Family and friends of the Ryan family from Florida thought they were crazy. “You’ll come back glowing bright green,” they said. “You’ll die.”
“You must be insane,” they were told.
But the Ryans were resolute in their determination to stick to their original schedule as planned – Fukushima in Japan.
And now, looking out over the city on a chilly, windy day from a small volcano often referred to as the “mini Mount Fuji”, it’s not so hard to understand the Ryans point of view.
Despite the name now being synonymous with the nuclear disaster at the crippled power plant Fukushima Dai-Chi, things don’t look so bad from where we are now.
The association with a Chernobyl-like disaster has unfortunately had painful consequences for Fukushim travel, in what is normally a hugely popular region for tourists visiting the Land of the Rising Sun. Not only is there the direct economic fallout to contend with, but also the damage being felt from businesses and farmers in the area which stems from the Fukushima brand’s battered reputation.
The nuclear power plant is now surrounded by a 20km exclusion zone, while several other towns beyond the zone have been evacuated too.
And the tourism industry is reeling. According to officials, Fukushima tourist numbers have fallen by over 50% in recent weeks.
“Things are so difficult now,” complained Sanae Watanabe at the Mount Azuma-Kofuji visitor’s center. “Everyone knows Fukushima for negative reasons now, but we are trying to show people that not everywhere has been affected.”
And this is what the Ryan family from Florida found out when they arrived. Amongst a select band of holidaymakers defying the current trend, they boldly set out to spend their Yen in the one place that really needs it.
Any worries about radiation poisoning soon give over to an intense feeling of awe about the area’s natural beauty, with its dramatic landscapes of mountains, hot springs and fruit orchards.
“It’s so beautiful, we are amazed,” said Kerry Ryan, who along with her family was visiting her son Jonathan, who lives in the area and had just got married the previous weekend.
Initially the family was worried they would miss out on the wedding. But as the bad publicity faded from the headlines and things seemed to be calming down, the family made the decision to travel.
Masako and Seiichi Miakate, who come from Tokyo, are another couple that decided to risk the journey to Fukushima. They had booked their holiday back in February, before the earthquake struck, a traditional vacation that couple undertake each year during the Golden Week holiday celebrations which took place last weekend.
“At first we weren’t sure if we should come back. But then we thought, we simply love Fukushima,” explained 75-year old Masako.
Based on the most recently available data, Fukushima saw more than 55 million tourist arrivals in 2009, bringing in around 240 billion Yen (almost $3 billion) in revenues. The impact of the disaster on the region’s tourist industry is yet to be assessed.
Yumiko Sato, who sells traditional wooden Japanese dolls in the prefecture, understands why people are staying away. “People just hear Fukushima and think about the nuclear disaster – they have no sense of the distance involved,” she explained.
Sato, who comes from western Japan, actually left the area herself when the disaster first unfolded, returning last Friday to reopen her store for the first time in almost two months. She says that business is down to about 30% of what it should be at this time of year.
“We expected to be completely ruined,” she confessed. “But actually, things aren’t quite that terrible. At least we are seeing a few customers.”