We awoke well before sunrise to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai and then board a slower regional train to Odaka. As usual, I insisted on taking a much earlier option, though we could have chosen an itinerary that would get us to our destination with three minutes to spare. In the U.S., it makes much more sense to presume some delay in mass transit. In Japan, though, I’m coming to understand that when they say the train will arrive at 11:57, they generally mean 11:57. Anyway, we arrived two hours early, which afforded a chance to find a nearby ramen house. And I mean house. The owners ushered us into a back room with other folks who ceased their chatting and looked at us like we’d flown in from Mars. But once we joined them on the Tatami mats and gamely pointed at one of the written options on the low table, our neighbors went back to their conversations. A couple folks spotted us slurping our noodles with suitable joy and encouraged us to pronounce the food as “ichiban,” which it indeed proved to be.
At noon we joined a small group of fellow tourists (two from Argentina and one from Malaysia) gathered to visit the Red Zone. On this site in 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake located on the Pacific side of Honshu generated a tsunami that partially engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing three of its six reactors to melt down. The tsunami killed about 16,000 people and forced an estimated 150,000 people from their homes. While plant workers struggled valiantly to manage the nuclear crisis, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the physical and psychological impacts of radiation exposure remain difficult to quantify. Today, the Fukushima region continues to suffer the social and economic impacts of population loss, even though background radiation has returned to relatively healthy limits. Some local boosters are hoping that tourism can play a positive role in regional revitalization.
Of course, a fair question arises: Why would anyone want to holiday in Fukushima? Some might find it ghoulish to visit a field of broken tombstones laid flat by a torrent of water, to pass by lots of demolished homes where only family shrines remain, to drive through empty villages whose abandoned shops once buzzed with commerce. Some surely would think it odd to mount a hill overlooking the panorama of the plant nestled near the water’s edge, now the site of mammoth decommissioning and cleanup efforts that will take decades and cost somewhere near 200 billion dollars. Tour organizers know all too well that many visitors come in hopes of reliving episodes of Dark Tourist, or maybe even attempting illegal “urban exploration.” Yet they hope that they can resist that sort of “ruin porn,” seeking instead to send visitors back with stories of the region’s resilience.
Our guide was a prefectural manager named Shuzo Sasaki who arranged the permits for our small group to enter the exclusion zone. Driving down roads lined by weeds and debris, we passed empty fields and rice paddies now increasingly used as solar farms. We also saw vast collections of black bags filled with contaminated soil. How many bags? Current estimates total around 16 million. Occasionally we’d pass a digital readout of radiation levels. And everywhere are abandoned houses and vacant lots.
At one point we stopped at the farm of Masami Yoshizawa, an activist who cannot sell his cows but has opted not to slaughter them. While over 5,000 cows were left to starve after the tsunami, Yoshizawa stayed behind to care for his. There is, of course, is no market for Fukushima milk, which leaves him struggling to survive. To dramatize his plight, Yoshizawa built a “Cow Godzilla,” a performance-art piece that he often drives to Japan’s parliament to raise awareness of the struggle that Fukushima fisherfolk, farmers, and ranchers still endure.
Advancing closer to Fukushima Dai-ichi, we cruise down National Route 6, stopping occasionally along the tour’s dismal stations. At Ukedo Elementary School we see the waterline etched below the roofs and imagine the destruction caused by deluges that roared up to ten kilometers inland. At Kumamachi Elementary School we peer into classrooms filled with scattered books and bags. At a fish nursery we survey the destruction wrought by the tsunami, and we photograph the sarcasm directed at Tokyo Electric Power Company: “TEPCO will last for 1,000 years.”
And in towns like Ōkuma and Futaba, with their rows of empty houses and shattered-glass businesses, I flash back to The Last Picture Show and imagine the haunting of ghosts. I think about those farmers and plant workers who managed to live but still left, and those school children who fled along forest paths to the tops of hills, barely escaping the waves that crashed below. From time to time we stop and shoot our typical photos, asking our banal questions. And then as afternoon falls, we begin our exit, checking out with masked police officers dressed in blue and white. Our final checkpoint involves us sticking out the soles of our feet for radiometer inspection.
As it turns out, we visited Japan during its cherry blossom season, a brief period when petals open and bloom, only to fall a week or so later. So during the tour, and afterward, I reflected on the concept of mono-no-aware, sometimes translated as the sadness or “ahhness” of things. That evening, Jenny and I joined Karin Taira, owner of the Lantern House (where we stayed for the evening), and compared our thoughts on the concept. She agreed that one may certainly discern sadness from mono-no-aware, but one also contemplates acceptance and even appreciation for the passing of things.
Related both to Shinto and Buddhist teachings, mono-no-aware reminds us that we ought not hold too fast to material things. Doing so only invites suffering. Instead we are wise to study the changing of things, the passing away of appearances. In such meditation, one comes closer to wisdom. I suspect it will be a long time, if ever, before I can claim any kind of understanding about Fukushima. Even writing these few paragraphs has been harder than I expected. But I start here, knowing I have a long way to go.