Dark Tourism: Visitors Flock to Fukushima Ghost Towns

Five years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster emptied much of Japan’s northeastern coast, the devastated areas have now become hot spots for “dark tourism” — destinations where locals and travelers visits to exorcise the horrors of the past.

“There is no place like Fukushima — except maybe Chernobyl — to see how terrible a nuclear accident is,” says Shinichi Niitsuma, one of the volunteer tour guides for the town of Namie. “I want visitors to see this ghost town, which is not just a mere legacy but clear and present despair.”

There has been a long tradition of tourists visiting sites where atrocities have taken place. From abandoned Nazi death camps to Ground Zero in New York City, these places remind us of our humanity, and the horrors that brought about such tragedies.

The Fukushima disaster took place on March 11, 2011, when a magnitude-9 earthquake off Tohoku’s coast spawned a massive tsunami that swept ashore and left an estimated 18,000 people dead or missing. The tsunami severely damaged the nuclear power plant, causing a meltdown that contaminated the local region.

Residents have not been allowed to move back to these so-called Fukushima Ghost Towns due to the dangerous radiation levels. But that has not stopped tourists and one-time residents.

fukushima ghost towns

Guides lead visitors through security check points and into these communities, bringing dosimeters so that they can avoid any radiation hot spots. From stores and homes with items still standing on the shelves, to an elementary school where the clocks are all stopped at 3:38 p.m., the exact moment the killer waves swept ashore, visitors come to remember the past, express their current anger toward the government’s reaction toward the event, or to try and find some kind of healing.

Though the government is currently trying to redevelop the area into something useful once more, the passions surrounding these towns and the disaster that destroyed them don’t seem to be healing any time soon.