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Tours in Tohoku let travelers learn about scars left by 2011 disaster

Houses ravaged by the 2011 tsunami remain untouched in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, where an evacuation order is still in effect. (Mainichi)

With five and a half years having passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which devastated the Tohoku region, travel agencies and local organizations are continuing to host tours to the disaster stricken areas in a bid to allow tourists to see the reality facing communities in northeast Japan.

    Travel agency giant H.I.S. Co. has been offering study tours in Fukushima Prefecture since 2013 for travelers to learn about damage caused by the nuclear disaster as they help out local farmers. In a two-day tour planned for Oct. 1 and 2, participants will experience rice harvesting in Fukushima and join a tour to the village of Iitate, which still remains under an evacuation order, with Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels around them.

    The nonprofit organization "Nomado" based in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Soma has been taking tourists to areas within 20 kilometers of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Tour participants can see buildings damaged in the earthquake and tsunami left untouched in the town of Namie, where an evacuation order is still in effect. Time seems to have stopped in the town's local shopping street as all residents have evacuated the area.

    The Miyako Tourism Cultural Exchange Association in the Iwate Prefecture city of Miyako offers disaster prevention learning programs where participants are taken to a hotel ravaged in the 2011 tsunami that has been preserved as a disaster memorial. The tour guides, while standing on the coastal levee and pointing to the ocean and a hill where local residents evacuated as waves swallowed up the land, tell disaster stories. The city's Taro district where the hotel stands had one of the tallest levees in Japan, but tsunami crashed over the structure.

    "It's important to run as soon as you learn that a tsunami is coming and not to place too much trust in the coastal levees," said a local resident who guides tourists.

    Still, not many foreign travelers join these disaster learning tours. The Miyagi Prefecture capital of Sendai hosted a press tour on the sidelines of the Group of Seven finance ministers and central bank governors meeting held in the city in May this year to promote tourism in the Tohoku region by showing the disaster recovery process. Of some 100 members of the media covering the international meeting, however, only one person joined the tour.

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