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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Finding the Real Fukushima

Shin Watanabe

Nov. 18, 2016

Officials in Fukushima have been looking for an international perspective to help them attract more foreign tourists, so they hired a young woman from the United Kingdom to help promote the prefecture to the world.

The number of foreign visitors to Japan continues to reach new heights, with the figure already at a record level for the year. But one part of the country that has not experienced the tourism boom is Fukushima. Since the 2011 disaster and nuclear accident, Fukushima has been among the least popular prefectures in Japan for foreign visitors.

To help change that, Fukushima Prefecture's tourism association Zoe Vincent, who is from Edinburg, as its first international staff member.

Zoe's job is to visit festivals and tourist sites in Fukushima Prefecture, and to promote them in English to people around the world. Earlier this fall, she visited the Iizaka Kenka festival, which is famous among Japan's 3 major festivals, and feature fierce clashes between floats.

"I really want people living abroad to see this festival. In Britain, where I come from, there's nothing like this," she says.

Zoe's grandfather worked in Japan in the 1960s. His influence on Zoe is clear, and she came to the country in 2013 as an exchange student.

Zoe was enjoying her life in Tokyo. She was studying about Fukushima and the surrounding region. It was then that she had an experience which left a profound impact on her.

"One day a friend of mine brought Japanese sake from Fukushima to a party. The reaction of many of my other friends were like 'Oh, it's from Fukushima,' 'Fukushima is not good,' 'Isn't it bad for your health?' and `I don't want to drink it.' I felt really bad for Fukushima," she says.

Zoe wondered if there was anything she could do. Even after graduating from university, she couldn't stop thinking about Fukushima. So when she learned that the prefectural government was looking for a foreigner to promote the region overseas, she immediately applied for the job.

"Re-discovering Fukushima" is the theme of Zoe's blog page.

"In Britain, for instance, whenever media carry reports on Fukushima, they are always about nuclear reactors. So, in the future, I'd like to introduce interesting places and cultural traditions in the prefecture," she says.

The Yumoto hot spring resort in Iwaki City is a traditional style Japanese inn. Zoe asked the owner how to promote the cultural experience to visitors from overseas.

"It's possible that people who have never been to a hot spring without bathing suits may feel a little shy," Zoe says.

"For me, being naked means you don't put up a front. You don't hide anything, including your mind. When you are in a hot spring bath you can easily chat with other people about various things. It's possible to release your stress, relax and open your mind in a very casual way," a staff member at the facility tells her.

For many years, Iwaki city has been known across the country for Hula dance events. After the March 2011 disaster, the owners of a traditional Japanese inn there decided hula might be a good way to again attract visitors to the area.

Zoe decided to give it a try, realizing that it's important to keep an open mind and enjoy experiencing everything firsthand.

She posted the story about Iwaki on her blog page. She wrote that despite the hardships brought by the 2011 disaster, the area's residents are determined to rebuild and move forward.

Zoe later visited Australia, and over the course of a week traveled from Perth on the west coast to Sydney in the east. She introduced the popular sightseeing spots and specialty foods of Fukushima, to local travel agencies and affiliates.

Everything she talks about is based on her own experiences, and she reassured her Australian contacts about the safety of products from Fukushima, including sake rice wine, which is gaining popularity worldwide.

Zoe could see her efforts were bearing fruit, and she hoped to build a bridge between her beloved Fukushima and the global community.

"Many people have told me they want to visit Fukushima in the future. Having listened to what they said, I now feel grateful. It has been a great experience. Because of their reactions, I feel very happy that I've come here. I'll do what I can so people in various countries will really understand Fukushima," she says.

Shin Watanabe, from NHK's Fukushima bureau, joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Zoe definitely has enthusiasm for the region. But I'd imagine people back home in the UK must have worried about her going to Fukushima.

Watanabe: Yes, they certainly were. Zoe started university as a Japanese major in September of 2011. The crisis in Fukushima was at its height. People around her even said she shouldn’t learn Japanese, because the country wouldn't have a bright future. But that didn’t stop her. She never lost interest, and she wanted to see how Japan would move forward.

Beppu: There were a lot of rumors surrounding the disaster. It must be difficult to cut through them.

Watanabe: That's right. And just as Zoe said, Fukushima and its products still carry a negative image internationally. That's even the case in Japan. All food from Fukushima Prefecture must be screened for radioactive contamination. Even gifts sent by farmers to relatives for personal consumption are tested.

Beppu: Initially, after the 2011 disaster, what was Fukushima Prefecture doing to attract foreign tourists?

Watanabe: They tried to dispel rumors caused by the nuclear accidents. The prefecture website put up information in 8 languages, including the results of radiation tests on food. But the number of foreign visitors continued to stagnate. So they decided to hire Zoe to find stories and experiences interesting to people overseas. Zoe does her own legwork to visit the sites. She’s good at finding things that are overlooked by residents, but are fascinating to foreign readers.

Shibuya: Can you tell us about the overall situation in Fukushima these days?

Watanabe: A lot of challenges remain. Work continues to decommission the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Decontamination efforts are also still ongoing. And over 84,000 people remain displaced by the disaster. But there are bright spots. For example, some of the tourist destinations are now reopened and are accepting visitors as usual. So people are hopeful that the challenges will be overcome, and things will continue to get better.