Weary after our day’s excursion, we retired to our lodgings for the night: a cosy ryokan (Japanese inn) in Odaka called Futabaya. We were treated to the finest Japanese hospitality: delicious home-cooked meals, comfortable futons on tatami, and a hot offuro bath to wash away the chill of the rain.
In the morning, after a full breakfast of rice, fish, egg and miso, we piled back into our trusty chariot and hit the road, bound this time for Futaba. The power plant straddles the boundaries of two towns – Futaba and Okuma – and we were to visit both.
With Typhoon Shanshan knocking at our door, the weather showed no signs of clearing but we powered through.
The minivan trundled down Route 6, past lines of cherry blossom trees planted by a local community group, and back into the exclusion zone. Route 6 is now completely open for vehicles, though if you try to stop the car or go anywhere on foot or bicycle you’ll be asked – firmly but politely – to leave. The train line between Namie and Tomioka is also out of commission and will be until 2020, due to the amount of work necessary to repair and decontaminate the tracks.
I’ve driven down Route 6 – and through the exclusion zone – several times, passing the hollowed out convenience stores, gas stations and homes, the cars left to rust on the side of the road. I’ve also witnessed the slow revival of Namie; new businesses seem to be springing up every time I drive through, and its schools are reopening for the first time since the disaster. It’s a bittersweet kind of optimism.
This time though, our tour guide Sasaki san switched on the indicator and we pulled up to one of the many gates lining the sides of the highway. A raincoat-wearing official flagged us down and checked our paperwork and IDs, then opened the gate and waved us through.
Conversation in the van was hushed as we drove slowly through the bones of the town, the silence broken by shutter clicks and low murmurs. We’d all seen pictures and videos of the damage but it was something else entirely to see it with our own eyes. After driving for a few minutes past schools and shattered shop fronts, Sasaki san asked if we’d like to get out and walk around.
This is the Fukushima the world sees. The heartrending images of toys in rubble, the crumbling stores with waterlogged stock slowly rotting to nothing on the shelves, lines of school desks with the day’s textbooks still open on a page… The irony is, this is the Fukushima I usually rally against, with my helpful bookmarked list of resources about radiation levels and food safety, my pithy facts. “You know, there are places in the world with higher levels of naturally occurring radiation than Minamisoma.” I’d say. Or, “Those pictures of fish with tumours actually have nothing to do with Fukushima, here’s a link…” and while those things are true, it’s a lot harder to make those glib remarks and rationalisations when the devastation is staring you right in the face.
This is not the Fukushima I see. But here I am. Seeing it.
It fills me with conflict to be adding to the pile of “Fukushima disaster” photos out there on the internet, but this is a harsh reality of the place I’m calling home for now. The sad truth is it’s going to get worse for Futaba and Okuma before it gets better. Huge chunks of the towns are beyond salvageable and will need to be demolished. People’s homes, businesses, wiped off the slate to start clean. And that will likely take decades.
After the main street of Futaba, we visited the former apartment of one of the ALTs with us on the tour. Sarah was an ALT in Futaba for 3 1/2 years before 3.11 happened, and now she teaches English at several elementary schools in Minamisoma. Her apartment still stands empty, although the building is going to be demolished soon and she has just signed the papers for her car so it can be taken away. As we drove around, Sarah showed me some before and after photos she’d taken around her town. It was incredible and saddening to see the contrast.
After the apartment it was off to a windswept beach:
…Then a pit stop at Namie Train Station, the southernmost station north of the exclusion zone. The track has a bridge built across it, so there is no way for trains to head south for the time being.
From there, we visited a Lost & Found charity operating out of an old gift shop. Its shelves were stacked high with photo albums, war medals, cell phones, stuffed toys, art, handbags and more, all recovered from stricken areas. Some 600 people have already been reunited with their lost items and thousands more remain. For now, it stands as a sort of strange museum of memories.
Our final stop was the town of Okuma. Like Futaba, it was clearly a beautiful place in its day but it bears the scars of the past seven years. While exploring Okuma, some of the people in our group spied some inoshishi – wild boars. The boars are a constant source of derision among Fukushima ALTs due to Western media’s fondness for talking about “radioactive boars running amok in Fukushima city” which is… untrue, but it’s towns like Okuma where the seeds of that untruth lie. As I said, this is the Fukushima that the world sees.
Finally, we had our lunch at a brand new restaurant built for the TEPCO workers, most of whom live in a block of modern apartments nearby. Although the heart of Okuma has been badly affected, there are plans to reopen some areas on the fringes of the town in April 2019. Work is underway on a new town centre and we saw a large-scale development which will one day be a community space. It was nice to finish on something of a bright note.
These two days were almost impossible for me to put into words and I can never capture everything I felt – the washes of emotion, the slight tension at the base of my skull, sometimes forgetting to breathe – but I tried my best. I’m eternally grateful to Sasaki san and the Real Fukushima team for giving us all this opportunity. I have complicated feelings on so-called “nuclear tourism” which is becoming more prevalent these days, but I will say that as long as people remain respectful and mindful of what happened here, it’s an incredible and important thing to experience.
Just no #DisasterSelfies. Please.