IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture--When Hajime Hiruta saw families filling up homes in a hamlet of this city, he felt he had finally saved the community from extinction. He expected the arrival of even more people seeking a tranquil rural lifestyle.
But everything changed on March 11, 2011.
"There would have been a normal increase except for the accident," said Hiruta, 60, secretary-general of a group of residents trying to bring people to the Kaidomari hamlet. "I am frustrated because our efforts have not gone back to zero, but moved into the minus zone."
Even a distance of about 60 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has not provided enough of a cushion for Kaidomari.
With its affordable land prices and easy access from the Tokyo metropolitan area, Fukushima Prefecture has often ranked high among destinations for people seeking a rural lifestyle.
Kaidomari, on the outskirts of Tabitocho in Iwaki, was an example of a rural retreat for frazzled urbanites.
Although it is technically part of Iwaki with a population of around 300,000, Kaidomari has tall cedar trees and babbling brooks and is dotted by old farmhouses and sheds to burn charcoal.
"Children would ride on unicycles after returning home from school," Hiruta recalled. "Even though a year has passed (since the nuclear accident), I feel as though they are still here."
The number of empty homes has increased since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant.
Full-fledged efforts to attract people to move to Kaidomari began in 2002. One catalyst was the fear that local elementary and junior high schools would close down because of the declining population.
One focus of the efforts was to lure households with children. Homes were rented out for between 3,000 yen and 15,000 yen ($38 and $192) a month. Jobs were also prepared for those moving to Kaidomari.
Hiruta and other group members visited the newcomers once or twice a month to offer advice.
In the 10 years after the group was formed, 21 households moved to the hamlet. When the natural disasters struck last March, 31 people, including 14 children, in 13 households had moved into Kaidomari, and a family of five from Kanagawa Prefecture was expected to arrive in April.
However, after the nuclear accident, households with children began moving out, and now, only seven households with 13 people remain.
Three households with four people have since moved to Kaidomari, but the hamlet is still far from what it once was.
"It will not be easy for households with children to move here," Hiruta said. "We want to protect the community by appealing to people who have retired."
Real estate company Furusato Johokan, based in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, has provided information for those wanting to move to rural areas. Half of the relocations to the Tohoku region handled by the company were to Fukushima Prefecture.
The prefecture lies only 200 to 300 kilometers from Tokyo, and transportation is convenient. Despite that proximity, Fukushima land prices are cheap, and standard individual plots are at least 990 square meters.
However, since the nuclear accident started, there have been almost no moves to Fukushima from outside the prefecture, according to a Furusato Johokan official.
Miyakoji Rinsan Kaihatsu, a real estate company in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, has handled about 350 transactions involving property along the Abukuma mountain range over a quarter of a century.
An estimated 600 people have moved to the region, but many have since relocated following the nuclear accident.
Publishing company Takarajimasha Inc. has a monthly magazine about rural living, and it uses reader surveys to rank the popularity of prefectures.
For three straight years from 2008, Fukushima ranked fifth, but it fell out of the top 10 for 2011.
Harumi Yamazaki, a 58-year-old company employee who lives in Tokyo's Koto Ward, has been making annual trips to Fukushima for about 20 years. She has visited tourist spots and also enjoyed skiing and camping in the prefecture.
She and her husband were looking for an old home to move to after they retired.
"If it was just the two of us, we would not care about radiation," Yamazaki said. "However, if we should one day have grandchildren, they would not be able to visit us."
She is now looking at the Yatsugatake region along Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures, even though it is somewhat more expensive.
At the same time, there are some arrivals in Fukushima Prefecture who are not budging, including writer Kazunori Yamamoto, 52, who has lived in Tamura for 11 years.
"I don't want to put out the light of rural living in Fukushima without doing anything," he said.
Yamamoto has written magazine articles about people who have decided to remain as well as newcomers to the region.
The arrivals have provided vital new energy for mountain villages that had seen a decline in population.
"I want to continue reporting about the current rural living in Fukushima in order to resuscitate the community," Yamamoto said.
The Fukushima prefectural government is also making public relations efforts to highlight the safety of the area. It has taken out two-page ads in magazines on sale this month as well as dispatched prefectural government workers to events held in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
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