Story highlights

Magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11, 2011

Photographer trekked through the night to enter radiation zone

CNN  — 

It was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and since March 11, 2011, parts of Fukushima, Japan, have lain silent, abandoned in the days and weeks following a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan that day, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing in the earthquake and tsunami that followed, while hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.

For more than half a decade, towns like Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba, Namie, have remained almost entirely lifeless, sealed off from the outside world, as the Japanese government keeps in place an exclusion zone for fear of radiation contamination.

Ghost towns

Last month, under the cover of night, photographer Keow Wee Loong and two colleagues slipped past authorities and made their way into the exclusion zone, taking a three-hour walk through the woods to reach the abandoned towns.

The Malaysian photographer described an eerie silence and a stench that greeted the visitors – an odor he attributed to rotting meat and vegetables.

“Have you ever had a dream that you are the only person left on the planet? Arriving in the exclusion zone is similar to that,” he told CNN, comparing the experience to apocalyptic video games and movies like “I am Legend.”

The pictures are striking. A laundromat with clothes still in washing machines, stores still packed with goods, a newsstand in a convenience store full of magazines from 2011.

Loong appears in most of his photos. He sets his camera on a tripod and a timer and shoots. “A photo without a person is a photo without a soul, there is no story to it, there is no life,” he says.

Animals left behind

There are few signs of life in the exclusion zone, Loong said, apart from a few cats and dogs; pets abandoned, now turned wild, he speculates. One dog chased the photographer and he was forced to fight him off with his tripod.

The canine may have picked up on the scent of the three visitors, or spotted their bare flesh. Loong and his crew were not wearing protective clothing. He meant to buy it, but he accidentally left the funds for it – about 300,000 Japanese yen (U.S. $2,880) – in a restaurant in Tokyo, where it disappeared.

As a freelance photographer who had traveled from Malaysia, Loong said he had no option but to go into the exclusion zone without the recommended gear. He said he gave his two colleagues, an assistant and a local Japanese translator, the option of staying behind, but they chose to come with him.

Homes, businesses intact

Although most of his pictures were taken in stores and on streets, Loong said he did enter people’s homes if doors were left open or unlocked. He said he saw jewelery, and thousands of yen in people’s homes and in businesses, but despite his own predicament, having lost his cash in Tokyo, the 27-year-old said he knew how important it was to leave things as they were. “I am not there to steal, or damage property, I am there to take photos,” he adds.

He praised people in the region for not looting.

Not the first visitor

It’s not the first time Loong took extreme measures to capture the perfect photo. Last year, he climbed one of the tallest buildings in Dubai, and in February he made headlines for “snowboarding” down an active volcano.

Despite his willingness to go to great lengths, he wasn’t the first person to capture Fukushima’s eerie exclusion zone. Several other photographers have gained or been given access to the zone, and in 2013 Google drove its Street View cars through the streets of Namie.

Google Maps users can scroll through the abandoned streets and see how the town looked in March 2013, two years after the disaster.