Nestled among wooded mountains outside Fukushima city lies the small town of Iino.
Home to fewer than 1,900 people, the town breathes silence. Abandoned roads lead to nowhere and some storefronts remain shuttered all year round. A fine layer of dust covers the squat frame of the city’s tourist center.
But in the midst of the eerie stillness, there are tell-tale signs that Iino isn’t just another deserted, earthly town.
Statues of aliens stand proudly all across the town. Its mascot is a small white alien piloting a golden flying saucer that makes random appearances on closed storefronts, local souvenir shops, and the empty town plaza. Unsurprisingly, one of Iino’s most prized dishes is ramen, served in a bowl made of stones rumored to attract extraterrestrial visitors.
Stories of alien sightings and landings of mysterious aircraft have emerged from Iino as far back as the 1970s. Tsugio Kinoshita, a researcher of unidentified flying objects, said he first saw such an UFO in 1972 at the age of 25.
Kinoshita was hiking a mountain in Fukushima prefecture with four friends when suddenly a saucer-like shape appeared in front of them. “This thing stuck out in front of me. Starting and stopping in the blue sky. Then all of a sudden, it was gone,” he told VICE World News.
In September 2020, Japan launched protocols to analyze aerial phenomena, encouraging Iino’s alien believers to open in June the country’s first-ever lab aiming to observe UFOs. Now a key researcher at Iino’s UFO lab, Kinoshita believes aliens tried to make contact with him to let him know they exist. “‘We’re here, too, on the other side of the distant sky.’ I think they just wanted us to know that,” he said.
In Iino, stories of alien life have for decades revolved around the pyramid-shaped Mount Senganmori and its nearby wilderness. The summit has given rise to rumors that it was artificially constructed by aliens. Some even believe an alien airbase lies underneath.
These rumors started around the same time that Iino, like many other rural towns in Japan, started grappling with an aging population and a declining birthrate. Fears of radiation poisoning pushed residents out in droves after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake triggered devastating tsunamis and the meltdown of nuclear power plants in Fukushima prefecture, killing more than 18,000 people.
“People with children and such left the prefecture. Those people won’t come back. Ten years have passed, but they won’t come back,” Iino’s UFO lab director Toshio Kanno told VICE World News.
Since his alleged 1972 sighting, Kinoshita has dedicated himself to uncovering the universe’s greatest mysteries and collecting as much information as he can find about extraterrestrial life. He compiles what he refers to as a newspaper of all alien encounters people report to him.
“I don’t dismiss people’s stories. First of all, I listen to what people have to say, and then I draw what can be drawn, and then I transcribe what can be transcribed, and then I make a handmade newspaper,” he said.
Documentation is key. “The first and most important goal is to collect videos and photos” of the objects, Iino’s UFO lab director Kanno said.
To Kanno, collecting such data could prove that aliens exist. “In this world, in the wide universe, I’m sure there’s some type of creature besides us that doesn’t live on Earth,” he said. Kanno himself has not seen an alien aircraft, but has faith he will one day.
The center accepts international reports of alien life, then investigates each claim with the sources provided to determine whether it is credible. Among its files, the laboratory also houses about 935 copies of declassified CIA reports, given to it by the avid Japanese UFO researcher Kinichi Arai.
Kanno said the strongest evidence of alien life collected by the center is declassified CIA reports of flying objects not operated by humans. The center also has photographs of such objects, submitted by witnesses, who believe flying saucers were operated by aliens.
CIA reports, recently released by U.S. intelligence authorities, document several unexplained flying objects detected over nearly two decades. In one instance, from 2014 to 2015, Navy pilots reported being unsettled by sightings of flying objects that could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds without a visible engine. Although U.S. officials found no evidence of alien technology at play, they could not rule it out either.
Japan itself has its own history of UFO sightings. Stories of a hollow saucer-shaped ship landing off the coast of northeastern Ibaraki Prefecture, where Mount Senganmori is located, date as far back as 1803, over a century before the sightings in Iino. Historical documents, including illustrations, describe a pale-faced woman wading ashore in a vessel which looks uncannily similar to a flying saucer.
Japan’s former first lady, Miyuki Hatoyama, has also recounted being abducted by aliens in a triangular-shaped flying saucer. In a book she published in 2008, Hatoyama wrote, “While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus.” She gave her book the title “Very Strange Things I’ve Encountered.”
But behind the push to make Iino an even greater alien-watching hub is also the hope for the town’s revival.
Long before Iino’s alien research lab was created in 2020, the town had established the UFO Fureaikan in 1992, a museum documenting alleged extraterrestrial life. The town received funding from the Japanese government, which distributed grants between 1988 and 1989 to revitalize languishing regions. Inside, the museum displays statues of various human conceptions of aliens and literature about such creatures, and screens a film about alien lore.
Kanno, the director of the UFO lab, said about half of the visitors to the center are tourists from outside Fukushima prefecture. “It’s because so many people are interested in UFOs. When people like that come here, it leads to the revitalization of the town,” he said.
Though the museum is far from making any significant profit, Kanno said it serves more than a financial purpose—it is a space for those who believe in the unknown that lies beyond immediate reality.
“It’s a big universe, so there are a lot of ways to look at something. I think it’s very important to have dreams,” he said.