December 31, 2012

Minami-aizu, Fukushima

Located in the mountains of Fukushima is a small town called Minami-aizu, with a population of just over 20,000. It is a place like no other I have ever been to in Japan. Blanketed with a metre of fresh snow that had fallen overnight, the streets looked as though they had gingerbread houses lining them, and you could almost be tricked into thinking you were somewhere in Europe... if it weren't for the incongruous presence of torii gates and pachinko parlours.
A torii gate in the middle of Minami-aizu town
The snowfall is so heavy residents need special pop-up garages for their cars
A pachinko parlour lights up the snowy darkness
Minami-aizu is surrounded by ski slopes, and we spent three nights staying at a ski resort called Resort Inn Daikura. It has essentially been out of action since March 2011. Although the town is located more than 100km from the condemned Fukushima Daiichi plant, after the nuclear accident, visitors stopped coming. Harmful rumours created by media sensationalism and hearsay painted the entire area as unsafe. The owner of the resort told us that there have been 22,000 cancellations since the disaster. As the ski season approaches this year, they hope that the fears have diminished, and there will be more visitors.
Ski slopes at Resort Inn Daikura
The Aizu region is known for its produce, in particular, rice, persimmons and tomatoes. Since the disaster, it has taken numerous campaigns and efforts to convince the Japanese public that these products are still safe to consume. This year, the Japanese government made radiation inspection of all rice in the region compulsory, using expensive machines that check the contamination levels of each bag of rice. Minami-aizu town has seven of these machines, which we got to witness in action. Each bag of rice gets fed through the machine, and if levels of contamination are over 50 becquerel, it must be inspected closely - 100 becquerel is the standard for contamination. So far no bags of Minami-aizu rice have exceeded the contamination limit, and sales figures are returning to pre-March 11 levels.

Watching radiation inspection machine in action
Bag of Fukushima rice: customers can scan the barcode with cellphones for more information on radiation levels
Minami-aizu is a beautiful, but difficult place to live. It endures hardship every year: the winters are long and harsh. The people must work themselves to the bone, tending to the land. And now, in the face of the nuclear disaster, they have had to completely rebuild the town's economy, following the effects of harmful rumours on tourism and agriculture. It is fitting that a symbol of the region is a traditional toy called okiagari-koboshi, a little doll that is so resilient that no matter how many times you push it over, it will always return to an upright position.
Okiagari-koboshi doll, a symbol of the Aizu region


  1. I stayed in Minami-aizu town! On the Kizuna project on the 4th-7th of December 2012~ Im a kiwi too!! :) I cant believe I found this blog! awesome :D

    1. Hey! That's so cool! =) What group were you a part of? I went with Australia and NZ uni students, we must have arrived just after you! Thanks heaps for reading!

    2. sorry for such a late reply! :o
      I was with the secondary school group, there was heaps of people from different countries; NZ, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, vietnam and Indonesia!

  2. i also stayed in minami-aizu town on Jenesys 2.0 program (19th may -24may 2013)
    i really love the town ^_^