by Rey Ventura
Editor’s note: The author is a resident of Yokohama, Japan. The following is a reprint from a manuscript for publication. It is featured in three parts with permission from the author. For the beginning of the 3-part series, click here.
A month ago, just a day before the great earthquake struck, a graduation ceremony was held here. The banner announcing the event and congratulating the graduates still hangs over the stage.
Around the house, everything is quiet. There are no kids playing in the yard or on the streets. The sky is blue with patches of white clouds. Camellias in the garden are gloriously in bloom. The purity of a white camellia reminds me of my soiled body. Unblemished, perfect, undefiled, virginal—these blossoms are the exact opposite of my stained heart.
There are few cars passing by. Two men are on bicycles.
A very slim lady walks with her equally skinny cat on a leash. I have never seen a cat before with a rope tied around its neck like a dog. They walk slowly toward the far wall where the hinomaru (the Japanese flag) and the school flag are pinned side by side in an elementary school gymnasium. A month ago, just a day before the great earthquake struck, a graduation ceremony was held here. The banner announcing the event
and congratulating the graduates still hangs over the stage.
The fragile lady takes a seat. She stares at her cat. She has been staying in this gym for over a month now. Members of her family are scattered elsewhere; they are temporarily sheltered in different evacuation centers, near and far. She is staying with her mother in this Sports Hall that has been used as an evacuation center since the earthquake.
There are twenty-one persons sheltered here now. There used to be forty. Their houses and properties have been swept away by the tsunami.
I take the courage to speak to her. I go to her small corner by the wall: a full-spread blanket topped with duvets and bordered with flattened corrugated boxes and various bedding items. Her name is Mizue. She has a frail constitution and it tandems with her cracking voice. I ask about her cat.
The tsunami, she said, didn’t take her away. She’s the only treasure left in my life. I won’t let her go. Gently she strokes the black and brown striped feline creature from its head down to its body. I lost everything, she lamented, but “her.”
She and her mother have been waiting to be awarded a housing unit. About twenty evacuees from here have already been given temporary housing units provided by the municipal government and administered by disaster officials. Awarding is decided by drawing lots.
For a week, she said, I’ve been having diarrhea. It is stress.
What would you like to do, I asked, while you are waiting?
I want to listen, she said, to a live musical performance.
More than anything else, she wants to listen to live music. Food, medicine, clothing are not problems here. Boredom and stress are.
After conducting an interview with the manager of the evacuation center, Prof. Wheatfields joins me.
At my university, the Professor said, a dormitory’s empty. If I could get permission, would Mizue-san like to come and stay? The students will take care of you for a week.
Mizue-san responds with a long pause: Maa . . . ah . . .
I tell the Professor about her wish for live music.
If Daisuke were only here, he said, we can have a small performance. Or we can take her to a karaoke.
The school ground is teeming with cherry blossoms. The nearby hills too are abundant with pink flowers. Cherry blossoms are all over the place. But there are hardly any people admiring them. Even Japan’s national flower has that melancholy look.
To go on hanami—viewing the cherry blossoms—is one of the most cherished and awaited spring events in Japan. It is almost a sacred tradition where all the members of the family take time to go out to and celebrate the arrival of the short-lived sakura. Young and old, men and women, the sick and the well, day-laborers and salarymen, leftwing and rightwing politicians and activists, local and foreign residents, people from all walks of life, almost everyone looks forward to mankai—the day when the blossoms are in full bloom.
A day after mankai, in Nakoso, in the afternoon, we go to a park. On a normal day, this park would be full of people. Many would be drunk or getting drunk at this hour. There are all kinds of cherry blossoms. Under them, we walk: Prof. Wheatfields, Satoshi-san (the lady doctor’s son), and myself. The park is ours, basically. There is nobody here but us. The sea is now distant. Last month, it came galloping near and took away lives and properties. Now it looks calm and serene. It is at rest.
Fallen petals of blossoms mingle with pebbles on the ground. For the first time, we meet a family: three children, father and mother—the bravest family probably this time of the year in this part of Fukushima. The kids are probably not told about nuclear radiation contamination or they just do not care. They enjoy running around under the cherry blossoms.
There is a marker—a huge slab of granite—in a corner near the entrance. Prof. Wheatfields guides the imaginary visitor. He acts like a BBC (British Broadcasting Company) reporter before my camera:
He explains: Welcome to Nakoso, in Fukushima Prefecture. This place is called Nakoso no seki—which means the barrier “to which you are not welcome to cross.” Despite the unfriendly name, it is actually a very welcoming place. Here is a stone marker. Written on it is a famous poem by the great poet Miyamoto Yoshie, ancestor of Miyamoto Yoshitsune. I’m going to read it in Japanese and tell you later what it means in English.
Boku kaze wo Nakoso no seki to omoi tomo
Michi mo sen ichiru yamazakura kana.
I thought the howling wind would not penetrate
beyond the barrier of Nakoso.
But here I am, the road is narrow by the fallen cherry blossoms.
The road down to the Onahama Fish Port in Iwaki is not remarkable. It is mostly flat and straight. We are seventy kilometers away from the genpatsu. Navi-chan is in silent mode. Satoshi-san is driving in his Toyota Corolla ahead of us. He is taking us to the nuclear radiation disaster zone.
Fear has plagued Fukushima. There is fear of the unseen, un-smelled, untouched.
There are more houses with tiles falling off. The sight of blue sheets on rooftops is becoming more common. People say that the succeeding big aftershocks are the ones that really damaged the rooftops more than the first huge tremor. Some people are still fixing their roofs. We stop on red. There is an elementary school on our left. The ground is empty and so are the rooms. The four-story building is gray and gloomy. But there are lights on the second floor.
Japanese schools, Prof. Wheatfields commented, are so depressingly designed. Are they not?
Yes, I said. They are geometrically the same.
The coastline looks complicated and rugged. Sometimes it is flat, sometimes hilly. The sky is overcast. The road is taking us to Onohama ohara. Shops are empty. There are funeral stonemasons.
It is Wednesday. The sight of a ramen restaurant is a sign of hope. Hope not only for
the hungry but hope for the economy in the entire devastated zone. The yellow signboard and the letterings in red are distinct and unmistakably that of a Chinese restaurant. The single-story shop looks like a cube painted in black. There are a number of cars parked in front and on the side.
Almost by instinct and not by obligation, we stop here for lunch. Each of us orders similar dishes: ramen (noodles), chahan (fried rice), and gyoza (dumplings). There are about a dozen customers. Our food is served all at the same time. Are these foods contaminated or not? I ask myself silently. I do not care. I just eat them.
The Professor likes them, too. He slurps his noodles like he would normally do. So does Satoshi-san. We enjoy the food like hungry day laborers.
Cracks start to appear on the road. There are more pretty sakura along the way.
They look lugubrious, the Professor said. Just like Satoshi-san. He is a very subdued kind of guy. Even when we were totally pissed, you wouldn’t see him getting excited. When they were staying at my place, one night I invited them to a Korean bar in Nakamura-cho. A Korean owned the bar. There were lots of bold and brassy Korean women. They were prodding Satoshi-san and Megumi-san to sing, but they would not
sing at all, no matter how drunk we were. Probably, I opined, they wouldn’t want to be in a celebratory mood in these times of nuclear radiation contamination. Besides, they had just left their house to temporarily lodge at your Yamate house.
A road sign says: “To Futaba and Minamisoma.” There are road works going on. On both sides of the road are industrial plants and factories. Smoke billows out from tall chimneys. The coastline looks complicated and rugged. Sometimes it is flat, sometimes hilly. The sky is overcast. The road is taking us to Onohama ohara. Shops are empty. There are funeral stonemasons.
Are there many people dying?
In an aging society, the Professor said, there are lots of them.
At a coin laundry shop, all the lights are on—it is the brightest laundry place I have ever seen. But not a single man having his soiled clothes washed. What a waste of electricity! And where have all its customers gone? A student, wearing a mask, comes into view. She is the first student we see walking on the road.
I point out to a sign that reads: “Iwaki Lala Mew, 1.2 km.” What a name! I said.
Is that supposed to be French? Prof. Wheatfields asked.
I thought it is Chinese, I responded.
The Professor laughs then adds: A bad day at golf is better than a good day at work.
Stop looking at things, Rey, he said, and concentrate on the road.
After a short while, we approach the Onahama Fish Market. The scenery gradually changes. The buildings are nondescript and along the road, we begin to see piles of huge rubbish. Turning at a corner, we begin to see the devastating tracks left by the tsunami of 3.11.11. Along the rail tracks, there are huge piles of debris: destroyed home appliances, wrecked houses, cars mounted on rubbish, and blankets and duvets
mournfully piled among TV sets and heaters. Some buildings and houses remain standing and seem unaltered. But where are the people? There is no one around.
Amid the debris on the road there stands a uniformed man waving a small red flag directing traffic. At the other end of the road, there is another man. Motorists have to navigate their way between the debris and road works.
We turn at a corner. On a vacant lot are piles of unwanted construction materials and tools. Arriving at the intersection leading to the Fish Port, I get a chill down my spine. Here the fatal tracks left by the tsunami begin to appear. Even after more than a month had passed since giant walls of waves had devastated this area, the scenery still looks surreal and eerie: broken and driverless cars on the pavement, traffic signals dangling from their posts, billboards looking up to heaven, colorfully painted trucks tilted to one side; and fishing boats that somersaulted and overturned on the port platform!
At a vacant lot on the corner, we park. Satoshi-san parks too but does not get out of his car. Prof. Wheatfields and I survey the area. The scholar walks ahead and crosses the road. He looks like the lone survivor in a huge shipwreck amid the ruins.
It is generally calm but a little windy. I behold the sea. Except for the incessant cries of crows, the fish port is quiet. Is the sea a friend or foe? I wonder. I cannot help but be a little suspicious. Dozens of fishing boats, looking weary and forlorn, are moored along
the port across and in front of the fish market. The fish market is a huge two-story gray concrete building with its ground floors open. Its massive pillars are distinct and they stand out even from a distance. Prof. Wheatfields walks under it and takes some pictures. It is a huge elongated building but not a single fisherman or buyer is walking around.
The Professor looks like an apparition and a dwarf walking between the fat posts of a building that is essentially now a ruin. I wonder how many lives the tsunami took away from here last month. The silence and desolation is terrifying. We are treading on hallowed ground. The souls of the dead are still lingering around. On one side of the building are stairs to the upper floors. Prof. Wheatfields bravely climbs up; I follow. He pushes a door. It opens.
The entire floor is empty but for some machines and tools. The polite and courageous scholar calls out to inquire. But only his echo responds. There
is no one here but us. I feel strange. People have left or abandoned this place in a quandary. We shouldn’t be here. This is a breach of etiquette, I feel, to those who have gone to the other world. When nature claims lives and properties, nobody complains.
Everyone accepts his or her fate. Nature is a giver and a claimer. When it gives, it is generous; when it claims, it is unforgiving.
We drive through another tunnel. We have not heard of any tunnels collapsing due to the earthquake or tsunami. They seem to have been designed to withstand the strongest possible earthquake and even a nuclear explosion. Along the road is a long stretch of the remains of paddy fields harvested a few months ago. At the end of this, like an anachronism, rubbish suddenly appears from nowhere. I knew this is where the tsunami had ended and the destruction had begun. There is more debris on both sides
of the road and open spaces.
The village is nestled around hills. Satoshi-san is driving ahead of us. He stops and parks along the road. Prof. Wheatfields stops the car, not far from Satoshi-san. We get out. Satoshi-san remains inside his car.
A fallen sign by the road: “Iwaki, Shin Maiko Beach, 5 km” reveals the name of the community. I look around and I shiver. I feel as if I’m in the middle of a dream, a nightmare. Everything around me, I’m seeing it for the first time in my life: the total destruction of an entire thriving coastal village. In a house with its roof still intact, I see an upright piano—its keys exposed and soiled amid the ruins. I see an unopened bottle of big sake by the road. At the foot of a hill, cars are piled up one after another.
The sound of the roaring sea hovers above and still haunts this ruined community. I hear the distant and mournful crying of crows. Prof. Wheatfields walks hurriedly down the beach. The waves still look ferocious. I film around. Last month, giant walls of seawater went amok over the seawall, breached it and swept away the entire resort village. All that is left is a wreckage of houses, shops, offices, public buildings, cars, appliances, and properties. A few newly built houses and business establishments remain standing but are still greatly damaged and beyond repair.
On both sides of the road, there are more houses and properties destroyed. By a stream, a solitary sakura stands like a waylaid beauty. Not far from it is a 7 Eleven store—a most encouraging sign.
Down the beach, I walk. The long seawall has collapsed and a huge chunk of the village has been eaten away by the sea. The highway along the beach has disappeared. The great bulk of the wreckage has been cleared away. Only the small ones remain. But the look and atmosphere are still surreal. I have seen devastation caused by storms, typhoons, drought, and fire. But this is the first time I’m seeing the combined wrath of earthquake and tsunami.
A solitary cherry tree with blossoms in full bloom stands by the edge of a rock. It blooms unmindful of the devastation. It lives according to its nature. There are more small cherry trees in full bloom among the trees on the hills. They are the living witnesses and survivors of a great natural disaster.
Back on the main road, there are still a few cars. In front of a shop that used to supply unagi (farmed eels)—shutters are all closed, it is obviously abandoned—I see the first two mournful Hachikos—dogs waiting. The shibas stand along the road waiting patiently for the arrival of their master. They follow with their sight every car that passes by. They are never scared to come close to motorists. They are the first stray dogs we encounter on this journey. They are the ronin dogs of Fukushima. Satoshi-san is driving ahead of us. He is leading us the way to Hirono where he owns an apartment but has left it after radiation started to leak from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Hirono is some twenty-five kilometers away from the nuclear power plant.
The road is getting more and more deserted. We are heading to the direction of Minamisoma and Futaba. Near the Iwaki Pacific Health Center—a complex of newly built buildings that are obviously deserted—there are ships frozen in a position that look like they are still trying to scale the seawall. They resemble a tableau of fishing ships escaping from danger. Self-Defense Forces’ jeeps and trucks come and go on the highway. On both sides of the road, there are more houses and properties destroyed.
By a stream, a solitary sakura stands like a waylaid beauty. Not far from it is a 7 Eleven store—a most encouraging sign. It is well lit and with lots of people going in and out. On the window pane a sign reads: Gambarou Iwaki, Stand up, Iwaki.
A group of young men, I tell Prof. Wheatfields, is crowding the magazine section looking at soft porn magazine.
He laughs. Do you think, he asks, people’s libido goes up or down in times of disaster?
I am not sure, Professor, I said. For a while, probably it would go down, but eventually it would return to its normal level.
At a low-lying village, a wide expanse of vegetable farms and green houses are scattered everywhere. Movers and trucks, and heavy equipment are zooming in and out, coming from all directions. Reconstruction is everywhere.
The sun has just set. It is getting dark but the cherry blossoms near the entrance of a tunnel are still visible even from a distance. At the end of the tunnel are more cherry blossoms. J Village is originally a training ground for J League football teams. But now it has become an emergency operation center for the people who are at work trying to “calm down” the radiation-releasing nuclear power plant. We speed past it.
Violating traffic rules, another black ronin dog walks in the middle of the road. Poor dog!
Navi-chan said that in seven hundred meters we must turn left. By now, the road is almost deserted. The ever-cheerful Navi-chan announces proudly our arrival: Destination reached. Route guidance ends now.
The road that leads to Futaba—the site of the nuclear power plant—is blocked. At the roadblock, we turn left. We have arrived in the town of Hirono-machi. Behind the Town Hall, under the cherry blossoms, we park. More blossoms surround the hills and the Town Hall compound. They are the saddest cherry blossoms I have ever seen. But only the crows and stray dogs admire the blossoms here!
I want to admire the blossoms at close range. Let’s take a walk around, I suggest to Professor Wheatfields. Not a single public servant is in the town hall. But of course, everyone has evacuated to safer grounds. Hirono-machi residents had been ordered
to evacuate right after the disaster. Most people have left, except for a few brave ones.
In the distance, the sea sounds soothing. Down below the shore, everything looks still and quiet. There is no shadow of even one fisherman.
In the middle of the road, where cars and trucks bound for and coming from the nuclear power plant are speeding up and down, I see the same black shiba we passed by a while ago. Its tail is black but at its tip, it is white. It has been running without directions. It has lost its sense of fear and place. It looks at me wondering, it seems, if I could be of any assistance to its present confused existence. Perhaps it is asking: Where have all the people gone? Why have they left me? Why have they not taken me with them? Why did they leave in a hurry?
It dashes ahead running, in the middle of the road as if it is running in its own backyard. Cars have to swerve away dangerously to avoid hitting or running over the poor creature. It passes by the roadblock. Dogs in this part of Fukushima are becoming suicidal. They are losing their senses.
I hear songbirds and crows. Time has stood still in Hirono-machi. On the clock, perched on a pole by the Town Hall, the time is still 8:30. But the real time now is 5:33 in the afternoon. As I walk back to the parking area, I notice, the roads have cracks and fallen petals are getting into them. Hirono-machi, before the disaster, is a municipality of some 5,500 people. But now, it is almost empty. The infrastructure here is exceptionally impressive.
Probably, Prof. Wheatfields said, this is courtesy of TEPCO, in return for people of Hirono-machi’s nod on the nuclear power plant.
Satoshi-san lives in a public housing apartment. He is a little hesitant to show us his place. It is not exactly a very posh place. It is six-story building and across it is an identical building. In between them is a small playground.
There is no elevator. We climbed up to the sixth floor. Electric bulbs on the ceiling of each floor are lit. There is still electricity here. It is dark at the door of Satoshi-san’s unit. He unlocks and opens it slowly, conscious that something could surprise him anytime. As he had expected, a barrage of cascading books greet him at the doorstep. There had been more aftershocks since he left his unit two weeks ago.
It is a two-room apartment and fully-furnished. Anticipating more aftershocks, cupboards have been taped; some pots have been laid on the table; pictures have been taken off the wall; and the tall fridge has been emptied of its contents. Satoshi-san has not moved back to the house yet. And now, the future looks uncertain.
Which are you most scared of? I asked while he searches for something in a drawer. Earthquakes or nuclear radiation?
Nuclear radiation, he said flatly.
The sky is gray, the sea is gray, and the cherry blossoms on the hills are turning gray. The houses on the hills are silent. There are no cries or laughter of children in the hall or outside the building. Not a single child is on the veranda; not a single boy or girl on the swing in the playground. Where have all the children gone?
Satoshi-san walks to his car looking at the asphalted road. He is always stooping down and his hands are always in his pockets. He never looks straight nor up.
Prof. Wheatfields takes some pictures of the tiny playground of withered grass and the quiet slide and swing. The bicycles lined up under the shed have all fallen down like dominoes.
Prof. Wheatfields plays the Beatles’s “All My Loving.” We are cruising along the coast on the way back to our lady doctor host’s place in Nakoso. The waves are ferocious, trying to climb up over the breakwater. They look determined, raging with fury.
In the gathering darkness, the devastation along the coast is a silhouette reminder of nature’s wrath and generosity. The sea looks more fearsome than ever before.
Except for traffic lights, some neon signs, and roadside warnings, there aren’t any lit houses and buildings along the way.
At our lady doctor host’s place, we take dinner. Free dinner on our first night is hospitality. Second free dinner, I feel, is taking advantage of her generosity. As I partake of the meat and shabu-shabu which she had kindly prepared, I have nothing but gratitude towards her. After the meal, the three ladies and three men gather again
in the living room.
You still look young, I said to our lady host.
This is not to flatter her. I really mean it. She said she is eighty-six but at first glance, I had estimated she is sixty-five.
Thank you very much, she said, acknowledging my compliment.
The primal fear of the invisible, the unseen—like the fear of ghost—does not only weaken the resolve of a child but also an adult’s. In Fukushima this is causing so much suffering among the people.
When I was ten years old, our lady doctor host explains, I did classical ballet. Now I’m not sure if I can still bend my knees and jump. That was a good training. Because of that, I can still walk straight up. When you were three years old, she said to Satoshi-san, you fell into the river. Luckily, an old man saved you from drowning.
I’ve heard that story, Satoshi-san acknowledges. He looks at his mother with great respect.
That’s a good memory, Prof. Wheatfields comments. When I was five years old, he remembers, I went to the vegetable fields one day. Bees bit me all over. My body is swollen all over. I cried all day.
It is past ten in the evening. Prof. Wheatfields, Satoshi-san, and I, have had a good helping of saké, whisky, and beer. Everyone is trying to remember a memory in the past. Plucking courage, I ask our lady host her opinion about the Fukushima nuclear power plant radiation.
She looks at me for a while. Her childlike innocence and moist eyes stare at me tenderly. Then she looks away. She collects her thoughts and returns her gaze once more. Her eyes, like a child, are full of wonder and innocence.
Speaking of nuclear power, she said, I have seen what it can do. I still remember that day when I saw men coming down from the skies in parachutes. The atomic bomb had been dropped from a plane. I was nineteen. But now come to think of it, she continues, the nuclear power plant radiation we are now confronting is invisible. It is invisible! That’s strange, isn’t it? In the case of Hiroshima, I saw the bomb fall from the plane. One month later, when I returned to Hiroshima, the city is gone. It is all burnt. The fact that nuclear radiation is invisible makes it more frightening.
The primal fear of the invisible, the unseen—like the fear of ghost—does not only weaken the resolve of a child but also an adult’s. In Fukushima this is causing so much suffering among the people.
Once more, I asked the lady doctor: Which is the most frightening? Earthquakes? Tsunami? Nuclear radiation?
She laughs at the question and points to her son.
This man, she said, for him the most frightening things are not: jishin (earthquake), kaminari (lightning and thunder), kaji (fire), oyaji (dad) but this—jishin, oyaji, kaji, kaminari.
Everyone has a good laugh.
Their father—she adds, gaining freedom to tell a story, perhaps because she is telling it for the first time—is frightening. He is a disciplinarian and practices corporal
punishment. When he gets angry, she said, he is absolutely a terror. One day, I ran away from home. Unable to bear his temper, I fled by taxi to the next town. I got a
room, she said, at a ryokan. When I was about to go to bed, a staff came in and said: “You’ve got a visitor.” My husband came to fetch me after only some thirty minutes.
I asked her: Is that not love? I don’t know, she said.
The lady doctor, I feel, is so relieved to tell this story—recounting a memory is one way of exorcising a ghost.
Pointing at a framed picture on the wall above the cracks, Prof. Wheatfields asks, is that him?
No, that isn’t him, she said. That’s my grandfather. She stands up and picks a small, framed picture on top of the cabinet.
The talk on corporal punishment expands. The lady doctor asks the Professor if he has ever laid a hand on his children. No, he said categorically. Never. His dad, he said, as far as he can remember, had hit his younger sister on her buttocks only once.
These days, the lady doctor said, young fathers no longer get angry or physically punish their children. But the old-generation fathers did. My father did.
Across a graveyard on a hill is a gas station. We fill up petrol. The journey to Futaba, the site of the nuclear power plant, is uncertain. Mantan onegai shimasu, the Professor requests the elderly man gas attendant to fill the tank full. There is a big cherry tree with pink blossoms behind the station. Blown by the soft breeze, its petals are falling on the roof of our car.
At a big sports center–turned–temporary shelter–place, we drop by. It is lunchtime and we are given obento (packed lunch). It is a little embarrassing to receive something that is meant for disaster victims and not for visitors like us. But a volunteer staff insists there is more than enough for everyone.
Volunteers, mostly women, prepare onigiri (balls or rice mixed with viand). They serve us with a smile and real dedication. They really look charming. Children play with toys; others read books. This is an evacuation center and everybody is trying to make the lives of the people here more bearable.
The road leading to the nuclear power plant is impeccable. It is winding, spotless, clear, and empty. We are the only motorists in this part of the country. Along the highway and on top of mountain ranges are electric pylons. They look like a wide network of fishing nets cast wide in the sea. Nobody is behind us; nobody in front of us.
We go through a long tunnel—there is light, literally, at the end of the tunnel. In fact, like a McDonald’s restaurant, the lighting is bright. The cascading pine and bamboo forests dotted with blossoming cherry blossoms on both sides of the road are soothing and invigorating. I remember the biblical passage—the land is yours as far as your eyes can see. The scenery is ours and ours alone at this time. But this is not the most popular destination.
In the middle of nowhere, we see a 7 Eleven store. There are a dozen cars parked around it. We stop and change into our “antinuclear radiation suit”—one-hundred-yen raincoats and one-hundred-yen masks and jackets that I had picked up at a nearby used-clothing store and pairs of blue elastic hand-gloves worth a hundred yen. We call it our “alien” suit.
We have reached the nuclear radiation disaster zone; we need to show even a token gesture of wearing protective clothing; we are approaching the heart of darkness.
On a vast open farm, there is no one tending the vegetables and rice fields.
Where have all the farmers gone?
According to our navigator, we are thirty-eight kilometers to the genpatsu. Again, Navi-chan reminds us: the road is blocked due to a disaster. Politely, we ignore the roadblock and pass through. The “roadblock” on the left side of the road is a middle-sized truck with a mounted warning neon sign docked in the middle. But the right side of the road is open. The Professor swerves to the right; there are no vehicles around.
The Eneos gas station on the left is devoid of any customers. The sign says “take Route 6 to Futaba.” We cross a bridge called Ohgasawa. Although road signs abound and names of places are accurately written, the absence of fellow motorists and people around us makes me feel we are heading nowhere. The existence of a place, it seems, depends on its inhabitants. Driving through the empty road gives you a great sense of freedom but at the same time, it worries you. You have no on to share this freedom with, no one to celebrate liberty with but by yourself.
Prof. Wheatfields slows down as we approach the roadblock in Hirono-machi again. Navi-chan says: In one kilometer, the road is blocked due to a disaster. We are not one kilometer away—we are only ten meters away. Navi-chan exaggerates and sometimes misses the point completely. But we try to be considerate with her. After all, she’s not too bad a companion. With utmost care, the Professor steers past the obstacle. It is twenty-seven kilometers to Ground Zero. I feel we have just crossed the red line.
We’ll see what happens, Prof. Wheatfields says.
A few kilometers more, Navi-chan warns us again: The road is blocked due to a disaster. We don’t see any roadblocks. But there is one helicopter hovering above us.
It is now twenty-three kilometers to Ground Zero.
Surprisingly, vehicles on both sides of the road have sprung up from nowhere. But of course, there is a lot of work going on at the nuclear power plant. Traffic signals are all blinking yellows. There are no greens or reds. But there are more pink cherry blossoms on the roadside. Not a single soul is moving or walking as we pass by houses after houses.
Suddenly the traffic has become heavy! Everybody is wearing a mask and a white protective suit. Everybody is looking like an alien!
In front of us is a busload of people; it is slowly moving. I can only imagine they are all workers or mercenaries bound for the dying nuclear power plant.
What’s the plan now, I asked Prof. Wheatfields, hiding my nervousness.
Carry on, he said with single-minded determination. Let’s see how far we can go as long as nobody stops us.
The road is getting narrower and there are holes and cracks everywhere. There are more and more cars, trucks, and buses. Suddenly the traffic has become heavy! Everybody is wearing a mask and a white protective suit. Everybody is looking like an alien!
We are fifteen kilometers to the nuclear power plant. It is about four in the afternoon and the sky is overcast. It is a gloomy day. I feel as if we have just joined an army of alien rescuers.
From tomorrow noon, according to newspaper reports, the area we are in now would be part of the twenty-kilometer exclusion zone. This journey would be impossible. This place will become a forbidden zone.
We are in the middle of a forest road. The road goes up and down. Vehicles are moving slowly. I’m nervous but I try not to show it to the Professor. I don’t know what to expect at the end of this road. Will there be a police checkpoint? Will we be arrested? Will we be charged for trespassing?
I pretend to be calm and brave. I pray silently for safe driving and the engine’s good condition. Where the road will lead us, I haven’t the faintest idea. I didn’t bother to check Google maps. For a moment, we are silent. The Professor turned off the music. We are not talking to each other. We are holding our breath.
In a little while, we turn at a corner and come up to a straight road with fences on both sides that are painted in white. Along the pavement are cherry blossoms. The bus that we have been trailing behind is going straight to the big gate. There is a big gate in the distance!
This might be Dai-Ni, Prof. Wheatfields said without any hint of nervousness.
But surely, Jim, we will be stopped. Let’s stop here.
On our left is a big sign that reads: “TEPCO.” It is carved delicately and patiently from a hedge of evergreens.
Why, Rey? Prof. Wheatfields counters. I’d rather keep following the bus. Sorry. We can come back and take that photo later.
With bated breath, we approach the big gate, the main gate. The bus ahead of us just stops short and then goes straight, after the guard in a white protective suit had waved at the driver.
Prof. Wheatfields slows down. I look out the window.
The cherry blossoms along the driveway to the Number 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima are in the prime of their elegance and beauty. They stand outside the massive gate of the crippled Dai-Ni Genpatsu. their petals majestically pink under the gray skies. They are all pink blossoms; not a single green leaf is among them. They are the quintessential pink—subtle, light, and serene..
We have reached the gates of hell.
On seeing our car, the guard signals us to stop. We have reached and passed the gate by five meters. Literally, we have entered the compound of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number 2.
The security guard is wearing a blinding white protective suit, a pair of goggles, and a mask. He motions us to steer to the side. We pull up. Prof. Wheatfields lowers the window on his side. The fearless Professor explains our purpose. He introduces himself and tells the guard about his work and university. He introduces himself with conviction and a great sense of mission and urgency. He has been introducing himself to authorities in this manner for the past three days.
I hold my breath. I keep quiet. I’m chilling in nervousness but I ry to keep calm. I stop taking pictures. I place my camera between my trembling legs.
Prof. Wheatfields said we have been going around, checking the disaster area. He said it is part of his work as a Professor. He asked if we can go and have a look at the damaged nuclear power plant.
Good try, Jim.
The guard, looking like an alien from Mars with his menacing protective suit, apologized. He cannot let us through. He politely requests us to make a U-turn and warns us that filming the vicinity is forbidden.
Actually, there are three guards. They did not take us to a room and interrogate us. They let us go. If we were in the Philippines, I imagine, we could have been in trouble. Not dead, but we could have been in deep shit, real shit.
Prof. Wheatfields maneuvers the car away from the claws of darkness. I’m relieved, so relieved. Now, I want to pee. But my fear of excessive nuclear radiation prevents me from going out of the car and relieving mysef behind a tree.
I wouldn’t do it under the cherry blossoms. That would be a sacrilege.
A hundred meters away from the Dai-Ni Genpatsu gate, we take a brief pause. We then try to compose ourselves and shake our senses back to reality.
So, that is Dai-Ni, the seemingly unperturbed scholar said matter-of-factly. Let’s see if Navi-chan knows the way to Dai-Ichi.
He sets the navigator toward the direction of the dreaded Nuclear Power Plant Number One. He wants more adventure; he wants to explore the zone a little bit more. I become more apprehensive. My feeling is I don’t want to go. I don’t need to see the façade of yet another crippled nuclear power plant. But there is no stopping the great curiosity of a scholar. He wants to satisfy his intellectual inquisitiveness to the fullest.
Curiosity killed the cat, I want to remind the good scholar, but I decide to keep quiet.
Let’s hang out a little bit more in these deserted landscapes, Prof. Wheatfields suggested.
To believe or not to believe Navi-chan—that is the huge question. Physically, the gap between Power Plant Number 2 and Power Plant Number 1 is a spitting distance. In times of nuclear radiation crises, however, even an intelligent machine like Navi-chan can be rattled and confused. She cannot give us clear directions. So, we wander in the vicinity and let our instinct guide us. We take steep turns and steer along many curves, pass deserted villages, and more empty streets, and we end up at a road parted lengthwise by the combined strength and wrath of the earthquake and tsunami.
The roads are so badly damaged around here. Right in the middle, they have wide cracks. It looks like the earth had excavated itself. In the distance, we see a tower.
That probably could be Plant Number 1, Prof. Wheatfields said. If my sense of direction is any good at all, Dai-Ichi is roughly somewhere in that part. Woodlands and low hills surround the Dai-Ichi Genpatsu.
We are driving to nowhere and my courageous friend wants to continue driving until we reach Dai-Ichi. My desire to pee intensifies. Don’t forget, the intellectually insatiable scholar continues while driving.
Now, we are in the town center of Futaba. Business establishments have closed down and some have been abandoned in a hurry. There are gas stations, supermarkets, office buildings, CD/DVD rental shops, pachinko parlors, and residential houses, among others. Prof. Wheatfields is determined to get to the gates of Dai-Ichi. I am not.
We’ll just take one more round, the indefatigable Professor said, and turn. Let’s explore more of this haunted territory.
The road is now completely empty. On the main road, there are abandoned clothing along the shoulders. At the end of the road, directly perpendicular to us, there is a concrete wall with one end collapsing and the middle section heavily lined and
cracked. There are more holes on the road.
Slowly, Jim, slowly!
Don’t you worry, Rey, I’ve got eyes.
We are driving to nowhere and my courageous friend wants to continue driving until we reach Dai-Ichi. My desire to pee intensifies. Don’t forget, the intellectually insatiable scholar continues while driving.
We may never have a lot of chance to come this way again. Tomorrow noon, they will seal off the whole place.
You’re a brave man, Jim.
Foolish, Rey. Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.
On the rice fields, there are compact cars heading to nowhere. How did they get there, I wonder. Navi-chan commands us to turn right in three hundred meters.
By my reckoning, the still-energetic Professor hypothesizes, we are probably north of Dai-Ichi by now. If the coastline is the right shape, we can get a view of the genpatsu from the sea.
Big holes on the road keep on slowing us down.
One more last adventure, my learned friend reassures me, and we’re
But I’m dying to pee. Is it fear?
Yes, Jim, I think it is, partly.
Next to a cluster of bamboo grove is a deserted shrine; its roof is made of corrugated iron sheets and painted in clay-brown —a rather unusual combination—There are white cherry blossoms creeping above its gray torii gate.
On both sides of the road, in between houses, there are vegetable farms. But I haven’t seen a single farmer in the field. Some walls of houses have collapsed completely and their ruins, together with the fallen petals, are spilled on the road—untouched and unmindful.
It is getting dark and I really want to pull away from the nuclear power plant towards the direction of Miharu-machi where the great weeping cherry blossoms are waiting. At the end of the road, I think I see a man walking. As we move closer, I see it is a young boy in white protective suit. As we approach, he goes inside in a hurry. I think his family is on a quick visit to their home.
In seven hundred meters make a short left turn, Navi-chan instructs us.
What’s really going to protect us, the pilot of the journey tries to reassure ourselves once more as he maneuvers, is the fact that we’re only going to stay here for an hour or two.
Going down a slope, I see the road is long, like a hammock stretched wide. The middle part, however, looks rugged and broken. Everything looks burned and brown.
Stop, I said. Let’s not go straight. It’s impossible.
Jim steps on the brake. The car moves slowly down the slope. The road is blocked with debris of tree branches and grasses and huge chunks of earth at the lowest bend. The road is completely hacked in the middle. There are houses on the hills and they too are in ruins.
This village had suffered the wrath of the three successive disasters: the earthquake, the tsunami, and now, the nuclear power plant radiation. Lines of debris and dirt are etched on tree barks and branches. The tsunami that swept away this village has left many tracks.
I think you have to reverse, Jim.
Uhmmm . . . Are you sure it’s that bad?
Let’s just get a little bit closer.
He steers the car slowly until it comes at right angles to the huge chunk of earth on the asphalted road.
Don’t go further, Jim, I said almost pleading. Stop here.
Okay, Rey. Okay.
Finally, we see a glimpse of the sea and the path the tsunami had used to wreak havoc on the farming community.
Good lord, the bewildered Professor exclaims in relief and disbelief, we have reached the sea! If we get out of the car, it might be possible to see Dai-Ichi from that bit of shoreline.
Do you think it’s worth it?
I think it is, I said with renewed confidence. Since we took the trouble of coming this far, let’s get out of the car.
Now, I don’t care if we are going to be exposed to so much dose of nuclear radiation or not. Now, I want to document what I’m seeing. I want to take pictures and feel with all my senses the reality of the moment. I feel, even for a moment, I have subdued my nerves.
Once more, we put on our one-hundred-yen protective suits and hyaku-en masks and leave momentarily Navi-chan in the car. As if we are missionaries sent on an expedition, we decide to explore the “wreckage.” Across us, on the other side of the hill, stands a kawara-roofed house that’s split vertically into half. The fields in the valley are strewn with debris and rubbish. Along the coast, withered grass and fallen trees and broken branches lay in surrender to Mother Earth. I suddenly regain my courage. This is a rare moment, I said to myself. I have to record everything possible. I start filming the scenes around.
The alien-looking Professor stands on the riverbank amid the ruins and devastation. The small river with little water empties into the roaring Pacific Ocean. The sea is gray, tempestuous, and still echoes danger.
Jim, staring down at the river, in his white suit—to be precise, white raincoat and brown cotton hat—is a portrait of a forlorn nuclear physicist searching for the formula to solve the nuclear power plant disaster.
Then I notice his fingers—they are moving up and down, and lit! The Professor is smoking! I have known him for ten years and had not seen him smoke before!
© Rey Ventura