Parents are bombarding the Nikko city government with questions and requests, fearing children on school trips might be exposed to dangerous radiation levels in one of the nation's most popular tourist destinations.
Nikko, a city with gorgeous shrines and a rich history in Tochigi Prefecture, lies about 140 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Many elementary schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area send their students to Nikko on field trips.
Officials of the Nikko government have tried to reassure parents that the area is safe, but they said persistent fears about radiation could lead to a drop in tourism revenue.
Parents and citizens' advocacy groups continue to ask Nikko to conduct radiation tests around the city's tourist attractions and publicize the origins of ingredients used in meals served at hotels where the students will stay.
In December, members of the Yokohama City Board of Education visited the renowned Nikko Toshogu shrine, built in the early 17th century, to measure radiation levels on the grounds. During their two-day stay in Nikko, the officials tested other scenic spots, including the Kegonnotaki waterfall and the Senjogahara marsh.
"A two- to three-day stay in the town should not pose any harm to health, based on Yokohama's safety standard, which is below 1 millisievert of radiation a year," the group concluded.
Still, the results of their tests did not alleviate their concerns.
"Confirming safety and making them feel relieved are two different things," a board member said. "That's why it is still troubling me."
About 80 percent of public elementary schools in Yokohama send students to Nikko on school trips. The radiation measurements in Nikko by the Yokohama board members were requested by a citizens' group in the city.
The group asked that safety be ensured concerning radiation levels and hotel meals before schools pick the destinations for field trips.
According to the science ministry's radiation map created in August, some areas of Nikko showed 100,000 to 300,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per square meter in the topsoil.
The head of the advocacy group said her son in the fifth grade will visit Nikko on a school trip this year. She said she does not think she has received sufficient information from the Nikko government on the ingredients served at a hotel where her son will stay.
"With such little information given, we cannot decide (whether their meals are free from radiation)," the group leader said. "We have always made sure our children do not eat any food from areas with high radiation levels, but school trips could bring all our efforts to naught."
With about 2,400 signatures, another group in Kanagawa Prefecture petitioned the city governments of Sagamihara, Ayase and Yokosuka to choose destinations other than Nikko for school trips.
The Fussa board of education in Tokyo also dispatched staff to Nikko to check radiation levels.
After witnessing such moves, Tochigi Governor Tomikazu Fukuda told a meeting hosted by the prefectural government, "We have an imminent issue to deal with."
According to the Nikko government, the number of visitors who stayed at hotels and inns in the area was about 1.338 million in fiscal 2010. Students on school trips or camping programs accounted for about 372,000 of them, with most coming from the Tokyo metropolitan area.
The Nikko mayor and other government officials have held briefing sessions with school officials from the Tokyo area, providing details on radiation levels and measures to ensure safety.
"We will use food ingredients grown in the Kansai region upon request," a government official said. "Not only adults like us but also elementary and junior high school students are doing their usual outdoor activities."
But the chief of Nikko's tourism promotion division conceded that the city may face a dismal situation.
"There is no silver bullet to the safety problem," the tourism chief said. "If one school decides against visiting Nikko, there will be other schools that follow suit."
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