Lonely Planet Writer

Japan's newest tourist trail? Local guides offering sightseeing trips to Fukushima

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the magnitude-9 earthquake off the east coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.

Japanese Emperor Akihito in front of an altar for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake
Japanese Emperor Akihito marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake  Image by PA

The earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated large swathes of coastal Japan and caused multiple reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Although the plant’s surrounding environs are sealed off as work to decommission the plant (expected to take decades) continues, visitors are trickling in to bear witness to the devastation.

A 12 mile (20km) area surrounding the plant remains uninhabited. Although a road running through the area remains open, the road is lined with bags containing contaminated topsoil and roadside Geiger counters measuring radioactivity. One village, Futaba, was recently declared safe for returning residents, but few have ventured back.

The beautiful landscape in Fukushima, Japan
The beautiful landscape in Fukushima, Japan Image by contri / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Japan Times has reported on a group of ten locals who volunteer as guides for Japanese tourists who have come to see for themselves the catastrophic consequences of those events five years ago. Using dosimeters to avoid the most radioactive areas, the guides lead sightseeing trips to Fukushima, bringing groups through fields where agriculture is now forbidden. The tours, in the village of Namie, a mere five miles (8km) from Fukushima, also include walking through buildings considered too contaminated to demolish. The town’s residents have yet to be allowed to move back into their homes.

The tours are a recent example of dark tourism, the term used to describe a form of tourism motivated less by the pleasure principle than by a need for remembrance and atonement. In Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been dark tourism destinations for decades, standing as testimonials to the impact of nuclear warfare. Internationally, the best-known examples are perhaps the site of the former World Trade Center in New York, or tours of Nazi-era camps such as Auschwitz in Poland. But perhaps the first site of dark tourism – also known as black tourism, disaster tourism and grief tourism – was Pompeii, the Roman-era town near modern-day Naples buried by a volcanic eruption in 79AD. It’s been a popular tourist destination for more than two and a half centuries.