It’s time to taste what you most fear,
Right Guard will not help you here,
Brace yourself, my dear,
Brace yourself, my dear,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
It’s tough kid, but it’s life,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
Don’t forget to pack a wife…
(With apologies to The Dead Kennedys)
Japan’s Golden Week break in late April and early May is often a wash-out: the four national holidays regularly fall in part on a weekend, the roads seethe with epic bumper-to-bumper jams, hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and even if you finally reach your chosen destination, queues of hours for the attraction are inevitable if it is at all popular.
This year augured better, though: the national holidays distributed themselves beautifully across the calendar, meaning a whole week off could be had for the price of a single working day’s vacation, and the national mood of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disaster was leading the media to predict that traffic volumes would be down by a third to a half. It was time, I decided, to leverage these fortuitous circumstances. Where would the roads be most deserted, where would the hotels be emptiest, where would the queues be shortest, I mused. It was time, I decided, for a holiday in Fukushima.
An accident on the elevated expressway out of the capital brought an hour of almost total immobility, with the trucks thundering past on the inbound lanes causing the ancient, rickety structure to vibrate like an endless earthquake. Eventually we were unshackled, and heading north was like rewinding the clock of spring: while the new verdancy in Tokyo was already dazzling, here the landscape was draped in tentative greens and the delicate pinks of cherry trees.
Few vehicles were left on the expressway as the border loomed. Welcome to Fukushima, said the sign, with inauspiciously high waves menacing a lighthouse, and welcome to Iwaki, where the Hula Girls were born.
Fukushima has been cursed by the decision of a nameless apparatchik or faceless committee many decades back to name Fukushima Daiichi and Daini not after the city, town, or village where they are located, as all but one of the nation’s 15 other nuclear power plants are, but after the whole of the prefecture. Had the decision fallen differently, the litany of nuclear tragedy would read Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Okuma, but now the entire prefecture and its two million inhabitants are tainted by association, a contaminated brand.
Iwaki is huge—at some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, it’s as large as a small English county, and its very northernmost fringe intrudes into the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. Like many a Fukushima municipality, it’s an artificial creation, in this case the 1966 amalgamation of 14 cities, towns, and villages. Once a coal-mining region, it has made a relatively successful transition to industry and tourism since the last mine closed in 1976. The first port of call was to pay my respects at the spiritual home of those Hula Girls, Spa Resort Hawaiians.
The cladding around the new hotel going up on the hill lent it an unfortunate resemblance to one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The sign to the right announced that the resort would be closed for a while, due to the March 11 earthquake and to another earthquake that had escaped my attention, the April 11 Iwaki aftershock, which turns out to have been an M7.0 temblor directly under the city—just another flick of the catfish’s tail.
Overshadowed by the kitschy glamour of Spa Resort Hawaiians, the neighboring hot-springs district of Iwaki Yumoto has been moldering away for years. Almost all of the hotels were closed, the notices on their doors citing the earthquake and aftershock, with some throwing in “harmful rumors” or “reputational damage” (風評被害), one of the expressions of the moment, for good measure. Traces of a grimier past were not hard to come by: what might have been an old collier’s house stood across the road from one of the largest hotels.
Another expression of the moment, “ganbaro” (がんばろう or ガンバロウ or 頑張ろう), which might be rendered as “hang in there” or “tough it out”, was much in evidence. Here an image character, Tairamon, encourages Iwaki, while a hand-drawn sign encourages Yumoto.
Down at the port of Onahama, a convoy of volunteer buses was parked in serried rank as streams of people who had sacrificed their vacations to help out in any way they could carted debris out of La La Mew, a fish market, gift center, and restaurant complex, and I felt the first prickings of guilt. Fortunately I found company with other rubberneckers watching dockside salvage operations, a man perched precariously on the stern of a sunken vessel.
No matter how many video clips of tsunami inundation you can brace yourself to watch, no matter how many survivors’ tales you can bear to hear, nothing prepares your senses fully for the experience: at Onahama it was the stench that was overpowering, first the acrid taste of spilt diesel on tangy salt air, then the stinking assault of rotting fish, now the rank odor of toxic garbage fumes. Although the waves had reached only a couple of hundred meters inland here, barely crossing the portside dual-carriageway, on the unlucky side of the road the Onahama Tourist Center had been eviscerated, its entrails carried who knew where.
The details appalled: the exuberantly colorful albacore on the side of a fishing boat,
the acres of railroad tracks, their ballast replaced by sea-disgorged sand and stones, and the untouched cement works, with its neat piles of coal, in the backdrop of the carnage.
Located on a sea-jutting wharf, the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima is the jewel in Iwaki’s tourism crown, and its post-earthquake travails bear uncanny animal kingdom parallels with the woes of Fukushima Daiichi. Flooded throughout the ground floor by the tsunami, its backup power generators kicked in to power up the indispensible filtration systems while the big beasts—sea lions and walruses, seals and otters—were evacuated to other aquariums, as were the piscine stars of the show such as gar and greeneye, but the diesel for the generators and the food for the fish ran out, leaving 200,000 marine organisms of 750 species dead in oxygen-starved tanks.
Chastened, I turned inland and stopped for a snack at a Seven-Eleven to make my first, very modest, contribution to the revival of the Fukushima economy. An old woman cried from back of the store, “Earthquake! And I’ve only just finished cleaning up!” to a tremor I failed to feel. Some people were still jumpy.
Heading north up the coast, at the places where the road was forced by topography to hug the sea, the devastation was callous in its capriciousness. Fate had been too cruel: one house furthest from the shore in a cluster of a dozen stood untouched, while its companions sat back on their haunches or listed like fish with swim-bladder disorder. Houses sheltered by a headland lay a stone’s skim from scenes of utter destruction. The new things pained the most: a brace of freshly built homes, their first-floor guts ripped out, a pin-fresh hotel with deep scars and smashed windows. No more photos, at any rate not here, I told myself, as a man strapped into his camera strode gleefully off to capture a car upended and tossed, with almost wanton whimsy, into a paddy.
Route Six runs for some 350km up the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Sendai, but it pierces the heart of the zone of exclusion at Futaba and it’s no longer possible to get to Minami Soma from Iwaki. I turned right and headed north toward Fukushima Daiichi.
(Observant pistonheads will notice the car in front of me is a Nissan, as are the two minivans facing camera behind the Nissan dealership—that’s because Iwaki is a Nissan town, being home to the Nissan plant responsible for the VQ engine series, which featured on Ward’s annual 10 best engine list for 14 straight years from 1995 to 2008.)
Soon it was goodbye Iwaki and hello Hirono—crossing the border meant I was now a couple of kilometres inside the 20km-30km radius from Fukushima Daiichi that was initially designated as the “stay indoors” zone (室内避難区域) until the boundaries were redrawn on April 21, leaving the whole of Hirono but none of Iwaki in the “prepare to evacuate in an emergency” zone (緊急時避難準備区域).
Some lazy hacks have taken to calling everywhere along the Fukushima coast from Minami Soma in the north to Iwaki in the south “nuclear ghost towns”. They’re not, but Hirono is, and I hope never to see another one in my life. No rampaging steers running wild here, no cows lying dying in barns, no dogs turning feral as there are in the 20km zone of exclusion; this had been an orderly departure, leaving in its trace only silences and absences—of cars from garageless driveways, of washing from steel clothes poles, of people from the tidy sidewalks. Every roadside enterprise, from humble ramen stand to ubiquitous convenience store, was locked and deserted. What, I wondered, would an observer catapulted forward in time from two months ago (has it really only been two months?) make of this post-apocalyptic scene.
As so often, it was the signs that were most poignant. One on a hillside proclaimed that Hirono was the town, by virtue of its southerly location, that announced the coming of spring to the north-eastern Tohoku region, while another called for support for the women’s soccer club Mareeze (yes, it’s a portmanteau of “marine” and “breeze”) of Fukushima Daiichi operator TEPCO—like the string of four pure-play nuclear seaside towns to the north, Hirono is a TEPCO company town, thanks to its mixed gas and coal thermal power plant.
Welcome to Hirono, says this sign, a town where you can meet others through soccer—Hirono is home to J-Village, the first national football training facility. It claims that Hirono, too, is the hometown of children’s songs—the two to which it refers, known by every child throughout the land, being The Dragonfly’s Glasses, written by a local country doctor, and Steam Train, whose connection with Hirono rests on a tenuous lyrical pun. Still, every little town must have its little claim to fame.
By the town hall, an elliptical message: everyone participates, a healthy town.
Dylan was drawling, “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” over the stereo as I parked up awhile to watch a procession of olive drab armoured personnel carriers, adorned with white bibs reading “disaster dispatch duty”, and police riot buses, windows begrilled, roll in from the south, realizing with mounting consternation that the buses were from Nagoya and other far distant places. Admittedly, there have been many reports of burglaries and even the odd mugging of an ATM within the zone of exclusion, but does it really take the whole of the nation’s boys in blue to restore law and order to a few rural towns? Or were they, I wondered, streaming in for slyer, more sinister purposes, to make recalcitrants among the workers for TEPCO and its subcontractors toe the radiological line?
Route Six was blocked at the 20km limit, as expected. A cop waved traffic off to a diversion to the right and I found myself facing the twin chimneys of the otherwise invisible power plant, not a comforting sight.
Another diversion, this time to the left, and I wound up at J-Village, requisitioned by the state soon after the disaster as the front-line base for the nuclear drama.
TEPCO and subcontractor workers at Fukushima Daiichi get three days R&R here after three days on site, although as according to its own website, J-Village has no running water, it’s unclear how much rest or relaxation anyone might get.
And this was truly the end of the line: I was now 9km south of Fukushima Daini and 20km south of Fukushima Daiichi. Entry forbidden by the Basic Law on Disaster Response, Article 116, Paragraph 1, Item 2, threatens the sign, violators may be punished. With a Y100,000 ($1,250) fine or—more likely—a month in chokey, say the media, and not fancying 30 days in the slammer—prisons hereabouts are no holiday camps, by all accounts—I resolved to venture no further. In a van by the sign, a bunch of Hitachi Transport System employees—what were they doing here—were nodding off or dozing on as a busload of hired hands from general contractor Taisei shipped out of J-Village. Everyone, but everyone, was wearing facemasks, fine for pollen allergies but as likely to stop radiation in its tracks as a picket fence would a bull elephant in heat. A cop car cruised past, sirens silent but lights ablaze, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps because of an overdose of Kafka—at least a sievert’s worth—at too impressionable an age, I’ve always feared groundless arrest and prosecution, and although I wasn’t committing any illegal act, my presence, I felt, was no longer required. Life was turning into the first reel of a low-budget sci-fi gore fest, and I had lost the desire to stick around to find out what happens next.
On returning home, I discovered the depth of the Faustian compacts in which these Fukushima seashore towns had engaged with TEPCO. While the prefectural average per capita income in the year to end-March 2009, the latest year for which data are available (Japanese-only link to a mine of fascinating Fukushima factoids here), was around Y2.75mn ($34,000 at the current rate), it was Y5.65mn (over $70,000) in Hirono, by far the highest in Fukushima, and Y4.85mn (over $60,000) in Okuma, home to most of Fukushima Daiichi. In the sublimely implausible event that Hirono and its 4,500-odd inhabitants were to declare independence, it would rank somewhere above Switzerland and below Norway as one of the nominally half-dozen wealthiest nations on the planet. Remember that the next time you fork over for your electricity bills, Tokyoites.
The nuclear shoreline is also impervious, it would seem, to the vicissitudes of recession. While the rest of the prefecture—and the rest of the world—were left reeling in wake of the global financial crisis, the Soma district (essentially the Fukushima coast minus Iwaki) was clocking up gross product (i.e., GDP at a local level) growth of 6.4%, a figure that would not bring dishonour to the average emerging economy.
This bastion of electric wealth is unlikely to see its fortunes crumble anytime soon. While TEPCO is seeking a 20% cut in its peons’ pay and the toothless in-house union has folded its hand without a whisper of dissent, the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and, as now seems likely, Daini, will provide decades of arduous but lucrative work, while the five generators at Hirono will be even more pivotal to keeping the lights on in the capital.
I headed northwest, inland, to the city of Tamura then backtracked east, so I was now due west of Fukushima Daiichi and closing in on it, my destination a celebration of all things coleopteran and the rhinoceros beetle in particular, Kodomo no Kuni (“children’s country”) Mushi Mushi (“insect insect”) Land, whose attractions include the Rhinoceros Beetle Mansion and the Rhinoceros Beetle Natural Observation Park.
Lying just 33.4km west of Fukushima Daiichi, Mushi Mushi Land had gamely struggled on after March 11 until, bizarrely, someone realized around a month later that eight households in the area were inside the 30km zone and the city mandated the evacuation of the whole district. This much I knew in advance, but the word was that somehow the on-site accommodation facility, Sky Palace Tokiwa, was still open. Many of the backroads leading to Insect Land had been ripped asunder by the earthquake, however, the signposts were unhelpful, and dusk was stealing in, so with reluctance I gave up my quest to spend the night in coleopteran company.
Just down the road I found a ramshackle single-storey hot-springs hotel, Kanda no Yu, an agglomeration of at least eight wings, ells, and extensions of varying age. The proprietress—let’s call her mother—seemed to take a shine to me.
“Have you come to volunteer?” Again the twinge of guilt.
“No, I’ve come to support Fukushima. And to do a little research.”
Raucous laughter emanated from a party in the interior.
“It’s getting pretty lively back there.”
“Yes, the cherries are in full bloom. It’s the first booking we’ve had in quite a while. Since…” Her voice trailed off.
“I had hoped to stay up at Insect Land, but it seems to be all shut down.”
“Is it? That is a shame. The beetles are just coming into season now, too.”
Grandmother gave me the once-over with a beady eye as I carried my bags in. Somehow I found myself looking up with her at a swallow’s nest in the eaves.
“It’s a swallow’s nest.”
“Yes, I see. But the swallows haven’t come back yet, have they?” I knew as soon as I blurted this out that the conversation had taken a wrong turn.
“Of course they have!” she said in high dudgeon, pointing to a trace of swallow droppings below the nest. “You don’t think we’d’ve left the shit there from last year, do you?”
Dining options in the center of Tamura were limited. I settled on a counter perch at this branch of Hakkenden (“legend of eight swords”), a kushiyaki chicken-on-a-stick chain. A lanky black-uniformed dude with a scraggly goatee, pierced nose, and an indecipherable and amateurish monochrome tattoo above his right wrist proved to be a disciplined twirler of the chicken batons on the charcoal and won my heart when he flipped the bird in some style to a customer acquaintance, the first time I’d ever seen the middle finger given on these islands. A queue of blossom revellers—no sombre self-restraint here—built up outside the restaurant. “Japan,” I thought to myself, “there’s life in the old dog yet.”
Back home, I wasn’t so sure. Like the rest of Fukushima, which is set to lose a fifth of its folk in the coming quarter century, Tamura is in dire demographic trouble. The population, heading south to 40,000, is already a quarter below the 1970 level and fell by 6.5% from 2005 to 2010 alone, outpacing the predictions of the demographers due mainly it seems to a tumbling birth rate, and is likely to fall by another quarter by 2035. Agriculture is in a state of collapse: while there were 11,000 farmers in 1985, only 4,400 were left on the land by 2005, perhaps because one of the primary crops is uncompetitive leaf tobacco, the sole and increasingly reluctant buyer of which is the former cigarette monopoly, Japan Tobacco.
As with Tamura, so with Hakkenden, a brand of a listed restaurant operator, Marche, which has some 850 restaurants, directly run and franchised, in various formats, around the nation. While Marche sales hovered around Y19bn-Y20bn ($235mn-$250mn) from 2002 to 2007, they have plummeted in the last five years. Marche is aiming for sales down 13% to Y13.5bn ($170mn) in the year to end-March, a target it will be lucky to achieve, as sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal year were down a calamitous 18%.
Back at the inn, the maid fussed, cautioning of morning chills, as I marvelled at the room’s tiny and prehistoric CRT TV. There was a choice of TEPCO reading matter—a hardback propaganda manga from a decade ago, “Environment company TEPCO: Together with wisdom to a living future”, and the latest edition of Nikkei Business magazine, whose cover bore a picture of TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu bowing and the stern Dostoyevskian legend “TEPCO: Crime and punishment”—but I was too tired for either. Serenaded by a sublime chorus of frogs, pebbly then tremulous, I fell asleep 35km and, according to my roadmap, three traffic lights due west of Fukushima Daiichi to my first ever nuclear nightmare, in which a vitrified radioactive waterfall atop which I was standing was about to melt.
Before breakfast next morning, I took a stroll around Tokiwa, the dusty corner of Tamura where I had pitched up, enraptured by the consumer electronics shop,
and the vendor of salt and Subarus (said the sign),
before coming across a photographer’s studio with something I’ve been longing to unearth—a two-digit phone number.
Around the corner of the shop lay a feast for the amateur iconographer.
All new cars, exclaims the ad for a driving school at the top. New that is, if a 1962 Nissan Cedric qualifies as new. The deeply faded wooden plaque pronounces the store owner to be a member of the Japan Photo Culture Association, which still exists, while below that there’s evidence that the phone number on the front of the studio hadn’t seen time lop a digit off.
On and on through Tokiwa thundered the trucks of the military and the police, bearing tell-tale number plates from Yokohama, Gifu, Toyama, anywhere but here, on their terrifying way to Fukushima Daiichi.
As I prepared to leave after a hearty country breakfast, mother pressed a couple of onigiri rice balls into my hands.
“For lunch. Made with mushrooms freshly picked from the hills.”
I accepted, embarrassed. Later I wondered whether this was some obscure trial of courage—or foolhardiness. Still, what’s the odd kilobecquerel between friends? I had one—just the one—for lunch. A little salty, perhaps, but delicious.