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Fukushima locals take trip on first Joban trains in nuke disaster-hit area for 9 years

Locals from the Yonomori district of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, wave off one of the first passenger trains to travel through JR Yonomori Station on the Joban Line in nine years, on March 14, 2020. They held up umbrellas, towels and other items in pink to symbolize the area's famous cherry blossom street. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

Locals, train staff, rail fans and others welcomed the restoration of service on March 14 to part of the JR Joban Line in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, closed since the nuclear disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami nine years ago.

The reopening of the last remaining closed section of the track, which measures 20.8 kilometers and lies between Tomioka and Namie stations, was delayed largely due to high radiation levels limiting entry to areas designated as "difficult to return." The stations of Yonomori in the town of Tomioka, Ono in Okuma, and Futaba in the town of Futaba are all in areas which have had evacuation orders lifted on roads and other locations between March 4 and 10.

At around 5:50 a.m., the first local five-car southbound train left JR Namie Station with some 80 passengers aboard. From the carriage windows, passengers could see houses damaged in the March 2011 earthquake still dotted around the landscape.

Among those on the train was Shin Watanabe, 45, who works for the Futaba Project, a firm which aims to revitalize Futaba. He commented that in his high school days he commuted on the train every day. When the electronic display on board showed that the next station would be Futaba, he took a photo of it with his phone.

The first train of the day is seen pulling out of JR Futaba Station on the Joban Line at 5:59 a.m. on March 14, 2020. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

Looking out at the scenery surrounding JR Futaba Station, which had its evacuation order lifted only on March 4, he said, "I'm happy it's finally connected again. It looks a bit different than when you see it from National Route 6 (on which the government had allowed people to drive through the area previously). You can see more of the places that haven't really changed since the disaster."

At Futaba Station, Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa handed out daruma dolls, a famed Fukushima Prefecture product, as commemorative gifts to welcome passengers. Izawa said, "Finally normality is coming back. I'm thankful even if people just come here by train and see how we've recovered."

The train pulled out of Ono and headed for Yonomori, which is famous for its great cherry blossom spots. The streets lined with trees that lead up to the station used to heave with sightseers during cherry blossom-viewing periods before the triple disaster. At the platform, residents waved pink sakura colored towels to welcome the train.

A woman from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, said that she used to pack lunches and take her train-fanatic son to JR Yonomori Station before the nuclear disaster. Looking at the scenery again after a long time, she said, "It really is just like it was all that time ago."

Some 20 minutes after departing Namie Station, the train arrived at Tomioka Station. Here, the area around the station had its evacuation order lifted some three years ago, and recovery efforts have made progress since then.

A 58-year-old town employee who participated in works to redevelop the station area and who rode the train from Yonomori to Tomioka, said, "I was glad to be able to see new homes in the landscape out there. There really are no words."

In the driver's compartment at the front of the train was Yuji Fukasawa, president of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), the operator of the Joban Line. Responding to a request for comment outside Tomioka Station, he said, "We kept people waiting for nine years. From now on, we want as many people as possible to come and visit this area."

The JR Joban Line runs from Tokyo all the way up to northeastern Japan's Miyagi Prefecture. In addition to the reopening of the closed sections in Fukushima, a limited express service will also resume operation on the line. Three "Hitachi" limited express trains will make round trips from JR Ueno and Shinagawa stations in the capital to Sendai Station each day. Local trains will make round trips of Tomioka and Namie stations 11 times a day.

(Japanese original by Keigetsu Hirai, City News Department, and Naoki Watabe, Fukushima Bureau)

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