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It's... It's surreal.
To walk through a town that was once so full of life now slowly being consumed by nature,
half of it hidden away behind barricades in a contaminated 'no-go' zone.
As you walk past degraded houses with shattered windows, overgrown shop-fronts and collapsing shrines,
you start to put it all together like pieces in a puzzle.
You can start to imagine what life must've been like here...
... before it became the backdrop of the second worst nuclear disaster in history.
Fukushima Daiichi was once one of the largest operational nuclear power stations on the planet.
Now, it's one of the worst man-made disasters in history.
I've come to the exclusion zone to piece together what's happened in the 8 years since the disaster,
to hear from the locals who've endured the nightmarish aftermath,
and to see what the future might hold for the area.
It's a story that starts with a devastating tsunami, so powerful it moved the entire planet off its axis,
and ends in a nuclear disaster with a mammoth $200bn clean up operation,
involving 70,000 workers that will take an estimated 40 years to complete,
and is almost incomprehensible in scale.
--So we're currently one hour outside of Tokyo.
It takes about three and a half hours by car from Tokyo to the exclusion zone.
I've been advised to bring a Geiger counter along just to detect any pockets of radiation.
It's currently registering, uh... 0.09, which is what you expect for the background radiation for this region around Tokyo to be.
Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't slightly anxious, but...
me visiting for a couple of days is nothing compared to the workers that have to clean up the area,
and the thousands of local residents who lost everything - who lost their homes, their possessions,
and their livelihoods.
The exclusion zone is situated on Fukushima's remote east coastline
across a 70 kilometer mountain range separating it from cities such as Koriyama and Fukushima City.
Today, the exclusion zone is not a simple radius around the power plant,
but a patch-work of towns that have been cleaned up and dense forests that have yet to be decontaminated.
--I've always... thought about visiting the exclusion zone.
It's always been something I've considered doing.
Um, especially given that I live about two and a half hours north in Sendai.
Why am I visiting the region now? Well,
I know people that live and work in Fukushima.
I know people that have visited the region.
I've come with the hope of actually trying to dig a little bit deeper
and hear some of the stories of the people that call the exclusion zone 'home'.
As we make our way into the exclusion zone, the highway starts to become filled with convoys of trucks,
carrying contaminated soil.
Just a few of the 355,000 trucks that have so far been used in the clean-up effort.
And where you'd normally see sign posts,
instead, Geiger counters loom, ominously revealing the elevated radiation levels.
The figures creep higher and higher the further we go.
Huge piles of soil begin to appear at the side of the highway,
and in the distance I catch my first glimpse of the reactor itself,
nestled amongst a sea of cranes.
All of a sudden I feel like I've arrived in a different world.
The Fukushima exclusion zone is not the sort of place you'd want to make a wrong turn.
And to that end, I'm going in with an experienced guide, Fumito Sasaki,
who understands the region and the risks involved, having run numerous tours inside the area.
And our first stop is what was once the town of Ukedo, on the coastline just north of the Daiichi reactor.
There's a clock up there that's stopped at 3:38.
That was the time that the tsunami actually hit the school and cut off the power.
The power of the clock was in the staffroom, and that went with the tsunami.
While the spectre of the nuclear disaster still looms large,
it can be easy to overlook the fact that the nightmare began with a tsunami that ultimately killed over 20,000 people, on March 11, 2011.
Ukedo School was just 200 meters from the shoreline when the waves struck,
however after the initial magnitude 9 earthquake,
teachers hastily evacuated the 80 students to a nearby hill inland.
And with just minutes to spare, all of the children were saved.
The rest of Ukedo... wasn't so lucky.
What was once a town of 1,900 people had been washed away by a 15 meter wave,
taking 300 people with it.
As chilling as this school is, for me there's a sense of relief that all the kids were able to get out safely.
All that remains is Ukedo Elementary School.
That's the only marker that lets you know that there was once a town here.
Instead of the sound of kids playing and running around,
all you can hear in the background is the sound of diggers pushing around bags of radioactive soil.
It's quite the contrast.
--So right now, we are just 5 kilometers along the coastline from the Daiichi nuclear power plant.
And interestingly, we've got the Geiger counter out and it reads 0.09 microsieverts,
which is about the same as Tokyo.
Even though we are quite close to it.
Actually, the more dangerous areas are where the fallout was blown on the day the reactor exploded.
So inland, towards the north, is a little bit more treacherous than it is here.
The government already decontaminated this area.
--Right. So,
the number of radiation dose is the same as Tokyo.
And you can actually see the ridiculous, incredible scale of the decontamination.
Over here, we've got about-- it must be the size of ten football fields.
This whole area is covered in bags of soil.
By 2021, 14 million cubic meters of topsoil will have been removed from the exclusion zone,
part of a $29bn operation focused on lowering radiation levels.
The soil and debris is packed into bags and blankets the landscape.
Ukedo is just one of many temporary storage locations.
Though where to store the soil in the long term remains an ongoing political issue.
On our way to the partially reopened town of Tomioka, we travelled down one of the worst-affected areas.
A stretch of road, where it's forbidden to even leave your vehicle due to the higher levels of radiation.
It's an eerie sight.
Game centers, gas stations... suspended in time.
And slowly being buried beneath trees and foliage as nature reclaims its surroundings.
Look at this.
This is the border between Tomioka's no-go zone, and the bit where people are allowed to come back and live.
If your house is there, you can't go back. It's not been decontaminated - you can't go back at all.
But yeah, if you lived just 10 meters this side of the road, you can come back.
There's your house, you can return.
That is the difference between being able to come back to your life and not being able to return at all.
Just a 10 meter gap across the road.
--What was the population here before the disaster? What is it now?
[Fumito Sasaki]: Before the accident, it was 16,000 people.
[CB]: 16,000 people...
Now, it's about 1,000 people.
So less than 10%.
Yeah, and I mean we're standing here in front of an elementary school,
that's derelict, and there's a Geiger counter quite literally in the playground here showing us the figures.
In terms of the school population, what were the numbers before and after the disaster?
[FS]: Before the disaster, there were 1,400 students in this town.
But now, they only have 20 students.
Obviously a lot of people, having left this town after the disaster, have moved on now.
They've started new lives, right? In other towns across the country, so...
I guess getting any people to come back at all is a-- is just a success, to some extent.
This was the main cherry blossom street in Tomioka, right?
[FS]: Yes, this is a symbol of this town. Cherry Blossom Street.
But these cherry blossoms are only 20% of the cherry blossom street.
Only 20% is here?
And the other 80%?
The rest of them is inside of the no-go zone.
[CB]: And are people allowed to ever go from Tomioka into the no-go zone?
[FS]: The residents can get permission to enter the no-go zone.
After 8 years of lying abandoned, many of Tomioka's houses are collapsing.
Residents who don't plan to return at all are able to have their houses bulldozed for free by the government.
Unsurprisingly, many have been marked for demolition.
In just the three years after the disaster, there were 1,200 cases of theft reported.
Obviously, a lot of the damage here was done by the earthquake itself.
But you see smashed windows around, and that's because wild boar running loose around the area have been breaking into buildings,
and also a lot of people have been stealing from towns like Tomioka and Namie,
because it's open season for burglars to come in and break into people's property.
This used to be a pharmacy.
This is one of the few buildings I've seen so far where there's no damage to the windows.
It looks like nobody's been in here.
I've got the Geiger counter. It's 0.25 microsieverts,
which is a little bit higher than the coastline.
I've actually found the Geiger counter relatively reassuring today.
It's not been quite the levels I was anticipating.
Would I feel comfortable living here?
I'm not sure.
And I suspect if I did go into areas that haven't yet been decontaminated,
I would get pretty uncomfortable quite fast.
Japan's reconstruction agency estimates there have been over 2,200 disaster-related deaths
as the result of the trauma and stress the evacuees endured being ripped away from their lives.
This is one of the main motivations Japan has for attempting to decontaminate Fukushima.
With almost 42,000 evacuees still living outside the area,
by giving them the option to return to their hometowns, if not to live then just to visit, it may prevent further deaths.
And at a rate of 0.3 microsieverts per hour, or 2.6 millisieverts over the course of a year,
whilst the levels are higher than Tokyo,
it still places the decontaminated areas within the average world background radiation levels of 1.5 to 3.5 millisieverts.
But, the contaminated area is vast,
with hotspots spread across forests and mountains, many of which are impossible to reach.
After the evacuation, many farms across the region were abandoned,
with animals and cattle being left behind to die.
The radioactive fallout meant animals in the region were no longer safe for consumption.
But when the government ordered remaining farmers to euthanise their cattle,
not everyone followed the order.
Masami Yoshizawa was one of those people.
14 kilometers from the reactor, his 328 cows were worth 450 million yen before they were exposed to the radiation.
In protest to the government, he vowed to keep his cows alive for as long as possible
even taking on cows from other farms that had been abandoned.
Feeding cows isn't cheap though, and so he accepts donations of food,
most notably, a staggering amount of pineapple skins.
Cow godzilla!
So, when the self-defence force came here to the area to clean up and help in the recovery effort,
Yoshizawa-san created this cow-zilla
to kind of inspire the troops and keep them motivated.
Whether it worked or not, I'm not at liberty to say.
But it is quite the sight.
During my two-day visit to the Fukushima exclusion zone, I've been staying in Iwaki city just 30 kilometers south,
which has fully recovered following on from the tsunami.
This area has been spared much of the damage caused by the nuclear reactor.
Iwaki city was hit by the tsunami and this hot spring, in fact, was washed away.
It took two years to reopen.
But for the most part, it's business as usual in Iwaki now.
Fortunately for Iwaki, on the day the nuclear reactor exploded,
the southerly winds carried the radioactive fallout north.
The radiation levels here are pretty much on par with Tokyo,
and, in fact, many people leaving the exclusion zone came here to Iwaki to make it their new home.
For Kaniarai Hot Spring, after the recovery, it's business as usual and it remains a popular resort on the coast,
although the memories of the tsunami still remain fresh in the minds of those working on the day of the disaster.
The reconstruction work along these coasts has ultimately succeeded in hiding much of the damage,
including the Kaniarai Hot Spring.
However, if you know where to look, you can still find the marks left behind to this day.
So whilst Kaniarai Onsen has been completely renovated,
there's still some little clues that something terrible happened here.
These are the shoe lockers. When you walk in, you take off your shoes and you put them in a locker.
And you can actually see how high the wave came up to just by looking at the different lockers.
This one was fine.
This one, however - with the newspaper on - this was destroyed by the tsunami.
Or the locker has rusted away inside.
It's a small indicator of what happened here.
Deciding whether or not to return to your home town after such a disaster
must be one of the hardest decisions you can make.
Heading once more into the exclusion zone, I meet one of the first returning evacuees
to try and understand what led him to come back.
Katsumi Arakawa was born in Ukedo town
and was evacuated 300 kilometers north to Akita prefecture after the disaster.
Not only has he returned to the area, but in February 2018 he started a business growing flowers.
Difficult task, given much of the original mineral-rich, fertile soil was removed during decontamination.
It's a welcome sight to see these beautiful flowers blooming after all the chaos we've seen - all the destruction.
It's inspiring to hear people, like Katsumi-san, who want to come back to the area
and give it another go despite potential risks.
Thank god he did.
I mean, literally and metaphorically, life is blooming once again because of Katsumi-san.
In recent years, even though many previous residents haven't moved back to their hometown of Tomioka,
many still regularly return.
This year, Tomioka's empty streets sprung to life once more for the cherry blossom season,
when once desolate streets bustle to the sounds of friends and families partying and celebrating the season.
Meanwhile, in the once empty fields, many of which may never harvest crops again,
there may yet be hope that they can be utilized to the benefit of the locals.
What kind of jobs are they going to create in Tomioka do you think?
Uhh, it's a difficult question, but...
Some people have started to make a solar power plant.
Solar power?
As you pass through the exclusion zone, nearly every other field is lined with solar panels.
Thousands of them.
Both agriculture and the Daiichi plant were once the lifeblood of the local economy.
Now, the unusable land is being turned into a means to produce clean energy
and a potential alternate source of income to landowners.
I'm glad I finally came here and saw it all with my own eyes after hearing about it continuously for 8 years now.
It's difficult for me to comprehend what I've seen here in Fukushima.
This is not a normal situation,
and I came here naively hoping to try and tell the story of what happened after the disaster,
but this is a situation that's very far from being over.
But Japan's always been a country that knows how to recover.
I've been fortunate to visit towns, like Onagawa further up the coast, that were completely wiped off the map by the tsunami
which has now sprung back to life, rebuilt, and recovered.
And then there's Hiroshima, the first city to ever be destroyed by an atomic bomb,
which, today, stands as one of the most vibrant cities in west Japan.
Fukushima will take a long time to recover. Far longer than either of those situations.
And it will remain a frightening lesson to the devastating consequences of when nuclear power goes wrong.
But, I feel like I've seen a glimpse - a glimpse of what it could be like in the future after it's been decontaminated.
... Even if it is still many, many years away.