I was there in mid-April 2019, complete with a sizeable fleet of fishing boats. The new seawall, designed to lessen the effect of any future tsunami
, was still under construction. At the harbour there was a small temporary tower made from scaffolding on which several text-and-photo panels were mounted. These explained the scale of the disaster as well as the design of the seawall and provided an outline of the plans for the whole coastal area. No residential houses will be rebuilt here. Instead a forested park is intended to provide further protection.
Of the many ruined houses
in the devastated plain
immediately behind the coastline, only a few were still there when I visited. And I was able to explore only one of them briefly. Presumably none will remain in the near to mid-term future. We even saw a couple of those heaps of mangled post-tsunami debris still in situ. These will soon be gone too. Possibly to remain, however, is the old cemetery
. This was also badly damaged, but the displaced gravestones have been partly brought back, but most of the graves are still damaged and tombstones mostly toppled. Remarkably the parking area sign on the edge of the cemetery still stands. Also still standing were a group of trees, leafless and mostly stripped of their bark, and probably dead … but you never know. There have been other remarkable “survivor trees” coming back to life (see Hiroshima
, 9/11 Memorial
, Oklahoma City Memorial
Further south, a complex of concrete buildings still standing in the plain is the ruin of the former Ukedo Elementary School
, an usually designed edifice whose main building resembles a ship and with a clock tower and sports complex attached. This unusual school was, so we were told, built with TEPCO money, which would explain its exceptionally lavish design. After the earthquake hit, the school was evacuated before the tsunami came and all the children and teachers survived (quite unlike at the much less fortunate Okawa Elementary School
further north). But the building was devastated. You can see the waterline inside the windows on the upper floor, giving an impression of how high the flooding reached. The inside of the school is, again, out of bounds. It wouldn't have been too difficult to go trespassing, but we had promised to be respectful and abstain from any such acts. However, I have seen photos of the inside of the school's sports hall (and you can also see photos on Google Maps), so clearly the rule is not followed by everybody. The police seem to be aware of that. Just as we were standing with our guide by the main entrance, a police patrol car drove up, two officers got out and checked up on us. Our guide was able to put them at ease, but as they were talking in Japanese I noticed that the one officer amplified his no-trespassing warning by making a handcuffed-arms gesture! So they clearly mean it. Out of bounds! If you get caught trespassing, you'll get arrested.
After this we drove around through the expanse of what was basically a huge construction site, and our guide clearly found orientation made difficult by all the reconstruction constantly changing the landscape here. But she did eventually find what she wanted to show us: a stretch of road displaced by about two metres through the force of the earthquake!
We also stopped by a newly constructed memorial park in front of an active cemetery on a hillside overlooking the coastal plain. The names on the big black marble stone were inscribed in Japanese only, but our guide pointed out the grouping according to family name. Often there were four, five or even six identical ones next to each other, possibly whole families washed away … It brought back a very sombre feeling. Driving around all the reconstruction sites it's easy to forget what was here before. A school ruin or a monument like this serves to remind you of that.
As the final point on the tour we drove through one of the storage facilities for bags with removed contaminated topsoil, then we were dropped off at a railway station from where we made our own way onwards (namely to Sendai – see also under Ishinomaki
All in all
, it was a fantastic two days! The standard tour on the first day was already deeply impressive. The second day, with its encounters with some of the real people here as well as juxtapositions of devastation and ruin with all the frantic reconstruction work really made it a kind of pilgrimage. This was important to me. I had often missed big world events (the fall of the Berlin Wall
, or the 9/11 attacks, for instance), but the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami was something I followed live on my computer screen at home ... and it totally shook me. It still does thinking back and recalling all those dramatic and awful images. Finally coming here to some of the authentic places was therefore very special for me. It will stand as one of the most memorable guided tours I've ever been on.
in the northern half of Japan
's main island Honshu, between Iwaki and Sendai, and ca. 160 miles (250 km) north of Tokyo
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: near impossible independently, but made possible through pre-arranged guided tours; not cheap.
Details: As already pointed out above, this is not really a destination for independent explorations (unless your Japanese is good enough and you have your own vehicle). But you can go on guided tours these days.
The small company I used (contact
me and I'll happily provide more details), which is based in the area and also runs a guest house in Odaka, has good links with the authorities and this enables them to get permits for visits to places inside the Red Zone. And that's pretty unique, as this zone is normally totally off limits.
Prices for such small-group or even individual tours are not cheap. The 'standard' tour costs a flat rate of 5000 JPY per person. Custom tours can be more expensive, naturally, depending on the number of participants. For small groups/couples/individuals it can be between 8000 and 25,000 JPY per day.
In any case, it is a good idea to start planning well ahead. At shorter notice there may be no places/dates available. Especially if you want to request a custom tour get started at least a couple of months ahead of time.
Single-day standard tours can be done as day-return trips from/to Tokyo
(it'll be a long day!) or, easier and closer, from/to Sendai, north Honshu's main city. Accommodation in the area can be had at the guest house in Odaka associated with the tour operator (ca. 6000 JPY per person), at the neighbouring Ryokan or at a large sports-complex that has recently reopened (actually a national “soccer center” called “J-Village”) south of Tomioka.
As for food and drink
, lunches will be worked into the tours (price not included), but dinner options, when staying in Odaka, will be limited, though our tour guide pointed us in the direction of a local sushi restaurant and helped with the ordering. The prices for top-notch quality sushi here are fabulously lower than what you'd be asked to pay in Tokyo. Mind you, though, the upper end of the choices can include some elements that may be a bit challenging to those used to the kinds of sushi you get in the West … Oh, and to repeat: the food is not dangerous. All produce is inspected according to strict standards and anything failing the inspection is not allowed to enter the market. Apparently no seafood produce has failed since 2015. Of course, you have to trust the assurances and the efficiency of the authorities. But personally I'm prepared to do so in the case of the Japanese …
Time required: At a push possible in one day, but better spread over two.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Japan
in general, and under Ishinomaki
Fukushima-Daiichi, by the way, is not the only NPP here. As the train from the south got near Tomioka I caught a glimpse of the other Fukushima NPP, called Fukushima-2 Daini. Its four reactors were also flooded by the tsunami, but here a catastrophic further multiple meltdown could be prevented through a massive effort, including the laying, by hand, of several kilometres of cables in order to ensure sufficient power supply to keep these reactors cooled. It's sometimes referred to as the “Daini Miracle”. Had these reactors also failed and exploded it could all have been so much worse still. Today, this NPP is also undergoing decommissioning.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Fukushima prefecture has its share of more ordinary tourist attractions, although not on the same scale as the much better known tourism draws such as Kyoto. But let's face it, most international visitors and certainly almost all readers of this website will come here for the dark reasons. However, adding a short visit to the city of Sendai is certainly good idea. I found it a pleasant enough city with tree-lined boulevards, good shopping and a nice bar and restaurant scene (and price levels significantly below those you encounter in Tokyo
, Kyoto or Hiroshima
- Fukushima 01 - first stop
- Fukushima 02 - TEPCO Decommissioning Archive Center
- Fukushima 10 - all cables lead to Fukushima-Daiichi NPP
- Fukushima 11 - that abandoned Pachinko hall
- Fukushima 12 - blocked access to houses along Route 6
- Fukushima 13 - guards
- Fukushima 14 - abandoned house in the Red Zone
- Fukushima 15 - you have to wonder what happened to the cat
- Fukushima 16 - ex-office
- Fukushima 17 - ghost town street in Okuma
- Fukushima 18 - abandoned clothes shop
- Fukushima 18 - ghost town
- Fukushima 19 - impaired beauty
- Fukushima 20 - agreement reached
- Fukushima 21 - not watered in over nine years
- Fukushima 22 - undelivered newspapers from nine years ago
- Fukushima 23 - still bright and bushy behind shattered glass
- Fukushima 24 - abandoned office
- Fukushima 25 - debris
- Fukushima 26 - vending machines
- Fukushima 27 - abandoned sports car
- Fukushima 28 - kitchen
- Fukushima 29 - comfy chair and handwash basin
- Fukushima 30 - former fish farm
- Fukushima 31 - trashed by the tsunami
- Fukushima 32 - inconvenienced convenience
- Fukushima 33 - bent-out concrete walls demonstrate the power of the tsunami
- Fukushima 34 - unexpected TEPCO propaganda
- Fukushima 35 - tsunami damage
- Fukushima 36 - pipes
- Fukushima 37 - empty fish-breeding pools
- Fukushima 38 - broken
- Fukushima 39 - Fukushima Daiichi NPP
- Fukushima 40 - panorama
- Fukushima 41 - striken reactors
- Fukushima 44 - storage facility under construction
- Fukushima 45 - abandoned school
- Fukushima 46 - undamaged reactor block
- Fukushima 47 - heaps of plastic bags with contaminated topsoil
- Fukushima 48 - radiation reading above the road
- Fukushima 49 - hotel no longer taking any guests
- Fukushima 50 - abandoned taxis in Odaka
- Fukushima 51 - new houses for evacuees
- Fukushima 52 - tsunami-damaged house near Namie
- Fukushima 53 - still life in a tsunami ruin
- Fukushima 54 - tsunami ruin and new sea wall
- Fukushima 55 - restored fishing harbour and ocean waves
- Fukushima 56 - heap of unsifted tsunami debris
- Fukushima 57 - damaged cemetery
- Fukushima 58 - tsunami-affected cemetery, trees, school
- Fukushima 59 - Choritsu Ukedo Elementary School ruin
- Fukushima 60 - time of the disaster
- Fukushima 61 - ship-bow-shaped school building
- Fukushima 62 - school ruin
- Fukushima 63 - you can still see the waterline on the upper floor
- Fukushima 64 - debris trapped inside
- Fukushima 65 - road surface displaced by the earthquake
- Fukushima 66 - memorial stone with family names
- Fukushima 67 - topsoil-bag storage facility
- Fukushima 68 - numbered bags with contaminated topsoil