Lingering radiation means continued chill for some tourist hotspots

October 29, 2012


MAEBASHI--Visitor numbers remain low at some once-popular autumn tourist sites in Japan, amid lingering concerns about radiation in food more than a year after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Akagi Onuma, a caldera lake atop Mount Akagiyama in northern Maebashi, usually attracts 25,000 tourists to fish for freshwater smelt during a seven-month season starting in September.

But visitor numbers to the area in Gunma Prefecture have fallen by 90 percent compared with levels prior to the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. This autumn, about 100 boats lie idle along the shore. On autumnal weekends in the past, all boats would have been rented out.

"Revenue has almost dried up since the earthquake," said Takeshi Aoki, 48, a manager at Aoki Ryokan, a lakeside inn.

Last season, fishing was prohibited because smelt was found to contain radioactive cesium exceeding the provisional government limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram, a standard which applied to all foodstuffs excluding water, milk and dairy products.

Samples taken ahead of this year's season found that one fish contained 210 becquerels per kilogram, higher than a newly lowered limit of 100 becquerels, the level which the government set in April for food excluding water, milk and baby food.

When products contain too much radioactive cesium, producers are either ordered to halt shipments or asked to suspend them voluntarily.

In this case, the prefectural government decided to allow tourists to fish for smelt as long as they do not keep the fish, fearing that an outright ban lasting two years would have a serious impact on the local tourism industry.

But tourists have not returned.

"You cannot enjoy smelt fishing unless you can eat the fish after pulling it from the water," said Yasutaka Aoki, 62, who heads a local fisheries cooperative. "I hope tourists will soon be allowed to take the fish away with them."

Hato Bus Co., which used to organize tours to the lake every year, plans no such visits this autumn because of the ban on taking the smelt home. Furthermore, elementary and junior high schools have canceled student trips.

The town of Nakagawa, Tochigi Prefecture, promotes locally harvested boar meat, a popular delicacy in autumn and winter, a time when the animal puts on plenty of fat.

Shipments were suspended last December after radioactive cesium levels above the government standard were found.

The prefectural government then relaxed the ban, allowing shipments of meat processed in the town on condition that all slaughtered boars were inspected individually for radioactivity.

Between April and early October, the town inspected the meat of 100 or so carcasses, and found only three with radiation levels higher than the standard. Meat confirmed safe has been shipped.

But sales have been sluggish at Michi no Eki Bato, a roadside souvenir shop and restaurant for tourists.

Meat packages carry stickers saying they have passed inspection. But a sales clerk said consumers may still fret about radioactive contamination.

At Isamikan, an inn renowned for its boar meat dishes, guest numbers have almost halved since the disaster.

"We only serve meat that is confirmed safe and secure," said the proprietor, Kumiko Sakanushi, 60. "We expect tourists to come and try it."

Meanwhile, in locations such as Fukushima Prefecture, a large number of fish, vegetables and other autumn and winter delicacies remain subject to shipment bans due to high radiation levels.

"We know that some tourist sites and industries have been affected because food shipments are suspended when the food is in season," a farm ministry official said. "But we cannot lift the bans unless the amount of radioactive cesium is below the standard--and steadily so--in order to protect the safety and security of consumers."

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Boar meat on sale in Nakagawa, Tochigi Prefecture. The packages carry stickers saying they have been inspected. (Seiko Sadakuni)

Boar meat on sale in Nakagawa, Tochigi Prefecture. The packages carry stickers saying they have been inspected. (Seiko Sadakuni)

  • Boar meat on sale in Nakagawa, Tochigi Prefecture. The packages carry stickers saying they have been inspected. (Seiko Sadakuni)
  • Boats for freshwater smelt fishing remain unused at Akagi Onuma in Maebashi. (Seiko Sadakuni)

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