lunes, 31 de octubre de 2011

Ground Zero: Fukushima

The coastal road from Sendai Port to Soma was in relatively good condition, considering. It, however, was deserted. Dotting the countryside, overgrown fields littered with upturned boats and other debri were framed by neat rows of foundations to homes since swept away by the tsunami. Their concrete interiors had filled with yesterday's rain, mirroring the heavens - a graveyard stretched over a desolate horizon. To think, only several months ago thousands lived here. How many died in the tsunami? Where did the survivors go? As I began to approach Soma city limits, a road block diverted traffic inland. With the dramatic elevation change, Japan's mountains come just shy of the sea, returned civilization. Like a line drawn in the sand, wasteland became fresh tilled fields. In the township of Soma, barely 30 km from Daiichi, the city appeared more or less unaffected; yet there was something amiss. For one, I didn't see any children. Another look at the farms around me, which produce rice, green onions, and a variety of vegetables, and I couldn't help but to think, are they really safe to eat?

In my usual reconnaisance of the city park for a place to camp, I found myself sitting on the granite steps of a Shinto shrine, enjoying the sunset with a cup of green tea, when I had three consecutive visitors. The first was a small white tomcat that took an immediate liking to me. The second was a feline of identical coloring, who remained rather aloof. The third was a traveler, a young man from Tokyo by the name of Ogawa Hirotaka. Ogawa was dressed in a kaki onesy with shin-high black rubber boots; he looked very much the tsunami volunteer. As a matter of fact, Ogawa had just completed a week of volunteer work on the northern coast of Miyagi prefecture and had decided to rent a car and drive to Minami Soma to have a look for himself at the village described by Japan's mainstream media as Fukushima's Ground Zero. "Weren't you afraid of radiation?" I asked him. "No, I did my research first," he replied. Ogawa explained to me what he learned about nuclear radiation and the current state of contamination to the environment in Fukushima. Statistically speaking, the chance of contracting cancer from low doses of radiation is extremely unlikely and Ogawa found online readings that put him at ease about his planned to trip to the area. Ogawa was more concerned for the people who suffered the tsunami's destructive wrath, especially those who didn't have the means to evacuate. There were tears in his eyes as Ogawa related to me a story as it was confided to him by a survivor from Minami Soma who had lost his mother in the deluge following the quake. For one month the man looked for her corpse, answering every call for body identification during that time. He must have seen 400 corpses until he finally located the one that belonged to his departed mother. The body had been found inside the Daiichi evacuation zone and its removal for burial was restricted. The incident caused him so much grief and anger that he physically assaulted the reporting official. It's been over six months and every moment of darkened solace returns to his mind's eye the haunting images of mangled bodies and deteriorated faces he was forced to bare witness in the search for his mother's body. In realizing Ogawa's portrait, I imagined the horror that poor lady must have felt, caught like the helpless skiff in Hukusi's Great Wave.

The road from Minami Soma to Fukushima City is stunning beautiful; radiation however, is invisible. It was mid afternoon and the hotter part of the day had already passed; rays of light filtered yellow through a canopy of pine. Along the roadway the ubiquitous chestnut and persimmon trees of a Japanese Autumn tempted me with their succulent fruit. The chestnuts had ripened on the tree, their seeds protruding from their thorny casks. The persimmons, red and orange, bursting through their skins with sugary pulp, had already begun to fall to the ground, wasted. How I would have loved to eat just one of those delicious fruit; but the words of Dr. Kodama rang in my ears:

"When a vast amount of radioactive materials is released, they are in particles. Dispersion of particles is non-linear, and it's one of the most difficult calculations in the fluid dynamics. The nuclear fuel is like sands buried in synthetic resin, but once the fuel melts down, a large amount of super-fine particles is released."

I imagined everything covered with a thin layer of radioactive cesium dust. Cesium-137 is just one of the many products created when uranium and plutonium absorb neutrons and undergo fission, such as in nuclear reactors or weapons alike. It is this particular isotope that has been the principle pollutant of Daiichi, according to Dr. Yamazaki of Tohoku University. Cesium-137 is a soft, malleable, silvery white metal and unique among metals, it is liquid near room temperature. Because of its chemical properties it makes clean up extremely difficult. Exposure can be external by way of the gamma rays released in decay or internal, to be ingested inadvertently through food, water, or dust. I recalled this last fact when riding over a rough patch of road, a passing car kicked up a dust cloud just ahead of me. I held my breath as long i could, but I was forced to breath some of it in. All my readings this past week about radiation came to the forefront of my mind, taunting me, as I made my way through Fukushima's Danger Zone. In an article written by Dr. Bernard Cohen of Pittsburgh University, I learned that subatomic particles travel at or near the velocity of light, 186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate the human body, damage biological cells, initiate cancer and in some cases, if they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny. Cohen is careful to note that the chances of contracting cancer from radiation is remote, but this area has been reported to be heavily contaminated and as I bicycled past the city of Iatate, I could see for myself that it was completely abandoned. Homes and business were boarded up, driveways were chained shut, and fields and green houses completely overgrown. Iatate is 40 km from Daiichi and it has been reported that traces of plutonium was recently discovered here (a possible indicator that there was in fact a breach of the reactor's containment vessel?). Irrespective of the validity of Dr. Yamasaki's theory that clay does indeed absorb and retain radioactive cesium, there is no clay on the persimmons, nor in the dust in the road, nor on the leaves of the forest.

Having arrived in Fukushima City, I decided to visit the prefectural government offices in order to learn more about what the government is doing to protect it's citizens from exposure. As I entered the offices of the Department of Food Safety I was greeted by a man in a button-up shirt and nondescript tie. He had a round clean-shaven face and he was bald on top. I should perhaps describe my own appearance, which I haven't commented upon since my first post. It has in fact little altered in the past 2 months. Quite contrary to the well groomed bureaucrats, I am never cleanly shaven; yet, I did my best to look presentable. My torn black t-shirt was hidden beneath a vintage checkered-green button-up. In turn, only the collar of the aforementioned threadbare shirt was visible under a kaki orange and brown-striped sweater that had only a minor stain or two. Unfortunately, I do not own a pair of pants at the moment, otherwise I would have worn them. I had to make due instead with my bike shorts, a pair of black short-shorts with white racing stripes, which illintentionally showcase my lank white and hairy legs, further pronounced by rainbow-striped above-the-ancle socks. A slight improvement at the base, my clipless cycling shoes are black and relatively new looking. The fact that I have been so well received in this country despite my dire appearance speaks volumes of Japanese hospitality. I removed the pink trucker's hat from my head and I explained to my contrastingly well-dressed host that I am a blogger investigating the Daiichi disaster and have a few questions about food contamination. The offices of food safety is but a single large room with a low ceiling and it is jammed packed full of desks, manned by an army of suits. My host bid me wait as he made his way to the front of the room to speak with who appeared the captain of the ship, a heavy set man, who's desk is situated at the helm, larger and with a commanding view of his men. I was ushered to a seat at a wooden table where I was greeted by man of remarkably calm disposition by the name of Kenichi Kanezawa. He addressed me in Japanese. "Sumimasen, Nihongowa, wakarimasen," I responded. It is one of the most important phrases I've learned during my stay in Japan: "I'm sorry, I don't speak Japanese". He made a phone call and we were soon joined by an interpreter from the offices of International Relations, a serious looking lady of middle age, bespectacled and in a blue suit. Agent Kenichi explained to me through the interpreter that, with the exception of the fishing industry, all restrictions on food from Fukushima prefecture have been lifted; that is not to say that everything that enters the market is not monitored first to ensure its safety for human consumption. The government has in place regulations as to the allowable levels of radiation deemed safe, which vary depending on the food product. For example, drinking water and milk is set at a limit of 200 becquerel; for rice, as much as 500 becquerel. Initially, the government employed private industry to conduct tests, but the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has since acquired the necessary equipment that testing may now be conducted from within the department itself. It is the responsibility of producers to acquire the necessary checks from the government. There are several areas in Fukushima prefecture that the production, or consumption for that matter, of food and water is restricted. Drinking water in several townships has been found to be dangerously contaminated, at which time the government suspended supply and distributed bottled water in its place, until levels were shown to have decreased to a safe standard. In certain cases, when food products, such as milk, chestnuts, and spinach, showed to be contaminated with radioactive isotopes, such as cesium-137. Those particular goods were sealed in plastic and restrictions were imposed on the land from which they were came. Monitoring is done by way of sampling. Agent Kanezawa was confident that everything on the market today is completely safe. I however was not convinced. I wanted to know specifics on the monitoring process. Is there a certification program - some kind of proof a particular company has undergone necessary testing? Or is there some other method to guarantee that all producers, large and small, obtain the necessary tests that ensure the safety of their product? Most importantly, is sampling really sufficient? If Dr. Kodama is correct in his assertion that contamination of radioactive particles is "non-linnear" and subject to arbitrary patterns of wind and rain, then sampling is surely not an effective measure. Alas, my questions went unanswered. Either the agent at Food Safety did not know the answer to my questions or the interpreter had lost patience. I expect the latter was the case. "You did not make an appointment. This is highly irregular", she repeated several times before finally cutting our interview short. I thought to go to the department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, but I worried the same interpreter might again be called to translate and I did not wish to go back in the ring with her a second round. I decided instead to throw in the proverbial towel and move along to my next destination; I still had a teacher to visit in the city of Koriyama, some 50 km from Fukushima City.

I first heard about Kiyoshi Sasaki in an article published in the online English addition of, entitled, "In Fukushima, students face up to realities of nuclear disaster". At a time when Japan's central government withholds information deemed "inconvenient" or liable to spread panic, Mr. Sasaki has opted for an altogether different approach of honesty with his junior high school science class. I was touched by the story of a teacher who was discussing radiation candidly with his students and has taken the initiative to introduce monitoring equipment to his extracurricular Club of Natural Science, having students test soil from their community and analyze the data for themselves. I arrived to the campus of Meiken Junior High late afternoon, just as classes had begun to let out. Situated on a picturesque lake, students in blue uniform spilled out of the imposing and ultramodern complex of their school and onto the small walking paths that contour the lake, before splintering off into the surrounding residential neighborhood. The teachers' offices are located in a single large glass-walled room at the main entrance to the school. In my usual nonchalance, I strolled right in and asked to speak with Mr. Sasaki. After some commotion, the English teacher, a young man by the name of Yoshiro Fukasaku, being the only individual in the room capable of communicating with me, was procured. I explained to him the nature of my visit and he in turn offered me a seat and a cup of coffee while I waited on Mr. Sasaki, who was engaged in a parent-teacher conference. The day's typhoon rains had me drenched and I took advantage of the delay to regain my composure as I sat dripping on the carpeted floors. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sasaki joined us at the table and Mr. Fukasaku, agreed to act as interpreter. Mr. Sasaki was thrilled I had sough him out after seeing his name mentioned in a newspaper article and responded to my interview with great enthusiasm. What was life like for a junior high school science teacher in Fukushima in the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake? Firstly, School was suspended for a week. The destruction reaped by the tsunami was dreadful and the explosions at the nuclear power plant in Daiichi left the people of Fukushima in a state of suspense, as they didn't know what the future would hold. For many, the incident sparked horrifying recollections of images of the Atomic-bomb ravaged cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of which is etched in the collective memory of Japanese people everywhere. Everyone was glued to their television set, waiting, hoping for answers; answers that were slow in coming. Mr. Sasaki began his own investigation. One of his principle sources for information came from a professor Nakagawa Kayichi of Tokyo University, who was disseminating information about radiation through Twitter. Beginning in April, Mr. Sasaki began commuting to Tokyo to attend radiation conferences for teachers, hosted by the University of Tokyo. When school resumed its normal schedule, children were prohibited from going outside for recess. Long sleeves, caps, and respirator masks became de rigueur and children were refused on the bus unless they were dressed accordingly. Understandably, the children were in a state of confusion and many had questions for their science teacher about radiation. Roughly 60% of them chose radiation as the subject for their summer report. Today the stringent precautions have been eased somewhat. The students are no longer required to don hazmat apparel, but the city of Koriyama still has in place a three-hour limit as to the permissible time children may remain outdoors. Furthermore, starting that very day, the 5th of October, the city of Koriyama initiated a program, in which students were equipped with special radiation monitoring devises to be worn around their neck for a period of one month. The readings will be sent to the Board of Education, which will determine the safety of the schools within its precinct. After completing my interview with Mr. Sasaki I went outside to where my bike was parked to find a group of children waiting for me. Compared with the shyness exhibited by their superiors, when addressing me the students did not hesitate and they were eager to practice the English they had been taught by Mr. Nakagawa. They showed me their monitoring devises and whatever anxiety they may have had in the days immediately proceeding the quake, at present, they seemed generally unconcerned. Only two in a group of 10 admitted fear of unseen radiation. Regardless, they quickly changed the subject. The children preferred conversation related to sports and other such things and they were duly impressed with how far I had ridden my bicycle and they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the drawings in my sketchbook. When they learned that I was to sleep at a gazebo in the lakeside park that rainy night, two among them called their parents to ask if they could invite me for a "sleepover". Both sets of parents declined, but Mr. Nakagawa graciously invited me to spend the evening with his family in their small downtown flat. In the morning, I thought I might join Mr. Nakagawa's English class to lead the day's conversation, a simple contribution that could prove invaluable to the students. Mr. Nakagawa proposed the idea to the principle, but it was promptly rejected, on the grounds that school policy doesn't allow any diversion from the curriculum. I am certain that in Japan there is no equivalent to the English expression "sometimes it's best to ask forgiveness later than permission first".

domingo, 16 de octubre de 2011

A Different Perspective

I arrived in Sendai mid afternoon and went straight to the nearest volunteer coordination center. No one in the office spoke English, but the young lady at the desk made a phone call to a volunteer she knew could communicate with me and promptly handed me the phone. Chizuko and Peter Boberg, California residents, have been living in Sendai and working as volunteers since June. Chizuko is originally from this area and her mother still lives in Soma, Fukushima. The couple warmed up to me immediately and invited me for drinks at a nearby bar. We were accompanied by a friend of theirs from the Sendai swing dancers' circuit, the beautiful and charming Sendai radio mc and swing dancer extraordinaire, Nammy Ogata. Arm and arm, the girls made their way inside the cramped bar to order us a round of drinks and some yakitori. Peter suggested that while the girls waited on the food, we hop on our bikes and take a quick tour of the neighborhood. Peter has blond thinning hair and a short cropped mustache. He is opinionated and outspoken. As we made our way through congested city streets, Peter said to me, "I don't know about you, but I can't stand waiting for stop lights in this country. I just go for it." I share with him my own thoughts on the subject: Often I see Japanese people waiting at a traffic signal even if there isn't a car in sight. I blow through the light in my usual haste and I feel their judging stares. "How 'Japanese' this irrational respect for law and order," I think to myself of the pedestrians I've left in my wake. "How American, this irreverent impatience," might be their retort. The imaginary exchange causes me to feel a little embarrassment of my behavior, but not so much to curb my impatience. Before parting ways for the evening, Peter and Chizako offered to take me to a different volunteer center in the port of Sendai, just 40 minutes by bicycle, where, unlike the center in which I initially inquired, they were confident I could find some immediate work.

I had a day to kill in the city before heading out to the coast and I decided I should learn a thing or two about nuclear power and the dangers of nuclear radiation before my departure for Fukushima. Sendai is home to one of Japan's premier research institutions, Tohoku University, which according to the website, has been on the frontline in the disaster relief effort since the beginning, employing its resources in the School of Dentistry to identify bodies, as well as monitoring radiation levels at its Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center. Before seeking an interview with one of the professors I did some of my own online research and this is what I learned...

On 11 March 2011, Japan was struck by the largest earthquake in its recorded history, a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. With the tsunami that followed, tens of thousands of Japanese lost their lives and the country sustained tens of billions in dollars in damages, including partial meltdowns of 3 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant, which released dangerous radiation into the environment. The area within a twenty mile radius of the plant was permanently evacuated, surrounding cities in the danger zone temporarily evacuated, food and water restricted, and advisories issued that children remaining in the area not go outside unless fully covered and not for more than the suggested daily allowance determined by their locality. More than six months after the quake and the radiation has still not been completely contained. Radioactive plutonium has recently been discovered in six localities, including the city of Iatate, some 40 km from the plant. People are scared. Indeed, nearly everyone I've mentioned of my plans to bicycle to Fukushima has expressed great concern for my safety and urged me to stay far away from the coast. In Aizuwakamatsu, a young lady told me that her friends from outside the prefecture have refused to visit her. Aizu is further from Daiichi than Tokyo and such concerns might be unreasonable, but they demonstrate the stigma now associated with the prefecture. There have been stories in the news of discrimination felt by evacuees; hotels, for example, have refused business to evacuees and their children have been picked on at their new schools. These incidents have prompted the ministry of education to institute a program of radiation education in schools. Many, however, feel the government isn't doing enough. Yasuko, the young lady I met in Kusatsu, who was so concerned about her family in Fukushima, thought the government has been outright dishonest about the severety of contamination to the environment and its associated health risks. One of Japan's most vocal critics of the Japanese government's response to the nuclear disaster has been professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the Radioisotope Center at Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo. On the 27th of July, Kodama gave a now famous speech when he was called as witness to give testimony to the Committee on Welfare and Labor in Japan's lower House in the Diet. Kodama's anger was written all over his face and at times his voice quivered with emotion. Comfortably seated in the driveway of the private home I was pirating wireless internet, I watched the English translation of Kodama's speech on Youtube on my iPod.

"There is no definite report from TEPCO or the Japanese government as to exactly how much radioactive material has been released from Fukushima. Using our knowledge base at the Radioisotope Center, we measured, based on thermal output, it is 29.6 times the amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium-equivalent, it is 20 Hiroshima bombs.

What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth.

In other words, we should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima 1 Nuke Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount of tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb."

Kodama berates the government for their ineptitude and goes on in detail about the dangers of nuclear radiation, the difficulties in detection and clean up, and specifics on how radiation can cause cancer in the human body, of which children and pregnant women are at greatest risk. Kodama appeals directly to the government to make people's health their primary concern, not finance. To see Kodama's speech in its entirety, click on the following link:

I arrived at Tohoku University's Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center mid afternoon. I took my shoes off at the reception, placed them in a cubby and slipped on the courtesy slippers provided. Instead of checking in with the front desk, where it is doubtful I would be understood, much less granted an interview sans appointment, I decided instead to roam the halls with the hopes of running into a professor. I didn't get very far when I was stopped by a man in a lab coat, but, as expected, he didn't speak English. He signaled for me to follow him to a boardroom where a group of important looking people were in the midst of a meeting. A young man, formally dressed, came out to inquire about the purpose of my visit and I told him I wished to meet with a professor. "Which professor?" he asked. "Oh it really doesn't matter, anyone in the nuclear physics department will do," I replied. To my surprise, I soon found myself seated on a plush leather sofa in the office of Professor Yasuhiro Sakemi, the chair of the Nuclear Radiation Physics department. After the initial pleasantries, I got down to business and shared with him my sketch book, describing my journey, in which my sketches corresponded, and how it was that I became interested in the subject of radiation that brought me here today. The professor, amused enough by my presentation, was nonetheless eager to satisfy my queries and explained that he was not in fact the most qualified person for an interview on the topic, but would be happy to introduce me to someone who was. I was then taken to the offices of the research team that has been monitoring radiation levels in the food, water, air and soil of Fukushima and Myagi prefectures since the early days of the Daiichi debacle. I stood by nervously as Professor Yasuhiro debriefed a very serious looking Professor Hiromichi Yamazaki about the nature of my visit. As soon as Hiromichi turned to me, a big smile streched across his face and I was greeted with a warm welcome that put me quickly at ease.

I spoke with Professor Hiromichi for the better part of an hour and as we spoke, we walked out onto a terrace, where a scientist was tweaking a machine that the professor informed me was one such devise for monitoring the levels of radiation in the air. Professor Hiromichi explained to me that samples of vegetables, such as potatoes, spinach, beans, radishes and corn, are brought to the lab courtesy of the Prefectures' Department of Agriculture, which draws its samples from throughout Fukushima and Myagi prefectures. In April, his team found levels of radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 at levels 10x the norm. Levels of radiation have since dropped significantly, and as of late, his team has not found dangerous levels of radioactive material in neither food, air, water, nor soil in Fukushima or Myagi prefectures. Asked how could this be, when there are reports that radioactive material is still being leaked from the plant, the professor explained to me his theory. First off, radioactive iodine has a physical life of only 8 days. As for cesium, the physical life of which, is approximately 30 years, Japan's high clay content has effectively absorbed the radioactive material. In every 100 grams of soil throughout Japan, can be found 20 grams of clay. Once the clay absorbs the radioactive material, it prevents its transmition into the environment. It was professor Hiromichi's professional opinion that the food water and air of Fukushima prefecture at this juncture is completely safe and there is no more need for worry. Furthermore, he believed the biggest tragedy caused by the nuclear disaster would not be actual radiation poisoning, but a misguided perception of radiation that would reap economic destruction on the people of Fukushima, an agricultural people who will no longer find a market for their product. His greatest worries are for the children of Fukushima, who 15 years from today, will have grown up in a welfare state and without the agricultural skills that have sustained their families for generations. This was all very much a surprise to me after reading head line after head line of doomsday scenarios, not to mention the grave accusations made by Mr. Kodama. I asked professor Hiromichi about this apparent inconsistency between his theories and those of his colleague at Tokyo University. Professor Hiromichi remained steadfast and as to the statements made by Kodama, he was baffled. In not so many words, he alluded that perhaps Kodama is not qualified to make the statements he has made or one may speculate that in such instances celebrity is often a motive for sensationalism. I left Tohoku University that day feeling I'd gained a new perspective on the issue, but I cannot say however that all my concerns regarding my planned excursion to the danger zone of Fukushima were queled entirely.

At the volunteer center in the port of Sendai I was given a pair of boots and gloves and put to work with a group of volunteers at the family home of Fujio and Keiko Shoji. The house of traditional Japanese architecture was built 60 years ago by Fujio's father and it was in the same house he spent his childhood and later reared his own family. The Shojis were lucky. Unlike many of their neighbors, who's houses were raised to the ground, their own house sustained 6' of water, but the structure remained sound and the second floor left in tact. At our scheduled breaks, it was in the revived garden that I found a good vantage point from which to sketch the house. Keiko sat before me and allowed me to include her portrait in my drawing. We were soon joined by some of the other volunteers and luckily, there was one among them who was fluent in English. Hiroshi Kariya, whose family had survived the earthquake in Sendai City more or less unscathed, was in the habit of devoting his spare time as volunteer, and he graciously translated the interview between Keiko and I. She was standing in her driveway when the earthquake litterly knocked her off her feet. Given its magnitude, the couple realized a tsunami was immenant and Fujio immediately returned home from work to collect his wife and together they sought shelter at the evacuation center at Tsuramake Elementary School in Sendai City. It was four days before the water level receded and the family could return home. Their front yard was strewn with the wreckage of 6 cars and the roof of a neighboring house sat in their driveway. Insurance companies cover only 1/3 of the repair costs in the case of a tsunami, but the Shoji's were fortunate to reap one half of the value of the incurred damage. Volunteers from all over Japan and other parts of the world have since helped to ease the deficit. However, the losses incurred by the family have not been relegated to the family home, their farms in the vicinity were destroyed completely. The family did have one farm in the nearby community of Wateri that did survive the earthquake, but Keiko is very concerned about radiation contamination. The company they employ to harvest their rice paddy sold the product without preliminary testing. Their field, located just outside the Fukushima prefecture border, is not required to do so by the Department of Agriculture. This seems to weigh heavily on Keiko's conscience. The following day I presented Keiko with my sketch as a present on behalf of the volunteers. She was ecstatic and in turn, gifted me with a blanket embellished with her family's kamon, or family crest.

I remained at the Sendai Port area for a total of three days, working with the volunteers. The group had renovated a house to accommodate volunteers arriving from out of town free of charge. Sharing the cramped two room house with me at the time was the house's manager, Tsuyoshi Ohdera, and 9 university student's from the Tokyo University of Art. For their summer vacation, these conservatory students had formed a not-for-profit, the Furusato
Classic Caravan, which is dedicated to preforming free classical music concerts for victims of the Tsunami living in temporary housing ( ). Before driving out to one of their concerts, Tsuyoshi and I were sitting in the house looking at something on his computer when the house began to shake violently. In shock I looked over at my companion, who was relatively unshaken by the occurence. "We have earthquakes here nearly every week," he explained. Indeed, cycling the roads of Japan I'm often taken by the orderly way in which the Japanese seem to have contained nature at the roadside, all manners of mountain walls are neatly stuccoed or fenced in. Accustomed to the unstable nature of the Japanese archipelago, the Japanese have a perception of their surrounding that can be likened to a sail boat's kitchen, in which everything is tied down. In contrast, it is a surprise how ill prepared the powerplant at Fukushima-Daiichi was for a tsunami. But then again, how can one really think of everything when one is faced with the awesome power of nature. In hindsight, perhaps nuclear power was not such a good idea in place like Japan, which is so susceptible to earthquakes. I guess the question really is, whether or not nuclear power is suited anywhere, considering both its harmful effects to the environment and its vulnerability to the indiscriminate powers of nature.

domingo, 2 de octubre de 2011

Typhoon cycling, Dinner with Yakuza and merriment in Fukushima

I wasn't 15 km out of Kusatsu when the typhoon rains hit Gunma-ken. This is the way it's going to be for the next week, so I might as well get used to it. However, the weather's been getting consistently cooler and rain is no longer refreshing like it was a month ago. With the dusk I role into some one-horse town, I never learn its name, but it's got a side-of-the-road shrine that I can sleep in without being bothered and there is a restaurant where I can dry out for awhile. The restaurant is the only building anywhere around here with a light on. It's got a large red sign as big as a billboard with presumably the restaurant's name in white Chinese characters. I park my bike under the overhang, remove a dry sweater from a plastic bag and go inside. The place is modest alright; zero attempt at frill; besides the drab window curtains, no pictures, nothing. There is only one table occupied at the far end of the room. On a tutami stage three men are seated on the floor. They are talking over each other and their voices fill the empty room. They've obviously been drinking. One of the men gets up to greet me. I assume he's asking me what I'll be having to eat. There are no pictures on the menu so I order the only dish I know they'll have that I can say in Japanese - ramen. One of the other two men, still seated, calls out to me in English. Despite hand gestures from the one who took my order to ignore his friend, I immediately seize the opportunity to join them at their table. Pretty soon I'm passing around my sketch book, distributing stickers, talking a mile a minute about my travels here in Japan and they are obviously amused. Twenty minutes go by before it occurs to me that we don't speak the same language. The man who called me over doesn't speak English after all, but it doesn't matter and we go right ahead talking anyway. By this time I'm an expert in gesture communication, charades or what have you. Turns out the man who took my order is the owner of this fine establishment and the other two are bosses of I don't know what. They act like a pair of regular yakuza right out of a Kurosawa film and they're generous to boot. By the time my ramen comes out, I've eaten and drank so much of their food and sake I'm no longer hungry. When I start sketching their picture they soon forget all about me and eventually, they get up to leave without saying a word.

Rain, rain, and more rain. By the time I crossed the mountain pass into the city of Nikko, my break pads had all but melted away. I found shelter in a two walled gazebo in the center of town, where I sat out the typhoon for the next two days. The rain didn't let up for a minute, isolating me to my modest refuge. On Sunday morning, when the sun finally peaked its head from the clouds, I was eager to leave the confines of my gazebo and get the hell out of this town. It's unfortunate I wasn't in the mood for sightseeing, because Nikko is home to a World Heritage site. A 17th century sacred bridge that is lacquered red, leads to a cedar-lined path of the temple complex, which is perched on hills overlooking the city. My patience allowed only as much time as it takes to walk through each torri and I was back on the bike. The sun was teasing me. No sooner was I out of Nikko and the rains returned in full force. I biked the 100+ km to Aizu-Wakamatzu without stopping in an attempt to sweat away the cold. The first half of route 121 is stunning mountains, lakes, and waterfalls and the rain and fog had a mystical effect on the scenery. The second half of the journey felt more like a subway than a remote mountain pass, there are so many tunnels. I arrived to Aizu just before sunset and the rains had finally exhausted themselves.

Today was the second day of Aizu Autumn festival. I was awoken early in the morning to fireworks being shot off within feet of my campsite in city park, just opposite the castle, alongside a picturesque tree-lined mote. I followed the sounds of drums and amplified voices across an ancient bridge into the castle's inner courtyard, where I was soon greeted by an American working for the city's international outreach center. After a free history tour, I learned that this festival commemorates those that died in Japan's Boshin Civil War (1868). The festival is itself a history lesson, beginning at the castle, actors reenact stories from Aizu's past that span 5 centuries, and then they hit the streets in parade formation. Aizu, the historic capital of Fukushima prefecture, was, as I learned, on the losing side of Japan's civil war. My tour guide explained how even into the modern era's Meiji period, Aizu suffered for it's past political allegiance and it wasn't until the 1960s that Japan's central government permitted the rebuilding of Aizu's castle. It is often the case that poorer locales are chosen as sites for nuclear power-plants. I wonder how the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi might tie into the prefecture's unfortunate history.
After sundown, a public dance is held downtown in the sectioned-off main strip. I began sketching the bandstand and floating paper lights when a lady I met earlier that day with her two young daughters grabs me by the hand to join the synchronized dancing.