The tour within the exclusion zone of Fukushima prefecture was a completely unique experience, put together and guided by the exceptional team of Karin and Shuzo. Staying within the exclusion zone is not allowed, but Karin operates the beautiful Lantern House located in Odaka, which was within the exclusion zone until April 2017. Odaka is located approximately 4 hours by train(s) north of Tokyo, and the Lantern House is less than a block away from the station, making traveling to Odaka very simple (especially if you are using a JR Pass).
The heavy loss that the communities located in and near the exclusion zone is palpable upon arrival into the area and tremendously humbling throughout the tour. Leaving Odaka station, you’ll notice a nearby digital display, accompanying solar panel and measuring equipment, showing the real-time dose rate information for the station. While it may seem like a somewhat unnerving sight for some, I found it quite comforting being able to know right away exactly what sort of dose rate my body was experiencing by being there. I was thankful to find out that the dose rates were in the range of 0.1 – 0.2 µSv/hr, which is comparable to natural background radiation all over the world (and is lower than many places in other countries). I slept well knowing the radiation exposure I’d receive during my time in Odaka would be the same as if I were going about my usual life at home (and because the beds at the Lantern House were extremely comfy).
The tour itself was approximately 4 hours, where Shuzo and Karin escorted me by car around the region and provided the necessary paperwork to pass through the security checkpoints. On our way to the current exclusion zone, we stopped by several farms and historical areas to discuss how these areas had coped with the tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident. When faced with difficult situations, it is almost unfathomable what humans are capable of enduring, and the people of Fukushima prefecture are as resilient as they come. Hearing their stories and learning about their transitions to new ways of life was worth the trip on its own, and that was before we had even reached a security gate!
Once inside the exclusion zone, Shuzo and Karin took me through several evacuated towns and farms where we stopped to experience the remnants of the communities who had to stop what they were doing and leave immediately. The devastation from the tsunami is unquestionable and, despite the many plants and trees that have moved in during the 7 years since the evacuation, these towns are a preserved glimpse into life in Fukushima in March, 2011. Schools, hospitals, community centers, repair shops all comparable to how they were after the tsunami retreated back to the Pacific. There are many additional digital displays located throughout the region showing the local dose-rate information. Throughout the tour, the highest reading I observed was around 15 µSv/hr. Certainly much higher than in Odaka, but to put that in perspective, the beaches of Guarapari in Brazil naturally emit around 20 µSv/hr and is a popular tourist destination, so there’s no cause for concern due to radiation exposure during the tour.
The highlight for me was reaching a high point in the terrain where there was a clear view of Fukushima Daiichi and the on-going work at the station. It was a surreal experience being able to look upon the reactor buildings that had suffered serious accidents as the result of an unprecedented tsunami leading to the eventual evacuation of the Fukushima area. Observing the station from that vantage point, I couldn’t help marvel at what humans were capable of achieving – both technologically speaking and in times of crisis. It’s hard not to feel moved standing amongst what was a thriving community of hard working people, now only a thriving community of hard working fauna.
After returning to Odaka, I was able to visit a local sushi restaurant where Karin offered her local opinion on what to try. The quality was superb and it was great to see the locals enjoying themselves as well. There’s no doubt that they’ve been through a very hard 7 years, but by the laughter in the air and the smiles on their faces, it’s clear that there was more than just overgrown trees flourishing here – a vibrant, determined and compassionate community works to rebuild itself.