Journeys to the edge: Tourism in Fukushima makes more sense now

Journeys to the edge: Tourism in Fukushima makes more sense now

One windy city surviving on the cusp of Japan's nuclear frontier is ready and waiting for visitors
Iwaki City
Far from any scenes of devastation, Setogaro Gorge will reward hikers with unrivaled scenes of natural beauty and plenty of picturesque waterfalls.

Iwaki City is a cluster of exurban hamlets about 200 kilometers north and east of Tokyo, on the coastal Hamadori region of Fukushima Prefecture.

A few years ago I rang for a taxi from my apartment in Iwaki to the train station in the middle of town. I forget where I was going, but I do recall with great clarity the conversation I had with the cab driver.

It was a windy day. From my veranda I could see the metal marquees of the neighborhood shops flailing in the wind. Power lines and traffic signals, too, swung wildly in the breeze. From above, I saw the taxi park in front of the red brick walk-up, a placed called Maison Kuramae, that I called home.

The taxi's automatic passenger door seemed to struggle to open against the wind. As the cab rolled toward the station, I made a comment to the driver about how windy of a day it was.

“What are you talking about?” he replied to me, “this wind is normal for Iwaki.”

Years later, some six months since the entire northeastern region of Japan was ravaged by the massive earthquake and monster tsunami on March 11, 2011, I found myself back in windy Iwaki.

City on the cusp

Iwaki StationIwaki: Clean, modern and as safe as any other gleaming Japanese station.

Iwaki is a last frontier of sorts. Hundreds of years ago, in the city's lush forests to the south, the Nakoso Barrier once demarcated the so-called “civilized” Japan to the south and the land of barbarians to the north.

Today, Iwaki is is one of the largest cities in Japan by area, and its population of more than 350,000 makes it the second-most-populated city in northeastern Japan.

Now it's the last stop.

The northern limits are on the cusp of the government-mandated 30-kilometer evacuation zone around the beleaguered Fukushima nuclear reactors. Virtually everything due north of Iwaki, all the way up to the city of Sendai, has been evacuated, abandoned or destroyed.

Life in this region of Japan will never be the same. The rice paddies, usually impeccably maintained, grow wild; a clear indication of abandonment and a sad reminder of a terrible day.

Iwaki CityIn the Toyoma neighborhood of Iwaki, virtually everything was destroyed by the killer tsunami. The lone torii in the background is a haunting reminder.

I was only back in Iwaki for a week, just to see how the place was getting on after the quake. So much had changed.

Portions of the city were eradicated by the killer tsunami, entire neighborhoods reduced to nothing more than the foundations upon which they were laid. The hardest-hit area of Iwaki, the neighborhood of Toyoma, which rested inside a beautiful coastal enclave, was completely washed away.

Peter Gillam, an English teacher and long-time Iwaki resident, volunteered with cleanup in Toyoma in the aftermath of March 11. He took me to Toyoma to see what it was like with my own eyes.

We walked along a wasted road, amid ghostly foundations and piles of debris. I had never seen such devastation. Yet Gillam said he couldn't believe how much the scene had improved since he'd last been there.

Wind to the rescue

Some parts of Iwaki are forever changed. And yet others remain exactly the same. The only thing different in my old neighborhood was the number of people now living there.

The urban city center received a huge influx of evacuees from the north. Every apartment in town seemed to be rented, including my old Maison Kuramae.

One thing that never changed was the winds. Iwaki continues to be the windiest city I have ever known.

And in a strange twist of fate, the same fierce winds that bring deep chills on winter nights and blow drying laundry off the line and onto the neighbor's terrace, the same winds which are so consistent that a local cabbie doesn't even find them remarkable, have probably saved Iwaki City from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

Iwaki studentsLife in much of Fukushima goes on as normal now, more than half a year since the quake.

In the headquarters of the Iwaki City Board of Education, I met with Noriko Kodama, the supervisor for the city's staff of foreign English teachers. She was my old supervisor and I was happily obliged to pay her a visit.

She looked thinner than I remembered and she said to me something very true about living life in the shadow of nuclear fear.

“The facts are facts,” she said. “All we can do is look at the facts and make a decision that seems right for us.”

Japan's plea

The levels of radiation in Iwaki are some of the lowest in Fukushima Prefecture. In the days following the quake, as the nuclear situation worsened, people hid indoors. But the winds never stopped. Not to this day.

They blow in off the great Pacific and sweep unfettered over the costal city. The winds seem to carry nuclear air away from Iwaki, sparing a city where the residents annually receive a compensation check for living so close to the nuclear reactor from being evacuated.

This puts Iwaki in an interesting position. In the seven months since the disaster the number of travelers to Japan has fallen drastically.

There is a growing movement, heavily financed by the Japanese government, to get tourists to come back; a recently announced promotion to give away 10,000 free airline tickets to Japan has made headlines and stirred international interest in traveling to the country.

(Full disclosure: I was recently sent on an all-expenses-paid trip back to Japan, courtesy of the Japanese government, to see for myself that it still is a safe place to be.)

The practice fields of Toyoma Middle School have turned into a debris dump. The sports fields of Toyoma Middle School have been turned into a debris dump. Fortunately, no students lost their lives, but the school is damaged beyond repair.

The entire Fukushima region of Japan runs the risk of forever bearing a nuclear stigma. But it is important to understand that although a nuclear disaster has stricken Fukushima and the immediate area around the blown-out reactors is off limits, the land is by no means some apocalyptic scene of nuclear winter.

The people living there are not glowing a radioactive hue. Fukushima remains one of the most beautiful and scenic prefectures in Japan, filled with good, honest, real people who continue to thrive on in the aftermath of an unprecedented disaster.

Fear and traveling in Fukushima

As Japan insists it is safe for travelers (outside the nuclear evacuation zone, of course) and is enticing people to come and see what it's like for themselves, Iwaki is poised to become the next hot destination for people wanting to witness post-March 11 Japan at the doorstep of ground zero.

For the more intrepid travelers, a visit to a city on the outskirts of the tsunami-ravaged nuclear no-man's land, might be one of the most evocative and educational things to do while touring Japan.

In one afternoon I managed, with the help of English teachers Gillam and Richard Baker, to drive all around the city, seeing areas devastated by tsunami, crumbled by earthquake and others still that seemed to survive the great ordeal intact.

In Toyoma, where everything was washed away, I stood before the foundation of a family home, reduced to nothing by the monster wave. In a lot just behind the wrecked home was the remains of a Shinto shrine, its red torii gate the only thing to survive.

Hisashi Ueno, a director at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me that tourism in Fukushima Prefecture has dropped 60 percent since March 11.

For people who believe in putting money in the hands of those who need it most, traveling to Iwaki would aid Fukushima's wounded tourism industry and ensure the livelihood of all those who make a living off the tourist yen.

And for those who simply want to see the real Japan, the Japan away from the neon and glitz of Tokyo and the renowned but tired temples of Kyoto, a trip to Iwaki (or for that matter any of Fukushima's beautiful cities) will give travelers a new sense of the people and the beauty that make Japan such an inspiring place.

Getting there: To get to Iwaki from Tokyo, depart from Ueno Station on the Joban Line. The Super Hitachi express travels directly to Iwaki Station in 140 minutes. Local trains will terminate no further north than Mito City, with local connections to Iwaki departing hourly.

Alternatively, a highway bus from Tokyo Station's south side takes approximately three hours to Iwaki Station.