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Tourists visiting Fukushima despite nuclear fears

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — On a windy, chilly day near the top of a volcano known as “little Mount Fuji,” the Ryan family of Florida described the fuss at home before they left.

“People thought we were crazy,” said Kerry Ryan, 52, of Cape Coral, Fla.

“They said we’d come back glowing,” 10-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Ryan added.

But the Ryans, who had never before traveled overseas, decided to stick to their destination: Fukushima.

The name is now synonymous with the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which lost power and spewed radiation after a massive tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast coast.

The unfortunate association has been a painful economic consequence of the triple disaster for Fukushima prefecture and Fukushima city, about 40 miles inland from the nuclear plant. Along with the direct economic hit, farmers and businesses face so-called “fuhyo higai,” or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand.

The government has established a mandatory exclusion zone extending 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the nuclear power plant. Some towns beyond the zone have also been asked to evacuate. The U.S. government advises Americans to avoid travel within 50 miles of the plant.

The prefecture’s once-vibrant tourism industry is hurting. Officials at popular sightseeing spots say visitor traffic is down by about a half this year during Japan’s Golden Week holiday, which runs through Thursday.

“It’s a very difficult time right now,” said Sanae Watanabe, manager of the Jodo Daira visitors center next to Mount Azuma-Kofuji. “Fukushima is known for a different meaning now. But we want to get the word out that there are many places with no problems.”

That’s exactly what the Ryans — all seven of them who made the trip — discovered when they arrived. They were among the holiday visitors defying the trend and spending their yen in Fukushima when the prefecture needs it the most.

Any jitters turned to awe at the natural beauty and hospitality of the area, surrounded by dramatic mountain landscapes, fruit orchards and hot springs.

“It’s beautiful, it’s amazing,” said Kerry Ryan, whose son Johnathan lives in nearby Aizu Wakamatsu and got married over the weekend.

When the earthquake hit March 11, the family feared they would have to miss his wedding in Japan. But news of the nuclear plant faded from headlines in the U.S., and the situation appeared to be calmer, said the groom’s father David Ryan, 55.

Another couple that refused to stay away was Masako and Seiichi Miatake from Tokyo.

They had made reservations for a Golden Week trip back in February, before the earthquake. They have been vacationing in Fukushima for decades and never considered canceling.

“We weren’t sure if it would be proper to come and enjoy ourselves at a time like this,” said Masako Miatake, 75. “But we really like Fukushima.”

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami are believed to have caused an estimated $300 billion in damage, and more than 26,000 people are dead or missing.

The ripple effects on the economy have been significant. Factory production and consumer spending both fell the most on record in March. Travel agency JTB Corp. estimated that domestic travel during Golden Week this year would fall 28 percent.

Fukushima recorded more than 56 million visitors in 2009, based on data from 308 top sightseeing locations. A 2008 report by the prefecture estimated that tourism brought in about 243.4 billion yen ($3 billion).

The prefecture has yet to project the disaster’s economic impact on tourism.

Yumiko Sato understands why many tourists are staying away.

“People don’t have a sense of distance. They just hear Fukushima and think of radiation,” said Sato, who runs a small shop selling traditional wooden dolls in Tsuchiyu Onsen, a hot springs town in Fukushima.

Originally from western Japan, she said she too went home for a while amid the nuclear accident to protect her 2-year-old son.

She opened the store Friday for the first time since March 11. Business is about one-third of normal, she said.

“We thought business would be in complete ruins,” Sato said. “But it’s not as bad as we thought. At least we’re getting some customers who are buying.”