Visiting Japan's Radioactive Ghost Towns

Along with millions around the world, I was horrified by the nuclear meltdowns in Japan that were caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. My connection to the disaster was somewhat more personal than the average North American: hearing reports of radioactive “hot spots” in Tokyo, I was worried about an old friend who was stuck in the downwind megalopolis due to travel interruptions. My friend finally exited Japan—hopefully without serious radiation exposure—but my attention to the unfolding disaster continued in the subsequent months and years.

In December, 2014, I spent a week in the Fukushima Prefecture. I was working on a musical project called
Sinfonietta Fukushima and I wanted to do first-hand research. Traveling from Fukushima City via Iwaki, I attempted to get as close to the disaster site as possible. First I explored Hirono, the village just outside the original "red-zone." It is now re-inhabited, though many former residents have chosen to relocate permanently, and operates mostly as a base for clean-up operations.

On my last day in the Prefecture, I trekked into the abandoned town of Tomioka, 11.5 km (7.1 mi) from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. There was scant up-to-date information about Tomioka in the English-language press, and I could not establish the accessibility of the area, or the legality of visiting. Leaving before dawn, I took a Joban Line train to its final operating stop at Tatsuta Station and hiked three hours north to find the village. The countryside was desolate. Empty cottages were in disrepair and estates were overgrown, in sharp contrast to the typical fastidiousness of Japanese culture.

Tomioka was truly post-apocalyptic. Everyone wore masks and work suits and was involved in clean-up and official business. The area was divided into three zones with escalating contamination levels. Former inhabitants were allowed to visit their properties only during daylight hours, for three to eight hours at a time, depending on proximal radiation levels.

Tomioka’s main thoroughfare was open to automobile traffic, but egress was restricted to former residents. I slipped into a few forbidden (for me) residential areas and inspected houses damaged by the tsunami. Because I couldn't read any of the ominous Japanese-language signage, I was in a constant state of panic about police/security trouble. The scariest moment was when a helicopter abruptly diverted from its southwestern course towards my position. It hovered directly above for a few minutes, obviously interested in my presence as I hiked through abandoned remains.

After passing through Tomioka’s deserted business district, I found my way blocked at a river by pedestrian barricades at the bridge. I went back a few blocks and sat down to collect my bearings. Melancholy had overtaken and I didn't want to retrace my passage back through the wasteland to Tatsuta station. Almost immediately, a car stopped in front of me. 65-year-old clean-up supervisor Masao Nakahara was on his way back from a restricted area. He offered a lift to Hirono, where I could catch the Joban Line back to Iwaki.

I recorded an audio interview with Nakahara. He reminisced about hitchhiking in Czechoslovakia, described the decontamination operations, and gave his outlook on the area’s future. After I had left Japan, we exchanged letters. He thanked me for writing Sinfonietta Fukushima and bearing witness to the disaster’s aftermath.

View the slideshow.

Catalogue Raisonné

1. Contaminated Soil; Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
panoramic 35mm color negative

Large black bags containing radioactive soil and debris are ubiquitous in the disaster zone. It is unclear where and how millions of cubic meters of this material will be permanently and safely stored.



2. Workers' Barracks; Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
     panoramic 35mm color negative

Hirono was included in the emergency evacuation preparation zone, as it was just outside the 20 kilometer exclusion area. The town government recommended that all residents evacuate and all civic services were shut down. Although the central government advised that it was safe to return in September 2011, the town government maintained its evacuation recommendation until mid-2012. It now serves as a base for clean-up operations. Less than a third of the former residents had returned by 2014.



3. Trespassing on Contaminated Beach; Fukushima, Japan. 2014.
     panoramic 35mm color negative

Located about 3 km north of Hirono, and adjacent to an operating TEPCO power station, this beach is closed to the public. The perimeter was strewn with bags containing radioactive sand and debris.



4. Outskirts of Tomioka; Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
     panoramic 35mm color negative

Workers exit southward from the evacuated town.



5. Abandoned Town of Tomioka; Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
     35mm color negative strip

Tomioka is effectively a ghost town. The population remains evacuated and its future is uncertain.



6. Exiting Tomioka; Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
     panoramic 35mm color negative

Clean-up supervisor Masao Nakahara offered to drive the photographer out of the abandoned city. Here Nakahara explains aspects of the decontamination operations.



7. Joban Line; Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. 2014.
     panoramic 35mm color negative

Sections of the Joban line remain damaged and operation is limited to stops below Tatsuta station. This elderly couple rides the train south towards Iwaki. Younger families are more reluctant to return to the area because children are especially sensitive to environmental radiation.




Technical Information
These full-frame images were captured on 35mm color negative film with the Hasselblad Xpan using 90mm, 45mm and 30mm lenses. The Xpan is capable of making standard (36mm x 24mm) and panoramic (65mm x 24mm) format exposures.
Thanks to David Fellerath, Marc Maximov and Sara Woodmansee for editorial assistance.


Heidi Wait: flutes Lindsay Leach-Sparks: alto flute • Wendy Spitzer: oboe Carrie Shull: cor anglais Ben Riseling: clarinet David Jordan: clarinet Rachael Elliott: bassoon • Joseph Provenzano: horn • Zenia Zheng: horn • Kent Foss: trumpet in C Andy Shull: trumpet in B-flat Daniel Zhu: trombone Hank Pellerin: trombone & tuba • Jackson Valentine: timpani & percussion • Leslie Noyce Howard: percussion • Billy Sugarfix: percussion • Lucy Vander Kamp: harp • Katherine Gill: violin • Rebekah Givens: violin • Kathryn Pearson: violin Omar Ruiz-Lopez: violin • Laura Thomas: violin Hjordis Tourian: violin • Emily Yuan: violin Sara Moore: viola • Laura Quillen: viola • Ken Rogerson: viola Katherine Stalberg: viola • John Barrile: cello • Chris Eubank: cello • Joshua Starmer: cello Daniel Thune: double bass Douglas Vuncannon: double bass


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