Return to Fukushima
Surprise Party!

After karate practice, Makoto and his mother invited Miura and me upstairs to their living area for some food.  Makoto’s older brother Ryoichi was there with his wife, and I was happy to see them. 

                   

Imagine my surprise when they suddenly turned off the lights and brought out a birthday cake, singing Happy Birthday in English!

                        

                The cake read Happy Birthday エイミーさん (Amy-san)

My birthday was the week before, on August 26th.  I had told Makoto and his mother that I always remembered Sato Shihan’s birthday was August 27th, because it was the day after mine and we had celebrated our birthdays together when I lived in Japan.  Makoto and his mother remembered, and organized this surprise birthday party for me.  I was so touched!!  And by the way, Japanese cakes are DELICIOUS.

    

Mrs. Sato bustled around in the kitchen.  I chatted for a while with Ryoichi and his wife. 

Ryoichi works for the Fukushima Prefectural government.  He told me that on the day of the earthquake, the trains stopped running, so he had to walk for over four hours from his office in Fukushima City home to Nihonmatsu.  Phones were also out of service, so his family was worried about him.  His wife waited nervously with his mother until he finally arrived home, exhausted.

He says he is still tired.  Soon after the earthquake and tsunami, he was stationed for months at a shelter in Soma City (the city I visited on Tuesday) for victims of the earthquake and tsunami. 

     - Read stories of people a Soma shelter in March here: Japan’s victims struggle to understand what’s happened

     - View pictures of the crowded conditions in a Soma shelter in March here:  A family rests in a shelter in Soma City and Evacuees line up for meals and Evacuees rest in a shelter in Soma City

     - And see a moving montage of snapshots from Minami-Soma (South Soma) and a shelter still operating in July: Minami-Soma city, Fukushima Japan

Life has been very hard since March, Ryoichi said.  For everyone.

                                      ———————-

It was well after 11pm when the festivities began to wind down.  I was COMPLETELY exhausted at this point and Makoto drove me back to my hotel.  I collapsed into bed and fell asleep instantly.

Karate Class

On Thursday evening, I had the fantastic experience of joining a karate practice at my old dojo.  Makoto (now Makoto Sensei!) was kind enough to welcome me to the class, lent me a karate uniform, and even incorporated a lot of English into his teaching for my sake.  He had called all of the students to be sure they came to class that night, and we posed for a lot of pictures.

 

The class was smaller than when I had studied at the dojo with Makoto’s father, Sato Shihan, and there were only children, but they were just as enthusiastic and I could see that the dojo was still going strong despite all the changes.

               My goodbye party with the karate class in 2000

11 years after my last karate practice in Japan, I was thrilled to be part of a class.  The style of karate I learned was Shitō-ryū.  When I returned to the U.S. in 2001, I couldn’t find the same style of karate, and although I tried another style of karate for a few weeks at one point, it didn’t resonate with me and karate fell the wayside. 

From the opening ceremony of bowing and greetings to teachers past and present, to meditation, warm-ups, practicing forms (kata) and sparring (kumite), and then the closing ceremony with more bows, I was completely absorbed in each moment of the class. 


It’s hard to describe the incredible experience of stepping back into what was a huge part my life over a decade ago.  I remembered some parts like it was just yesterday, while others were a bit fuzzy for me.  Most of all, I remembered the feeling of intently watching what others were doing so that I could follow along despite not understanding 100% of the language.  That was one of the greatest lessons I learned from my time in Japan – how to learn from watching and paying attention, rather than just asking questions. 

Halfway through the class, I sat out for a rest (not only is my cardio fitness not up to par these days, but I was also completely exhausted from the whirlwind of the past few days!).  As I watched Makoto Sensei teach, I felt a wave of joy in my heart.  He was a good, kind and caring teacher.  His father would have been proud.  I felt that I had finally made peace with his passing.

            

       Makoto Sensei teaching with his father’s altar in the background

Towards the end of class, I had the opportunity to teach a mini yoga lesson.  It was the first time for everyone to try yoga, and even a few of the parents joined in.  Although Tai Chi is common around Japan, yoga is still relatively new and is hard to find in rural areas. I had a lot of fun teaching and we could all see some similarities between some of the karate postures and the yoga poses.

                                          ————————-

When class was finished, I chatted with the kids and their families.  They all showed me the new dosimeters they wore around their necks which they had just been issued this week.  Some adults have also elected to wear the dosimeters.  One mother explained to me that there is no display on the dosimeters.  The children are to wear them for three months and then send them in for a report about their radiation exposure.  Another mother commented that she didn’t even know if the report would be something they could trust… And besides, what will they do if the levels are high, three months after exposure?  Everyone seemed frustrated, angry and mistrustful, and underneath this, afraid. 

                 

I asked the kids what they thought of wearing the dosimeters, and they groaned and said it was annoying.  They had to keep them on at all times except when bathing, and they had to keep track of the percentage of time spent indoors and outdoors each day. 

I had to wonder, would these dosimeters actually benefit the safety of the children wearing them?  Or would they just be a way to collect data in the name of science…                      

Related articles:

     - Fukushima radiation fears: children near nuclear plant to be given monitors

     - Doubting Assurances, Japanese Find Radioactivity on Their Own

     - NEI Updates on Fukushima

 

Miura, one of the senior students of my teacher with whom I used to practice, had come to the dojo to see me.  After the kids slowly trickled out after class,  Makoto Sensei had us pose for a few more photos.  I remembered a similar photo shoot with my teacher Shihan shortly before I left Japan in 2000. 

 

                                          Posing with Miura

            

                                 Sparring with Makoto Sensei

  

                       Sparring with his father Sato Shihan in 2000

Economic Hardship in Nihonmatsu

In the afternoon, I went for a walk through Nihonmatsu’s main street.  Once again, I was surprised and a bit delighted at how the street looked just as I had remembered it.  But after a while, it became a bit disturbing.  The streets were empty of customers, many shops were closed, and those that were open all seemed very … dusty.  Was it just me, or had Nihonmatsu turned into a bit of a ghost town too??

 

I stopped into one shop that I used to frequent on my walk home from work, and it looked like even the stock was the same as back in 2000, again, covered in dust.  I bought a few things because I wanted my little bit of tourism money to be spent locally, and the elderly woman caring for the shop ran after me as I left and gave me a free gift of a large pack of tissues.

               

This is another sign telling Nihonmatsu residents to fight and not give up, but it is written in the local slang, reading gambappe Nihonmatsu instead of gambatte.

Later, I did a bit of research and learned that Nihonmatsu and other rural areas like it had been in a downward economic spiral for a while.  This 2009 article in the Christian Science Monitor focused specifically on Nihonmatsu:  Rural Japan warms to opposition as election looms 

"If you were kind, you could call the main street of this rural county town "sleepy."

You could also call it dead. There was barely a pedestrian to be seen on a sunny Thursday afternoon this week, and just one old man scanning the shelves at a 7-Eleven.”

Certainly, the radiation fears will make it much harder to prevent the downward spiral, let alone truly revitalize the area… I shudder as I imagine what the future could hold.

How Japan’s Fukushima disaster may exacerbate population woes 

                                               —————-

And yet, there are some signs of vibrancy.  I see an area of town that has been redone, where a drainage canal has been added in recent years:  

   

A new dance studio:

   

And a large mural depicting scenes from Nihonmatsu’s famous fall Lantern Festival:

   

On the way back to my hotel, I make a stop at the local shrine.  I always remember when Mr. Tanji gave me a tour of Nihonmatsu when I first arrived back in 1998.  He pointed to this temple and said “jinja temple”(jinja means a Shinto shrine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto_shrine), and later, pointed out other “jinja temples” throughout town.  I, however, heard “GINGER temple” and thought to myself, wow, Japanese people really revere ginger!!

   

   

   

I walk through the layers of gates and thresholds, admiring the beauty, surrounded by a chorus of cicadas.  I am alone except for a man who is sweeping, and he hardly glances up. 


                  

                  

I notice along the way that the ropes of omikuji white paper fortune strips and wall of wooden ema prayer boards were full. (Read more here: Shinto Shrines)

    

I finally reach the main shrine.  I spend a quiet moment offering up prayers of my own - for peace, safety and healing.

Lunch at Denny’s with Mr. Tanji!

Lunch at Denny’s with Mr. Tanji!

School Visits

On Thursday, I visited Nihonmatsu First and Second Junior High Schools.  Once again, I had the incredible feeling that I had stepped into a time capsule and traveled 12 years back in time.  The school buildings and grounds looked just the same to me, the students in their school uniforms and other requirements such as hairstyles looked the same, and I saw some of the same teachers with whom I used to work.

 

                                      1Chu staff room

 

                     2Chu staff room (notice the similarities?)

At my first stop, Nihonmatsu First Junior High School (1Chu), I met Kaori Endo.  She was a relatively new English teacher when I worked with her at 1Chu in 2000.  Since then, she had been transferred twice, and had just been transferred back to 1Chu a few weeks prior to my visit.  She was gracious enough to welcome me to two of her classes.  In fact, there were three English teachers in the room during my visit.  Like many classes in the area this year, Ms. Endo is team-teaching with a relocated teacher from Namie Town.

          

                      The principal of 1Chu, me, and Ms. Endo

I never really imagined that after all these years I would be stepping back into the role of ALT (Assistant Language Teacher).  It was a bit surreal to go through the still familiar steps of the class – opening greeting, Ms. Endo’s introduction of the lesson, my self-introduction and student questions, and then an assignment in the textbook that students completed and brought to the front for teachers to check.  So many memories of teaching in Japan came flooding back, and yet at the same time, it was nice to feel the grounding of more than 12 years of teaching experience since the JET program coming through.  I was relaxed and comfortable in front of the class, and truly enjoyed visiting with the students.

    

The students were in their first year of junior high school, roughly equivalent to 6th grade in the U.S.  The school year begins in April in Japan, but due to all the turmoil of the March, the teachers did not switch classes and/or schools as they usually do at that time, and instead waited until August.  Ms. Endo was still getting to know her students. 

I introduced myself in slow, careful English.  The students haven’t studied English for long, so they could only understand bits and pieces, but Ms. Endo helped them with comprehension.  When I said that I lived in Japan from 1998-2000, one of the students exclaimed in Japanese, “That’s when we were born!!”  So much for the time capsule. :) 

   

      The second class - they had just finished gym class the period before

The students were invited to ask me questions, and they ranged from asking me how many hamburgers I eat a day (many students seemed convinced that this is the foundation of the American diet!) and what kinds of cars are popular in the U.S. (wrong person to ask about this!), to what American people think of Fukushima and whether or not American people buy food from Fukushima now.  As they listened wide-eyed to my answers, I was so sad to confirm for them that Fukushima truly is infamous now.  Before March 11, hardly anyone I knew had a clue where Fukushima was.  I would tell people that I once lived in Japan, they would ask where I lived, and I would have to say something like “Fukushima Prefecture, it’s a rural area about 150 miles north of Tokyo.”  Now the name Fukushima is enough, and people cringe, repeat “Fukushima??” and look at me searchingly for more information about whether or not I was connected to the areas of the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation.

At one point, I asked the students if they had anything they wanted to share about their experiences from March.  The one thing that stood out was that many students were dearly disappointed that they missed their elementary school graduation.  The ceremonies were scheduled for soon after March 11 but were cancelled due to the circumstances.  Instead, teachers went to each home to deliver the diplomas. 

Here is an article about this year’s school graduations in the region: Graduations held at evacuation centers

Next, I visited 2Chu.  While 1Chu is in the center of town and has an urban feel to it, 2Chu is out in the rice fields and the smallest of the three Nihonmatsu junior high schools.  When I lived in Nihonmatsu, I always loved the view of the fields on my walk from the bus stop to 2Chu.  Sometimes if I was lucky, I would see the shinkansen (bullet train) zooming over the bridge in the distance.

  

Nowadays, 2Chu is smaller than ever.  Instead of three classes per grade, there are now only two.  When I asked why the school population has shrunk, I was told that people are having fewer children these days.  I also know that rural depopulation has been affecting the area in recent decades, as young people leave country life in favor of city living.    

Here is an article from 2004 on this issue: Rural life’s slow death 

        

Former music teacher friend of mine who is now 2Chu’s assistant principal, the principal of 2Chu, myself, Mr. Nakayama a current English teacher, and Mr. Tanji

At 2Chu, I visit with Mr. Abe, a former English teacher I worked with who is now a special ed teacher.  While most of the people I have met on this trip do not look like they have aged much since I was last here, Mr. Abe is an exception.  He looks very tired.  When I visit with him, he tells me that it has been a challenging season for him, as he has just changed schools again and is adjusting to his new assignment.  Besides that, his family is from Soma. 

Soma – the tsunami stricken town on the coast that I had visited the day before.  He tells me about how he drove to Soma on the day of the earthquake as soon as he heard about the tsunami to check on his relatives.  Luckily, his mother was fine.  An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, Mr. Abe told me emotionally that she was surprised when he appeared at her door, asked what he was doing there, and had he eaten supper yet?  His mother is now living in central Fukushima with one of Mr. Abe’s brothers.  Unfortunately, his two elderly aunts were not as lucky. Both perished in the tsunami.  His uncles and cousins survived, but they are now homeless.  Meanwhile, Mr. Abe’s daughter, a high school student, had just returned from spending the summer with an aunt in a prefecture up north.  They sent her there to be safe from radiation.

I tried to imagine how hard it must be for Mr. Abe to be going through all of this, and at the same time having to keep up with teaching, and a new semester at a new school… I was so wrapped up in our conversation that unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to take a photo with him before he had to rush off to class.  Below is a photo of him taken in 2002.  My heart goes out to him and his family.

                                     

Finally, one of the current English teachers at 2Chu, Mr. Nakayama, gave me a little tour around the school building.  Again, it looked exactly the same to me as it had in 2000.  Mr. Nakayama pointed out some changes, however.  Like a crack in the wall of the school gym and a pulley system of supports holding the balcony up, after damage from the earthquake.

                

In the school courtyard, I noticed sunflowers.  I had seen sunflowers all around town and commented that they were so beautiful.  Then I learned that the sunflowers had been planted to absorb radiation, and that’s why I saw them all around town.  So beautiful, and yet a constant reminder of the reality of Nihonmatsu’s fears.

   

This is an excellent article about the state of things in Fukushima 6 months after 3/11, including a good explanation of the use of sunflowers: Fukushima disaster: it’s not over yet

And an article about the uncertainty facing young people in the region: Youths of Fukushima wonder whether to stay or leave

Evening in Koriyama

Kayo was my first friend in Japan.  I like to say she came with the apartment. J  She had been dating my predecessor (JET lingo for the person who had my position before me), so when I arrived she met me at my new apartment and showed me around town a bit.  I always remember that first afternoon when she took me grocery shopping.  There were so many new and different items in the store, I was so grateful to have her help navigating!  We soon became fast friends, and I met other Japanese friends through her as well.

The last time I saw Kayo was in 2002, when I came to Fukushima Prefecture for a visit after leading a group of U.S. high school students to a different region of Japan for the summer.  At that time, she had recently gotten married, and I went to her house in Koriyama City for a fun night of food, beer, and lots of laughter with her, her husband, and a friend.

       

                         Me, Michio, Kayo and Fumi in 2002

Fast forward to 2011, and she now has a 6-year old daughter Atsuno, whom I had never met!  I was really looking forward to catching up.

     

I took the train about half an hour south from Nihonmatsu to Kayo’s hometown Koriyama City, one of the largest cities in Fukushima.   

     

(Koriyama photo from http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/1370335.jpg)

Kayo picked me up at the station and it was so nice to see her.  As soon as we said hello, I had that feeling again that time had not passed at all... Until I heard a little voice from the backseat and turned around to see a very cute little girl saying hello to me!  “Call me Ako” she had practiced saying in hesitant  English.  Since I hadn’t seen Kayo in all these years, it was hard to believe this was her child!!  We laughed and laughed about how so much had changed and yet in many ways we felt the same. 

           

Back at their house, Kayo prepared dinner while Ako and I played together.  Kayo’s  husband Michio, an electrician, works late and wouldn’t be home for a while. 

  

Over dinner of cold ramen salad, one of my favorite summertime dishes, we talked a bit about the earthquake.  Kayo, a daycare teacher, was working when it struck.  She said it was good that the kids were in the middle of naptime, so they were all on their futons and calm and some slept through the entire thing.  Ako told me that she was in kindergarten when the earthquake struck.  She reenacted her teachers telling everyone “get under your futon!”  and the way that everything shook around her. 

The earthquake damaged many buildings in Koriyama, and like many parts of Japan, they also lost power and water and had difficulty getting supplies like food and gas after the quake.  Kayo explained that they were lucky because they live in an old house and always buy bottled water, so they had plenty on hand to drink.  Also, like most Japanese people, they keep bathwater in the bathtub to be used more than once (in Japan people wash before entering the bath, which is for relaxing rather than bathing) so there was enough water to last for the week or so that they were out.

Here is a blog post written by someone living in Koriyama shortly after the earthquake: Living in the Earthquake Aftermath in Koriyama, Japan 

Video – Earthquake Damage In Koriyama City, Fukushima I

        - Earthquake Damage In Koriyama City, Fukushima II

Kayo didn’t talk a lot about her worries about the current situation.  She did say, however, that she tries not to let her daughter eat food from Fukushima, in case it is contaminated.  She said that her daughter’s kindergarten does not serve food from Fukushima, but they do serve milk from Fukushima.  Kayo asked that her daughter not be given the milk and they were very accommodating and she will get juice or some other option instead… Kayo says she worries about the other kids who are drinking the milk, though.  It is hard to know what is safe.

Information about the situation for Fukushima’s farmers:

        - Uncanny Territory: a documentary about organic farmers facing Japan’s nuclear crisis

        - Sugeno fights for his Fukushima farm  (Nihonmatsu farmer)

Articles about Fukushima milk:

        - Dumped Milk, Thinning Cows Signal New Threat on Fukushima Farms

        - Fukushima milk back in Japanese stores

At the end of the night, we put Ako to bed and then waited for Michio to come home from work.  He finally arrived a little after 11pm.  He looked tired.  I asked why he worked so late, and he said the hours were typical for him.  He also works Saturdays. 

Kayo was kind enough to drive me back to my hotel in Nihonmatsu.  Although I was so exhausted that I was falling asleep mid-conversation on the way home, it felt too soon to say goodbye again.  We told each other we would do our best to not let nine years pass before meeting again.

                       

Namie’s Relocated Town Office in Nihonmatsu

After tea with Misa-san, Mr. Tanji kindly took me to find Kristin’s former supervisor, Shimizu, from Namie Town.  After evacuation due to proximity to the Daiichi nuclear plant, Namie’s town offices and schools were now located in Nihonmatsu.  We first stopped by an old elementary school that was being transformed into a junior high school for Namie students.  As we walked into the school, we passed students working hard to remove rust from an entryway. 

 

Teachers we met in the hall told us that we could find Shimizu-san in the town offices, now located on a floor of the “Gender Equality Building” in downtown Nihonmatsu, so we went there next. I remembered seeing frightening pictures of that building in March, soon after the earthquake.  Every time I searched the internet for information about Nihonmatsu, pictures like this came up:

              

Futaba Kosei Hospital patients who might have been exposed to radiation are carried into the compound of Fukushima Gender Equality Centre in Nihonmatsu Sunday morning. They were waiting for evacuation when an explosion of Unit 1 reactor of the complex blew off the top part of its walls on Saturday.

http://apps.detnews.com/apps/multimedia/index.php?search=nihonmatsu

Now, there was no sign of radiation checks and it looked like any other building, with a very full parking lot.  Mr. Tanji had to park across the street. 

As soon as we walked in, I could sense tension in the air.  A few floors of the former Namie town offices had been condensed to one, and it was crowded.  The lobby was full of evacuees seeking town services.  People looked extremely busy and tired.  As I looked around me, I thought about how everyone in that room must have suffered such losses - homes, neighbors, friends and family… and now they were here, working hard to keep their town going.

We were finally led to Shimizu-san, whose desk was in a small corrider.  He too seemed tired and busy, but took the time to say hello and visit with us.  He immediately had his desk mate take a picture of us to email to Kristin.  A former kindergarten teacher, she said that the days had been long since relocation, and that she rarely left the office before 11pm.  She said that people were exhausted, but everyone was doing their best.

         

I desperately wanted to track down the Kimura family, whom Kristin and I had been friends with when we lived in Japan.  I had heard that they were safe, but I didn’t know where they were living, and I only had their home telephone number which obviously wouldn’t work since they had evacuated.  I asked Shimizu-san how I could find them, and he began to look through a long list of Kimuras on his computer.  Finally, knowing that I had to catch a train soon, he told me not to worry, he would do his best to get me the information. 

                                     ————————————

The next morning I found that he had hand-delivered a note to my hotel with warm wishes to me and the cell phone numbers of Mrs. Kimura and her son.  I was overjoyed that I would be able to contact them, and so incredibly touched that Shimizu-san had taken the time to help me despite a workload I can hardly imagine. 

Tea with the Tanjis

After our trip to Soma, we stopped by Mr. Tanji’s house to visit with his wife, Misa.  I remembered staying with the Tanjis one night for a “homestay” when I first arrived in Japan.  Misa-san had prepared a beautiful selection of fruit for an afternoon snack.

 

We talked with Misa-san about our experiences on the coast.  Afterwards, they told me their personal stories about the earthquake.  Misa-san had been in a bookstore.  She said it was very scary to see books flying off the shelves left and right.  Luckily, everyone in the store was safe.

Mr. Tanji was at home when the earthquake struck.  He was watching TV, and saw an earthquake warning.  He had only seconds to respond before the quake hit.  He demonstrated how he jumped up and held onto a large bookshelf as the whole house rocked and he watched his large flat-screen TV sway and totter, threatening to fall and smash on the floor.  The earthquake lasted a long time, and all he could do was keep holding on for dear life.  Luckily, the house only sustained minor damage.

Here is a description of the earthquake early warning system:  Japan’s Earthquake Warning System Explained

Mr. Tanji went on to explain that after the earthquake there was a gasoline shortage that added to the complexity of the situation.  With reports of radiation leakage, many people tried to leave the area, but they couldn’t get far because they ran out of gas.  It was also hard to get supplies into the area, so there were food and water shortages.  Mr. Tanji had gas and water, and he said he made many trips up north to deliver water to people he knew who didn’t have any.

Here’s a link to a video of the gas shortages in the days following the earthquake: Food and water shortage in Fukushima

Video of the drive through the evacuated “hot spot” town - views of overgrown rice fields, abandoned shops and houses, and a school.

Ghost Town - a drive through an evacuated “hot spot”

We took the mountain route back to Nihonmatsu from the coast instead of the expressway.  The mountains were beautiful, and reminded me of the times I visited my friend Kristin in Namie on the coast. 

 

Just as I was enjoying the mountain views, Mr. Tanji informed us that although we were well outside of the 20km evacuation radius of the Daiichi nuclear power plant, we were driving through a radiation “hot spot” and that this are had been evacuated as well.  Suddenly I noticed the eerie sight of overgrown, untended rice fields. We soon came to the center of the small town where we saw deserted shops, homes, a school, and town offices.

 

          

In a way, the drive through this ghost town hit me even harder than our visit to the coast.  It just looked so wrong for the shops to be closed up, curtains drawn in homes, and not a soul to be seen on the streets.  (Well, except for one gas station attendant and a police patrol – it seems that this is still a busy road for cars crossing the mountains.)  I imagined people packing up to go when they were told to evacuate, maybe thinking that they had been safe before that, neighbors dispersing to different places, not knowing if they would ever return again.  And just like that, a town deserted.

Further reading:

- Beyond Japan’s Fukushima exclusion zone, shuttered shops speak to radiation doubts

- Japan expands Fukushima evacuation zone. Will residents ever return home?

-The dairy farmers who returned to Fukushima’s fallout path

-One man and his dog have only each other for company in Japanese town abandoned after earthquake

 

And a news segment with footage from within the evacuation zone and a discussion of the confusion as to safety:  Return to Fukushima

 

revolving sushi

We broke up the heaviness of the afternoon in Soma with a stop at a large conveyer belt sushi restaurant.  It was strange to cross the line from destruction to what seemed like normal life in Soma.  The restaurant was crowded with people. 

     

It was fun to watch the small plates of sushi go by on the conveyer belt and to choose what we wanted.  You take whatever you want, and later they count your plates to charge you.  I had been to this type of restaurant before, but it was the first time I had been to one where special orders could be placed through a computer in the booth and then the order would arrive on its own track on a plastic bullet train, stopping right at the booth. 

                            

      

Mr. Tanji and Makoto laughed at my delight when the little bullet train whisked an order to our booth, and it was nice to laugh again.  The rest of the week, Mr. Tanji repeated the story of how much fun I had watching the the bullet train go “peeeeow” as it shot across the conveyor to bring us our orders.

Surveying the damage in Soma.

Trip to Soma - recovering from the tsunami

On Wednesday, Mr. Tanji, Makoto and I drove to Soma, a city on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture which was hit hard by the tsunami.  It was the first time for each of us to see the area since the destruction. 

                       The red marker on this map is near Soma.

On our way to Soma, we drove up the Tohoku Expressway to Sendai.  I remember highway tolls being quite expensive in Japan, and when we reached the outskirts of Sendai, I offered to pay.  I was surprised when Mr. Tanji said not to worry, we wouldn’t have to pay anything, it was free.  He showed the man in the booth an official looking piece of paper and we were allowed to go through.  He pointed around at the other cars, saying that everyone else was doing the same thing, and explained that the paper he showed was a document certifying that Mr. Tanji’s house had been damaged in the earthquake (he had some damage to his roof) so he could travel for free for now. 

                         

Speaking of roof damage, we saw blue tarps covering rooftops all along the way.  Mr. Tanji explained that many roofs were damaged in the earthquake, and not only were they very expensive to repair, but roof repair people were in such high demand it was hard to get the work done.  The blue tarps will probably be around for a while.

       

We stuck to the outskirts of Sendai, a large city in Miyagi Prefecture which was on the news a lot after the tsunami because its major airport was largely destroyed.    As we began driving down the coast towards Soma, the first sign of the tsunami that we saw were brown rice fields, killed and discolored from the saltwater.  It was strange at first, as brown rice fields stretched off to the left of the highway, but green rice fields grew to the right. 

  

Obviously in this area the water had not breached the road.  On the left, among the discolored fields, we could see two-story houses washed away leaving only a skeleton for the first floor.  Every now and then we would also see huge piles of crushed cars or building rubble.  The enormity began it hit me.  This was it, this was part of the land hit by the tsunami.  At that point, we were still far enough from the shore that we couldn’t even see the ocean.

  

Soon, we arrived at an area that looked like a war zone.  Most of the destruction from the tsunami had been cleared up, leaving huge open areas of building foundations and smaller rubble here and there.  We pulled over near a washed out bridge, where pavement barely remained on the road, and got out of the car. 

Mr. Tanji said it used to be a train station.  He searched books of pictures taken right after the tsunami to see if he cound find a picture of the same station.  It was hard to imagine that a station, houses, and shops all used to exist where we stood.  It was hard to comprehend the situation at all… It felt more like a construction site to me.  Or again, like a war zone.  Although much had already been cleaned up, I was overwhelmed looking at the desolation to see how much work still lies ahead.

  

On our drive out of the ruined station area, we passed a pile of gravestones.  An elderly woman and a young child were placing flowers at a gravesite on the edge of the rubble. 

  

                                          piles of gravestones

I had heard that a tsunami warning was issued before the tsunami hit, and I asked Mr. Tanji why so many people were still killed.  First of all, from what I gather, the tsunami hit anywhere from 5-30 minutes after the earthquake, depending on the area, which was not a lot of time.  Second, not everyone heard the tsunami warning – if people did not hear the sirens where they were, did not have the radio on, and did not get a cell phone emergency warning, then they did not know the tsunami was approaching.  Mr. Tanji explained that even people who heard the warning did not imagine that the tsunami would be SO big and reach such a distance, and so many did not know that they needed to evacuate or did not evacuate far far enough.  In many areas, those who tried to evacuate by car were stuck in traffic jams.  And finally, many elderly people remained in their homes, unable to evacuate at all.

This article describes the challenges people had in evacuating:  How much warning did Japan get before the tsunami hit? 

And here is some terrifying footage of the tsunami from the perspective of someone attempting to evacuate in their car (WARNING: I found this extremely disturbing to watch): Japanese Tsunami Viewed From A Car 

          

                        Next we stopped at a beach area. 

         

Mr. Tanji looks at a picture of an electric plant a few hundred meters away from the beach, taken shortly after the tsunami.

Later, we drove through an area where boats were scattered in rice fields and marshes.  About all we said to each other was “wow” as we saw one boat after another.  They looked like toy boats to me, abandoned by a child…

It was so hard to wrap my head around how they had really ended up there.  I pick up one of the books that Mr. Tanji had brought, full of pictures from after the tsunami – the destruction, people mourning lost loved ones, wailing in piles of rubble… I immediately closed the book and put it down.  It was too much to see. 

                                                                

                     


This is a link to news coverage from March 12, the day after the earthquake and tsunami, on NHK (Japan’s PBS) including coverage of Sendai and Soma:  Before and After the tsunami, Japan, 2011 march 11

 And here is a recent article which shows pictures from immediately after the tsunami compared to pictures on the 6-month anniversary: Japan Earthquake: Six Months Later  These pictures look a lot like what I saw.  You can see that an amazing amount of progress has been made in the clean-up, but there is still so much to be done.

Urban Hotel

I forgot my camera at Mita Sensei’s house last night, and he very kindly brought it to my hotel in Nihonmatsu and left it at the front desk for me.  Along with the camera, he left this sweet letter.

(The coin he refers to is a lucky charm that Makoto gave me which I put on my camera strap.  It has a 5-yen coin -the shiny one on the left - and a figure of a rabbit since this is the year of the rabbit in the zodiac.)

Speaking of my hotel, it is quite different from the beautiful ryokan in Dake Onsen.  I am now staying at the Urban Hotel right in front of Nihonmatsu Station.  I always remember everyone saying this is the best hotel in town, but it seems old and a bit neglected to me, with an outdated room smelling of years of stale cigarette smoke.

                   

The people who work here are very kind, however, the breakfast decent, location convenient, and there is a nice view of town out my window.

    

When I checked in, I asked why the hotel was full, since I knew it wasn’t due to a sudden boom in tourism.  The clerk told me that many evacuees are staying in the hotel, subsidized by the government.  I wonder what will happen when they move out eventually…

Here is an article I found which discusses that very issue: Fukushima hotels face financial crisis as evacuees move into temporary housing 

Dinner in Motomiya with Mita Sensei and Family

Mita Sensei is a retired English teacher who lives in Motomiya, a town about 10 minutes by train from Nihonmatsu.  He is somewhat of a local ambassador.  Now 80, he has befriended many international visitors, taught Japanese and explained cultural nuances, and enthusiastically promoted cross-cultural exchanges in his community over the years.  He welcomed me very warmly when I first moved to the area, and he was among the few people I met in those years to use email regularly, so we have always kept in touch.

In fact, it was Mita Sensei who gave me information right away after the March earthquake and tsunami.  Here is one of his emails:

                                 —————————————-

Dear Amy san,

How are you doing?
Though we have been hitting by the quake since March, we are DAIJOUBU (okay)!

Every day especially in the evening and midnight it comes! We are afraid of the VISIT while having a bath. Besides the radiation. The nuclear power stations      have given radiation every day. Some cities, towns and villages have already moved to the other ones. More than 130,000 people of three prefectures are still living in the gyms, for instance. A 103-year old man killed himself, because he didn’t like to leave his house. I know his feelings.

Nearly 30,000 people were killd and missing by the 4th biggset quake and tsunami. Many houses were fallen down or given damages in Motomiya. In Nihonmatsu many houses were broken, but public buildings are all right, I hear.  Koriyama is very serious. city hall, culture center, centeral community center, a big hospital Koriyama station many tall buildings near it and some senior high schools were destroyed. Kenta, one of our grandsons living near our house have been staying in the house. His school is in Koriyama and it will start at the beginning of May. He will have two months spring vacation! Now my wife and Kenta are planting the potatoes in his vegetable garden. The soil is also polluted and dangerous but as his mental situation is more dangerous, she asked him to help. Working is much better than watching TV games. But Amy san I am very sorry that no one will eat the potatoes. We will get every kind of food at the other safe areas.  The farmers are very poor. Just because of the brand of Fukusima people won’t buy.

While I am mailing, they finished the work. He got 2,000 yen!

There are sad news on TV, we got the only one happy and good news. One dog drafting on the roof of the house on the sea for 3 weeks was saved by a           helicopter! And he saw his master at the animal hospital a few days later. They were very happy. Many animals died and are missing and there are many           animals missing the masters now staying at the facilities. But this is also good      news. A lot of people have offered to be their masters! It is good, I think, to      finish my mail with a happy news!

We Japanese are always thankful to you America. Thank you indeed!

Genkide Ganbari masu!

                                 —————————————-

Now, I was looking forward to joining Mita Sensei and his family for dinner.  When I arrived at the train station, he was waiting for me and we took a taxi down the steep and winding road to his house.  His house is beautiful – a traditional style for the region.

    

Soon after greeting his wife Kazuko, we were joined by his son Takashi, his wife Yumiko, and their two teenagers Kenta and Sakurako who live in a house right at the end of Mita Sensei’s driveway.  Oh, and a timid ball of fur, their cat Mimi.

 

     Yumiko (and Mimi!), Sakurako, Takashi, Mr. Mita, Kenta, Kazuko

There was a huge array of dishes on the table and it felt like a feast.  We chatted about small things, and then the conversation quickly moved to the current state of affairs. 


At one point, Mita Sensei showed me a large stone monument in their yard that had broken.  He said that they will not repair it.  They want to keep it as a reminder of the March 11 earthquake. 

Mita Sensei’s son Takashi, an elementary school teacher, also talked about the importance of remembering.  He said that it is very important for adults to gambaru (do their best, not give up) right now, for their children’s sakes, so that their children will be able to grow up and speak about this time.

Later, Mita Sensei told me that his grandson, who is 17, is very kind to his grandparents and visits every day after school.  His granddaughter, on the other hand, who is 13, rarely visits he said, because she is worried about the radiation.  I was quite perplexed – the house is only about 50 yards away!  It’s the pine trees, he explained.  They hold the radiation longer than other trees because of the shape of their needles.  The house is surrounded by pine trees, so Sakurako is afraid to visit.

He tells me that in Koriyama, a large city to the south, the PTA is trying to wash trees and remove dirt from playgrounds and parks in order to clear out the radiation.  Everyone is nervous about the future and the impact of the radiation, which is yet unknown.  According to Mita Sensei, thousands of families with children have left the Tohoku area.  Local commerce is suffering - fruits and veggies are now imported from other areas, and although the government says that the rice is fine, no one wants to buy it.  Farmers are in trouble. 

And yet, Mita Sensei and his wife smile cheerfully and ask how I am doing, about my life in America, and tell me how happy they are to see me.  Everyone fears they are in trouble here.  And yet life keeps moving along.

Recent articles about rice farming in the Tohoku region:

     - Restore Tohoku region as nation’s granary

     - Tohoku autumn delicacies go uneaten

And an article from 2009 that shows the challenges rice farmers were facing even before the triple disasters of March.

     - Japan’s Rice Farmers Fear Their Future Is Shrinking