Marathon races in Fukushima Prefecture are drawing a growing number of runners looking to support the area's reconstruction from the March 2011 nuclear crisis.
In the town of Tomioka, where the government's evacuation order was partially lifted in the spring of last year, the number of people who signed up for a local marathon in late September roughly doubled from last year to about 1,300.
Despite poor weather conditions due to an approaching typhoon, participants ran along the seashore where anti-tsunami construction work is under way and near a school that reopened following the disaster.
"The warm cheers of the spectators and the sense of excitement made it feel like the area hadn't been affected by a disaster," said Junji Fujikawa after finishing the 10-kilometer run.
The 41-year-old man from Nara Prefecture in western Japan said he also went sightseeing in the Aizu region in the west of the prefecture on his way to join the marathon.
According to the town's education board, which organized the event, the race began in 1980 but was suspended following the nuclear disaster. After a hiatus of around 6 years and eight months, the race was resumed last year.
Most of participants used to be residents of the town, but about 200 runners from outside Fukushima Prefecture took part.
A 58-year-old female resident who came to support the runners said, "I'm really grateful they came in spite of the rain." But she added, "Our neighbors who evacuated are not returning. Reconstruction of the area is far from complete. I want the race participants to appreciate the reality."
In Fukushima Prefecture, the village of Kawauchi launched a marathon race in 2016 when an evacuation order was lifted in all areas within its boundaries. The number of registrations rose from about 1,200 that year to more than 1,800 this year. Around half the entrants came from other prefectures.
With local children running alongside participants for the last 200 meters of the race, the warm welcome shown runners has made the village marathon popular and turned it into Kawauchi's biggest tourist attraction.
This year, a storyteller aboard a bus carrying runners from JR Tomioka station shared experiences of the nuclear disaster as the bus followed a route taken by evacuees at the time of the accident.
A village official said, "We want to collaborate with other municipalities that have resumed marathon races," such as by organizing a stamp rally whereby marathon participants collect a stamp for each race they complete.
Across Japan, 3,000 marathons are held annually with venues competing fiercely to attract runners.
"Runners also value their experience as tourists and there are people who want to go (to Fukushima) because it was hit by the disaster," Munehiko Harada, a professor at the faculty of sport sciences at Waseda University, said.
But he added, "Participants will not come repeatedly just to support the reconstruction. It is important to raise the quality of races so that runners enjoy the events themselves."