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Bus tour returning to Japan's disaster zone, ten years on

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By: Mari Yamaguchi

Fumio Ito returned to the wreckage with a mission: to show 'unexpected disasters' can happen anywhere, writes Haruka Nuga

For nearly a decade, a Japanese hotel has been giving bus tours to show visitors the history of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan's northern Pacific coast in 2011.

The 9.1 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it generated on March 11, 2011, killed about 18,000 people and devastated the coastline. Buildings in Minamisanriku were flattened, and more than 800 people in the city were killed or went missing.

The memorial park near former local Disaster Prevention Center where 43 workers died in 2011 tsunami in Minamisanriku. Photo / Eugene Hoshiko, AP
The memorial park near former local Disaster Prevention Center where 43 workers died in 2011 tsunami in Minamisanriku. Photo / Eugene Hoshiko, AP

"I want everyone to know that unexpected disasters can happen. I think it is our job as people who experienced the (tsunami) to share that," said Fumio Ito, head of public relations at Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo and one of nine staff members who lead the daily hour-long bus tours.

Fumio Ito, head of public relations at Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo, tells his experience of 2011 tsunami disaster in the area to
Fumio Ito, head of public relations at Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo, tells his experience of 2011 tsunami disaster in the area to

The bus stops at a former school that was damaged by the tsunami, a disaster prevention center where 43 workers died and a former wedding ceremony hall.

Since the tours began, they have had about 400,000 participants, some repeat visitors, according to the hotel.

Visitors in hard hats on top of the former wedding ceremony hall "Takano Kaikan" ruined by the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Eugene Hoshiko
Visitors in hard hats on top of the former wedding ceremony hall "Takano Kaikan" ruined by the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Eugene Hoshiko
Broken grass inside of former wedding ceremony hall "Takano Kaikan". Photo / Eugene Hoshiko
Broken grass inside of former wedding ceremony hall "Takano Kaikan". Photo / Eugene Hoshiko

"He taught me a different perspective," said Chieko Yoshida, who took a tour given by Ito. "To hear the voice of someone who experienced this in reality is very important."

Ito was at a customer's home when the quake hit. He immediately began making his way to the hotel but soon found it impossible as the water began to rise.

Bus tourists survey damage in Minamisanriku, ten years after the 2011 quake and tsunami killed 18000. Photo / Matt Dunham
Bus tourists survey damage in Minamisanriku, ten years after the 2011 quake and tsunami killed 18000. Photo / Matt Dunham

"I could see that my house had probably washed away. There was nothing in front of me," said Ito, who lost three friends in the tsunami. "I had nowhere to be safe, so I went up into the mountains."

Exclusion: Weeds cut off an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Tomioka town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae
Exclusion: Weeds cut off an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Tomioka town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae

No-go zone

Irradiated picnics in Fukushima's nuclear exclusion zone

Further along the coast, where tsunami tides met Fukushima nuclear power plant the fallout is still being felt a decade on, writes Mari Yamaguchi

Part of the town of Tomioka, about 10 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, is still a no-go zone 10 years after a meltdown sent radioactive fallout over the area.

Left behind: a statue stands surrounded by weeds outside Tomioka town, Fukushima Photo / Hiro Komae
Left behind: a statue stands surrounded by weeds outside Tomioka town, Fukushima Photo / Hiro Komae
A stray dog looks back at the ruins of a tsunami-destroyed neighborhood in Odaka. Photo / David Guttenfelder
A stray dog looks back at the ruins of a tsunami-destroyed neighborhood in Odaka. Photo / David Guttenfelder

The no-go zone is about 12% of the town, but was home to about one-third of Tomioka's population of 16,000. It remains closed after the rest of the town in northeastern Japan was reopened in 2017.

'Exclusion zone' barriers indicated with signs for the no-go zone in Tomioka town, Fuskushima. Photo / Hiro Komae
'Exclusion zone' barriers indicated with signs for the no-go zone in Tomioka town, Fuskushima. Photo / Hiro Komae

Only those with official permission from the town office can enter the area for a daytime visit.

Part of the area, called Yonomori, used to be a commercial center dotted with shops, houses, a 7-Eleven convenience store and a popular regional supermarket chain called York Benimaru.

Ghostly: an abandoned business office in the exclusion zone in Tomioka town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae
Ghostly: an abandoned business office in the exclusion zone in Tomioka town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae
Moment in time: cluttered desks are left abandoned in the city hall offices of the town of Namie. Photo / David Guttenfelder
Moment in time: cluttered desks are left abandoned in the city hall offices of the town of Namie. Photo / David Guttenfelder

The area also includes Yonomori Park, surrounded by streets lined with cherry trees, where townspeople used to gather for "hanami" parties, picnicking under the blossoms and walking through a tunnel of flowering trees.

Roads are still blocked by ships that washed ashore in the town of Namie, north of Fukushima. Photo / David Guttenfelder
Roads are still blocked by ships that washed ashore in the town of Namie, north of Fukushima. Photo / David Guttenfelder
A community patrol vehicle moves amid deserted houses in Futaba town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae
A community patrol vehicle moves amid deserted houses in Futaba town, Fukushima. Photo / Hiro Komae

This part of the no-go zone is designated a special recovery site and officials want to reopen it in 2023. The other half of the zone is a nuclear waste dump, an area filled with black bags containing radioactive soil, chopped down tree branches and other contaminated debris collected from across the town. The bags will eventually be sent to a midterm waste storage facility in Futaba and Okuma, the two towns that host the nuclear plant.

A set of swings in an overgrown playground of a Fukushima elementary school. Photo / Hiro Komae
A set of swings in an overgrown playground of a Fukushima elementary school. Photo / Hiro Komae
Temporary solution: Bags containing radioactive soil, and other debris collected from the zone. Photo / Hiro Komae
Temporary solution: Bags containing radioactive soil, and other debris collected from the zone. Photo / Hiro Komae

- Associated Press