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'Farm inns' near Fukushima nuke plant see surge in guests

Daito Bunka University students enjoy homemade local vegetable dishes while talking to farm inn operator Masatoshi Muto, right, in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. (Mainichi)

NIHONMATSU, Fukushima -- The number of "farm inns" run by local residents here in the Towa district, dozens of kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, has steadily been increasing to accommodate a rising number of visitors and guests.

    The farm inns are being run to dispel groundless rumors about local farm products being tainted with radioactive substances from the nuclear power station. Four farm inns opened in 2012, one year after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, and there are currently 24 farm inns in the Towa district about 40 kilometers northwest of the nuclear complex. Two more farm inns are expected to open in the future.

    Guests of the inns can enjoy working on farms and cuisine using local ingredients so that they can feel assured of the safety of locally-produced products. The farm inns are gaining popularity and attracting more than 1,000 guests a year, as people visit and stay there to enjoy both lodging and local cuisine, thinking that such activities will help disaster-stricken communities recover.

    The Towa district is a rural area in the mountains. The area's population has halved to about 6,500 over the last 50 years as it suffered from depopulation and the nuclear accident promoted local residents to stop farming.

    The situation was such that local residents focused on farm inns. That's because demand for lodging facilities increased in the Towa district facing evacuation zones around the nuclear power plant as work to assess radiation levels and other radiation-related projects began in the evacuation districts. A non-profit organization comprised of local residents played a coordinating role and recruited farmers to run inns there. Most of the people who initially used the farm inns were researchers and administrative officers. But currently, many college students and company employees use them for training. A total of 1,106 people stayed at the inns in 2015.

    On the evening of Sept. 8, about two dozen students of Tokyo-based Daito Bunka University stayed at six farm inns there for a seminar camp. The inns served their specialty dishes in an effort to show the students that local farm products have been shipped after clearing radiation checks.

    The "Tanbo" farm inn run by Masatoshi Muto, a 65-year-old vegetable farmer, served home-made meals using special vegetables such as cucumbers and carrots. Male students said they liked the food because the vegetables were so fresh. Muto said he had felt depressed at times when he was told by some people that "we don't want to eat food from Fukushima." But he said, "I feel uplifted when I see our guests enjoy eating." Hironao Takahashi, a 19-year-old sophomore who stayed at the inn, said, "I've come to know that they check their products carefully before shipping them. From now own, I would like to see the foodstuff with my own eyes and judge without being influenced by rumors."

    Tatsuhiro Ono, a 62-year-old vegetable farmer and a key figure in the group of farm inn operators, said, "Even if we show scientific data, we cannot easily persuade people about the safety of our products unless they come and visit production sites." The value of total vegetable shipments from the entire Towa district remains about 80 percent of pre-disaster levels, he said. "We hope that people who visit our farm inns will send a message about the attractiveness of the Towa district."

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