FUKUSHIMA, Japan—The majority of the world knows the word “Fukushima” because of the 2011 disaster that crippled its nuclear plant. While the effects of the radiation itself are hard to track, so has been the economic impact on Japan’s third largest prefecture.
Living here as a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow has given me the chance to see firsthand not only the effects of the disaster, but also to explore a beautiful place now often overlooked as a destination. (See “Five Years After the Fukushima Disaster, Residents Adapt to New Normal.”)
Can people still safely go to Fukushima? This is a tough question that radiation experts and the tourism industry are trying to explain. They do have data: A robust food-monitoring system has successfully shown a drop in radioactivity in food, and citizen-science networks, such as Safecast, have released radiation reports that aim to show people where exactly the contamination has gone. Amid these efforts, tourists are slowly trickling back to Fukushima, according to local government records.
Before 2011, Fukushima was a tourism draw, known for its sake rice wine and hot springs baths, called onsen in Japanese. People flocked to the world class ski resorts in the winter and to some of Japan’s most beautiful sakura cherry blossoms in the spring–including the 1,200-year-old Takizakura, one of Japan’s oldest cherry trees.
High up in the mountains, visitors hopped on the famed Aizu Tetsudo Railway, featured on National Geographic’s Photo of the Day, stopping at villages like Yunokami Onsen, with its stunning hillside views and natural hot spring waters.
Hotelli Aalto, a luxury hot springs resort high in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture, is 70 miles (112 kilometers) from the power plant. Since the disaster, the hotel has been controlling the source of the food it serves, and disclosing radiation readings on their website to reassure guests that the area is safe.
Hotelli Aalto offers bathing in natural hot springs, which are called onsen in Japanese. The hotel also uses the geothermal spring as a natural water heater for the hotel, cutting energy costs.
“The biggest issue we face in Aizu is the perception gap the public has with the disaster,” says Ludovic Laine, a hotel consultant with the firm Atelier LaPaz, hired by Hotelli Aalto to develop ways to assuage the public’s fears of radiation. “The Aizu region, while technically part of Fukushima Prefecture, is extremely far away from the reactor,” Laine says. “The radiation levels here are lower than most major cities around the world, yet people are skeptical of coming here.”
According to the city of Aizu’s website, the highest level of radiation was recorded on March 16, 2011, shortly after the earthquake and tsunami, and has been continuously falling ever since. Levels in the entire region are now as low as normal background radiation around the world.
The Safecast team recently made one of their routine trips to install radiation monitors around the prefecture, and I spoke with their senior researcher Azby Brown, who said that, “The biggest risk in talking about what’s ‘safe’ here is that you’re likely to be attacked no matter what you say. Either people will say you are driving fear, or downplaying the disaster. The truth is coming to Fukushima, or even to Japan for that matter is a wholly personal decision. There is contaminated land due to the triple meltdown. However, one simple way would be to say that the risk of radiation exposure from several months in any part of Fukushima in which people are currently allowed to live would be lower than what you’d get on the flight over, or from a similar amount of time spent in Hong Kong, Rome, central France, or other areas with above-average background radiation. But there are “hot spots” in Fukushima which are higher, so it is best not to wander into the wilderness, or other relatively inaccessible and so unmonitored areas for long periods of time.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.