01 Nov The Real Fukushima Review – Solo Female Travel
Travelling solo to Fukushima prefecture to do a tour with The Real Fukushima was the most exciting part of my Japan trip, where I visited five cities in ten days.
Fukushima’s dismal history of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster intrigued me, particularly by the 2012 film, Chernobyl as I always wanted to explore a nuclear disaster zone ever since.
Upon a quick Google search for Fukushima, I came across The Real Fukushima and was sold. It was free and promoted by Fukushima’s government to increase visitors to the area so I felt safe heading there as a solo female traveller. I was going to do a tour of the Daiichi Powerplant nuclear disaster. I had no idea what I was going to be in for.
The Real Fukushima is a JPY 8000 (free at the time for me during May 2018) guided tour that begins at Odaka Station. I met Karin there, host of the Lantern House which I found advertised on Airbnb. She picked me up from the station and we walked a short two minutes to the beautiful and large Lantern House. Inside, in the kitchen, Karin prepared green tea in a kettle while we discussed our lives , religion—Islam and her views on the hijab as I wear one – and what brought both of us to Fukushima. Karin used to live in Tokyo, studied abroad in Scotland or the UK (I forget which), and then made her way to Fukushima as she wanted to take it upon herself to help her country and those afflicted by the 2011 tragedy.
I arrived to Odaka early afternoon so we decided on a brief tour of her neighborhood before night.
Odaka was quiet. Barren streets, empty houses and the rare, quiet zoom of a car engines as they slowly drove by. Karin recommended a sushi restaurant for dinner, but I wasn’t in the mood for sushi. We popped into a seafood store, where an employee proudly showed off a plate of sashimi. There was a Japanese man sitting in a back room, dressed in a white cloak, slitting fish.
We walked past a bridge overlooking a wide stream, to a shrine—the first time I witnessed a shrine to myself as the shrines in Japan are perpetually crowded.
We walked past more empty streets. I stopped by a 7/11 to grab dinner, prepackaged pasta, and made our way back The Lantern House.
Karin told me she had to go back out to do groceries to prep for tomorrow’s breakfast, which is included in the tour. I sat alone at the dinner table and wondered what was to come tomorrow during the tour.
The Lantern House boasts a beautiful stay. My room on the second floor had two double beds and was spacious. Karin, being mindful that I am a Muslim woman, told me there were two men staying over that night as they had come to film a documentary. They slept in the two separate rooms on the first floor.
The tour day
Karin made a delicious breakfast of toast, eggs, salad and juice. Eager to get the tour started, we made our way to her car to drive to the evacuation zone.
Once in her car, Karin showed me the Geiger Counter, a radiation measuring device, and explained what each section on the radiation exposure dial meant. As we got deeper into the evacuation zone, the needle turned towards the red section and although that was the most intense amount of radiation I would experience, she assured that it was safe as I would be there for a short time.
It was a bright, sunny day. We drove along a lone, winded road to an abandoned school. Construction was taking place nearby; the whirring of cement trucks and construction vehicles filled the air.
I was appalled. The shoes in the school were still in the same place as they had been left by students during the earthquake. I pondered how life can flip instantly. We speak with a construction worker who complains the Japanese government is making false promises about Fukushima’s recovery. Apparently, the radiation cannot be completely removed and Fuskushima will not be ready by the targeted time of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Karin takes me to a fisherman’s port where I see two fishermen talking by their boat. Karin speaks with one and translates to me that the Japanese government goes through each fish caught to test for radiation before it’s distributed.
I request Karin to ask the fishermen for photo. He thinks it’s for the newspaper and poses.
We drive along broken, shattered buildings, overturned and crumbled tombstones, a school with a clock which eerily stopped at the time the earthquake hit. Karin explained that the children was forced to run out to higher ground as she points towards a new graveyard. We always stop for photos along the way.
We approach our first checkpoint. Security check our ID and my passport, and they open the silver, wire gate. It’s a new world beyond the gate. Where clear signs of life had once been now lies barren and lifeless. Overgrown trees and shrubs cover cars and houses. The blossomed purple flowers beautifully mask the emptiness.
Everything is fragmented. Roads, houses, windows, a bar. We come across a psychiatric hospital. Karin tells me the patients were refused evacuation and by the time the police arrived to take them away, many of them had died.
As Karin pulls out of a driveway, there’s a loud crack and the car tilts. The front right wheel is submerged in a massive pothole. Karin waves frantically at an oncoming car for help. They make a right turn and drive off. We walk around to find help and find two Japanese men in business suits by a gas station. Karin speaks to them in Japanese and we walk them to the car. They struggle to lift the car up. They take off their grey and blue business jackets and try again. They’re successful. We graciously thank them, Karin bows and exclaims Arigatōgozaimashita!
More checkpoints, each time getting our ID checked and going deeper into the red zone. The arrow on the Geiger Counter slowly inches higher
We pass a plethora of men in white hazmat suits digging up radiated soil to put inside a newly built facility. I wonder about their fate after being constantly exposed to high radiation levels. They stare as we drive by. We finally arrive at a fence overlooking the Daiichi Powerplant.
The experience is surreal. Between the contrast of life and death, Fukushima lies somewhere in between. Signs of human life is rare and the natural environment is taking its course. Everyday people whose lives did a 180 in an instant.
Before she drives us back to the Lantern House, Karin takes me to a car left in the crack road with over grown plants. This, she tells me, is where a woman abandoned her car and fled for fear out of the earthquake.
Back at the Lantern House, I gather my carry on and my backpack and head downstairs. I thank Karin for The Real Fukushima experience. She snaps a polaroid of me to add it to her collection of polaroids of visitors, by the stairs.
Karin drives me to Odaka Station, where I embark on the long four hour commute back to Shinjuku, Tokyo. She envelops me in a huge hug, an act foreign to Japanese, but I assume she picked it up during her time abroad. This experience will be etched in my mind forever.
If you’re thinking of visiting Japan, I highly recommend travelling to the north and doing The Real Fukushima tour. And if you’re on the fence about The Real Fukushima Tour, it’s safe (I did it as a solo female), surreal and one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have. Go for it.