Plans are underway to encourage children to start enjoying the waves along Fukushima’s coast. Photograph: Damir Šagolj/Reuters
There was a time when Shinji Murohara thought he would never again surf along the coast where he grew up.
On 11 March 2011, the waves of the Pacific that gave him his love of the sea suddenly, violently left his community in ruins. That afternoon, a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami along Japan’s north-east coast that killed almost 19,000 people, including about 600 in his home town of Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture.
Not long after, Murohara and other residents in the city’s Odaka district were ordered to leave as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 15km (9 miles) to the south, suffered meltdowns in three of its reactors.
But, as Japan prepares to mark eight years since the triple disaster, Fukushima is again showing why many consider it the best surfing spot in Japan.
Shinji Murohara stands outside his newly opened surf shop near the Fukushima coast. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian
“As someone who grew up around here, it was tough having to look at the sea knowing that I couldn’t pull on my wetsuit and get out there,” says Murohara, who recently opened a shop in Odaka selling surfboards he makes in a nearby workshop. His is the only surf shop to open inside the 20km area that was declared a no-go zone in the aftermath of the triple meltdown.
His regular spot, Kitaizumi beach, remained officially off-limits until the nuclear evacuation order was lifted in Odaka two years ago. Even in nearby areas that had been declared safe for residents to return, surfers battled the waves along with criticism that they were taking unnecessary risks with their health.
“Some people wanted to start surfing at Kitaizumi straight after the disaster,” says Professor Hideki Okumoto, a regular surfer and professor at Fukushima University. “They said they would take personal responsibility for any health risks from radiation.”
But they faced another obstacle. Beneath the waves lay tonnes of tsunami wreckage and, perhaps, the trapped remains of missing victims. “It didn’t seem right to use the sea for leisure so soon after the disaster,” Okumoto adds.
Their cue came three years after the disaster, when a Buddhist ceremony was held to officially mark the repose of the souls of the dead.
“It felt great to be able to surf again,” says Murohara, who lived as an evacuee for five years before returning to Odaka to rebuild his surfboard business.
Both men dismiss concerns that the sea has been contaminated by water leaking from Fukushima Daiichi.
Surfers ride the waves in Fukushima. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue / Barcroft Images
“The city government tests the sand and water every month and we conduct our own regular tests,” says Okumoto, who believes that had it not been for the meltdown, Fukushima would have been chosen to host the surfing competition when it makes its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games. “Radiation returned to pre-disaster levels years ago.”
But he adds: “I understand why people from outside might feel uneasy about surfing in Fukushima, but we prefer to believe the scientific evidence. What else can we do?”
Surfers from other parts of Japan have turned up for events in a show of solidarity, and now Murohara and Okumoto plan to revive a surfing tourism campaign they had to abandon after the area became a nuclear no-go zone, starting this summer with a tournament and activities for children at Kitaizumi beach.
“Children who were born the year of the disaster are eight years old now – they’ve had to wait that long to go into the sea in their home town,” says Murohara, who is head of Fukushima prefecture’s surfing federation.
“This is a special place – it had to deal with an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown all at the same time. The sea is part of the fabric of life around here, so now I want to share my love of surfing with the next generation of Fukushima surfers.”