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.
Everything looks brown around here: the earth, grass, bark and branches of trees, grass, and debris. But in the nearby hills, the trees are dark green. How many lives were taken by the tsunami from this village, I wonder.
I first met Prof Wheatfields about ten years ago. I was on my regular walk in the woods at Shimin No Mori near our first house in Yokohama with Libnos, my grade school daughter. We were just beginning our afternoon stroll when I spotted a tall white curly-haired bespectacled gaijin approaching. He was walking a shiba on leash. Behind his dog was his daughter who was older than Libnos.
We exchanged numbers. I wrote my name and telephone number on a torn piece of paper. He did the same. We parted ways. His team went down the hill. My daughter and I proceeded to our favorite part of the woods and did our usual game of climbing up trees. After about an hour, we returned home. I got a call. I recognized the voice of Prof Wheatfields right away.
He inquired if I was the author of “Underground in Japan.” With all humility, I said I was. Since then, we’ve been friends. Since then, he has been generous to me. He had invited me to guest lecture in his class a number of times. We’ve traveled to the Philippines a couple of times on study tours together with his students. We have had drinks and fun at a number of places including: Oxford, Yokohama, and Manila. Most recently, he had invited me to lecture on journalism at his university.
Now, we are traveling together again into the most dangerous part of Japan. He is at the wheel and I am his co-pilot.
We are in the middle of nowhere but we know we are near the gates of hell.
I continue to film the scenes. I panned towards Prof Wheatfields; his back is towards the camera. His fingers are shaking. He notices me taking video. He walks away.
I don’t want to be seen smoking on camera, Rey, he says. That’s one for your triple xxx collection.
Don’t worry, professor, I can always edit it.
I can’t resist a small laughter. I feel his tension. All along, he had been restraining his nerves, much more his fear.
Smoking, I say to myself, relieves the nerves.
Everything looks brown around here: the earth, grass, bark and branches of trees, grass, and debris. But in the nearby hills, the trees are dark green. How many lives were taken by the tsunami from this village, I wonder.
Prof Wheatfields walks up to an elevated area along the edge of the hill. He wants to check if Dai-ichi could be seen from there. Unfortunately, the sky is grey and so is the sea. Looking at a map that he has brought with him, he points out: Dai-ichi should be somewhere in that direction.
Still smoking, he takes out his yellow-green mobile phone and snaps some pictures. He moves away again when he sees me pan my camera towards his direction.
Looking at the ruins and debris on the banks, I notice, there used to be a bridge. The slabs of concrete scattered all over the place are bits and pieces of the bridge.
Half consumed, Jim puts off his cigarette away. With a piece of tissue paper, he wraps the remains and slides it into his pocket. Through the withered reeds, grass and fallen trees, he finds his way. He walks towards the edge of the sea. He looks like an apparition – his white raincoat (anti-nuclear radiation suit) drifting amidst the sea of withered brown grass.
Looking at his guidebook, he desperately tries to figure out where Dai-ichi could be spotted. In the greyness of the sky, Dai-ichi is nowhere to be found.
Walking back to our car, suddenly, I notice, we are not alone. There are other creatures that have just arrived. A minivan has stopped near our car. On top of its roof is a pair of fat cylindrical equipment that resembles mini-nuclear reactors. Two men descend. They look like astronauts in white suits and have just landed on the moon. One has a tiny digital camera the other has a kind of measuring device. I notice the camera is aimed at us while we walk towards them. We greet them.
The two men are heavily protected – there’s not a single part of their body exposed. They are completely sealed. From head to foot they are wrapped like space workers. Each of them is wearing a mask that resembles a pair of giant grasshoppers’ eyes. We look like poor and bizarrely inadequate aliens in their presence.
Prof Wheatfields asks them about the current level of radiation. It’s ten microsievert per hour, they say.
It this safe, I ask.
Zenzen daijobu desu, they reply almost in unison.
They seem to be saying the level is no threat to human health. But their suits belie their statements.
These men are from the prefectural government’s monitoring team.
Not forgetting his quest, Professor asks them the directions towards Dai-ichi. They point it to the direction of the fallen houses on the hills. It is six kilometers away. But the bridge leading there has collapsed and road is strewn with debris. It is impassable.
Identifying our exact location, the two officials say we are in Uragahama, a disctrict of Tomioka city. The level of radiation is only ten microsieverts per hour, they repeat and it is no cause for alarm.
The two authorities, remarkably friendly bid us goodbye and tell us to take care. Tomorrow, they remind us, this place will be sealed off.
Gently, I remind the good professor to reset Navi-chan and head towards our destination – the cherry blossoms of Miharu-machi. Dai-ichi is up that way, the determined professor counters not giving up his quest as we drive through the town of Nemoto.
I think we’ve done enough, I say. Let’s not overdo it.
Fallen tsubaki petals, fallen roof, broken walls, empty fields, cracks on the road, deserted houses, abandoned cars, milking cows on the loose, and cherry blossoms along the road – there’s not a single human soul around here. According to reports, a lot of farmers had to abandon their cattle and eventually they died of starvation.
On the main road, on one corner, there’s a Nissan car dealer’s shop. Its glass windows are broken and cars are still on display both inside and outside. This showroom has been deserted in a hurry.
Finally, we are heading to the direction of Sendai away from the nuclear plant. It is a great relief.
In the middle of the road, by a farm, we take a pause to reset Navi-chan. We’ve been going round and round frequently disobeying Navi-chan.
Suddenly, the ever-alert professor finds a sign that says Turn Left To Dai-ichi. Before I could disagree, he has already steered the wheel to the direction of the nuclear plant.
That Left Turn was what he has been looking for since we came from Dai-Ni. All of the sudden the sign appeared as if he was a good friend in time of need.
To approach patches of young pine forest through very handsome, neat, and winding roads is relaxing. This is true if you are an infidel and do not believe in the idea of radioactive contamination.
Almost by surprise, we come to a stretch of woodland heavily fortified with layers of silver barbed wires.
I knew we are within the vicinity of Dai-ichi. The approach looks very similar to Dai-Ni. I do not want to stay a minute longer here but there’s no stopping the great obsession of my learned friend.
Across the road is an open field. On its bank stands a solitary poster of a politician. The meticulous professor slows down and stops to read: Chihou koso genten (The neighborhood is where we start from). Below the text is a picture of Sadakazu Tanizaki, the president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (the party that built all the nuclear plants and greatly benefited from them). Tanizaki looks rather sad. In the middle of nowhere, across a nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown, stands a politician proclaiming its motto to a phantom audience. Tanizaki, a year after, was stabbed in the back by his trusted number two. He was forced stand down in the Party election. His number two, Nobuteru Ishihara, the son of the novelist turned nationalist politician Shintaro Ishihara, ran and lost.
Shall we just park the car over and see what’s there?
I dreaded this question. I do not want to stay a minute longer here. It is not because of radiation or earthquake. It is more of a fear of the authority. I do not want to be questioned or interrogated. I do not like the idea of being detained no matter how briefly. But the Oxford scholar is never scared of the authority. In fact he wants to challenge them. He wants to engage them.
I think we should carry on, I say disguising my fear.
We are behind Dai-ichi, I’m pretty sure and the persistent professor is desperate to find the entrance. We go round and round in circles. Some roads are completely ripped in the middle like meandering streams. Navi-chan’s orders are repeatedly disobeyed and ignored but she’s always forgiving.
On an open road, in between houses, we come out like wild animals being chased after. The roads have more deep cuts in the middle and completely impassable. Navi-chan knows nothing about road conditions.
At a road sign that says ‘construction workers urgently needed,’ we make a brief stop.
The road, literally, on the yellow line separating the lanes, is parted in the middle.
Prof Wheatfields steers carefully, stubbornly towards the direction of Dai-ichi. He does not want to leave the area without getting a glimpse of the gate of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number 1. He wants to score a goal, a scholarly one, desperately.
We pass by a graveyard along the road surrounded by pine trees. The playful professor rolls down the window for a better view.
Just a few microsieverts, Rey.
Many tombstones have collapsed and fallen down.
I have forgotten momentarily, we are driving through the most irradiated region on earth.
The pretty sakura along the road keep distracting me. Cracks on the road continue to slow us down. I keep cautioning the captain of the ship saying ‘oppps’ like a non-stop annoying obaasan. But the dangers are real. Another confused and forlorn dog appears on the edge of the road searching for human scent and waiting for the return of its master. Still there are no humans to be seen. Navi-chan keeps giving us directions and warning us to follow traffic rules, strictly. She can sense if we are being disobedient.
I have given up my silent protest. The resolute professor is still determined to reach the gates of Dai-ichi. I have adopted the Filipino motto – bahala na – Let God have its way! Come what may!
A road with a big crack in the middle slows us down again. It’s the same road we went through earlier!
We are going round and round in fucking bloody circles, finally the cool scholar releases his pent up rage against sweet-talking Navi-chan. What is she playing at? What the fuck is she doing?
For the first time, we bump into a sign that says: Fukushima Dai-ichi Denshi Ryoku Hatsuden Sho (Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant Station). This is a confirmation, that that were near the goal. It’s so near and yet so far.
Prof Wheatfields has completely abandoned listening to Navi-chan. Now he drives relying on his instinct and common sense. But the gates of Dai-ichi seems unreachable.
A solitary dog crosses the street. Its tail is between its legs, looking around and obviously lost and scared. It’s another ronin shiba.
Arriving at a district in the town center of Futaba, houses and business establishments are lined, rather thickly, side by side. Shutters are down, doors are locked, and windows are closed. There is not a single human being in sight. The road is basically clear except for some fallen tiles of roof from a few old houses, slabs of concrete from collapsed walls, scattered planters, and fallen petals of camellias on the roadside. As we drive through, crows and house sparrows fly away from the middle of the road. Professor slows down: dogs, four shibas, are lazing in the middle of road as if it has been their backyard for a long time. They approach us and come to the side of the car. They come near us as if they have been expecting our arrival. They are not frightened at all at our car. They look at us with the most melancholic eyes. They seem to be disappointed we did not come for them. They have been waiting for their masters to return. In the distance, I see more crows picking pieces of rubbish in the middle of the road. Only dogs and crows and sparrows are here.
It’s been about three hours since we’ve entered the nuclear zone but we haven’t seen any human being for a long time.
This town, Prof Wheatfields remarks, has literally gone to the dogs. This is a ghost town.
There are more forsaken cherry blossoms along the road.
On the mountain peaks in the distance, there is a parade of pylons. I’ve never seen so much electric towers on mountaintops. We begin to ascend the highlands and leave the town of Tomioka.
It is now getting dark and I am so relieved we are finally moving away from the genpatsu. Prof Wheatfields has yielded quietly. The gates of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number One are not meant for him.
The roads are not so badly disrupted here. However, the sight of the wire nettings precariously protecting cliffs is worrying. We are deep in the mountains and the damage caused by a huge landslide has just been repaired. Signs of human existence begin to appear again. A few cars start to whiz up and down.
By a stream, we make a brief stop for a pee break. I respond to the call of nature and aim behind a bush. The honorable professor does the same. A highway neon sign says the temperature is six degree Celsius.
Finally, we are heading towards Miharu-machi.
I am looking forward to drinking under the cherry blossoms of Miharu. But it is embarrassing to tell this to my scholar friend.
Leaving the highlands, we come to a small town. As we get on to the main road, we see a number of police officers manning a roadblock. Two of them signal us to stop. I keep myself calm and let calm professor do the talking. This is our first encounter with police officers.
Where are you going, the young officer asks.
To Miharu-machi, the professor says, to see the cherry blossoms. What a beautiful excuse, Jim, I thought. It’s a handy phrase to use at the most precise moment.
Take care, the young officer bids us, tonight at midnight, this road will be closed.
I understand. Thank you.
Of course, we do not tell the polite and caring officer we’ve just been to the gates of the genpatsu. They are members of Osaka Police as their uniform says. From Osaka, it seems they have been parachuted to Fukushima.
Along steep and zigzagging precipices on the mountains, Professor steers our Nissan with great care and caution. In the dark and deep forest, in the middle of nowhere, and in the most radioactive zone, the last thing I’m most terrified is a car breakdown.
Most of the roads have only just become passable. Road works are still numerous.
In the town of Tamura, we see a number of people walking on the road. Some shops are lit. Now, there are more cars on the road. The road is leading to Koriyama City. Professor plays a CD again. He’s now relaxed. The danger zone is now behind us.
At almost eight in the evening, we arrive at Miharu-machi. The streetlights are subdued to the point of gloom. I can’t see any shops or establishment that is open. I see an old lady walking along the fence. The streetlights look like candles for mourning.
Navi-chan is still navigating the town and leading us to our lodging place for the night that professor had booked earlier. After spending half a day in the danger zone, Prof Wheatfields is now relaxed and has a spare time to talk about cherry blossoms.
So, he asks, how did you first get interested in Miharu Takizakura?
I smile and I want to laugh.
Two weeks ago, I try to explain, I was filming a friend under the cherry blossoms at Ueno Park in Tokyo. I wondered, how were the cherry blossoms in Fukushima doing? On the Internet, I search for the best place to see them. I discovered Miharu Takizakura.
I saw a lot of takizakuras photographs. I fell in love with them at first sight. I wanted to see them with my own eyes. I imagined the blossoms – beautiful and abandoned. I wanted to film that scene. I even made a title: Sakura in the Time of Nuclear Radiation.
Destination reached, says Navi-chan. Route guidance ends now.
Oh my goodness, professor exclaims upon reaching our destination. We would never ever have found this place on our own.
Hidden by bamboo groves and off the main road and standing under the menacing shadow of a gigantic highway, tonight’s lodging place resembles more a communist guerrilla’s safe house than a hotel.
Thanks, be to you Navi-chan.
The ‘ryokan’ is a two-storey pre-fabricated building. There are a number of cars parked in front.
Quite a number of people, I say surprise.
We are not alone, professor says.
Yes, we are not the only crazy people!
Our room is roughly a six-tatami mat. We have duvets and a set of yukata for each. Prof Wheatfields immediately wears his and gets down on his computer. He starts to recall the events of the day and writes his notes. On television, the news is about the magnitude six tremors that struck Chiba-ken. Regarding this earthquake, the newsreader says, there are no worries about tsunami.
The next report is on local residents near the genpatsu moving beddings and valuables from their homes to the evacuation centers. Today was their last chance to enter into the 20-kilometer radius zone and get anything valuable from their homes. Tomorrow, the entire area will be declared a forbidden zone.
With a short prayer of gratitude for the safety and the experience gained, I go to bed a little tired. The visit to the genpatsu, I thought, was the day of reckoning. Now, I have nothing but the feeling of great relief and liberation.
Oyasumi, I say good night to Prof Wheatfields still trying to remember the events of the day and recording them on his PC.
Oyasumi nasai, he says.
Throughout the night, I felt three sets of tremors, big and small. Even while I was in the bathtub, I was jolted a little. The ryokan we’re lodging in is not exactly the best of its kind. In my mind, today is a day of quiet celebration. Miharu Takizakura is just a few minutes up the hill.
Everywhere around this town are cherry blossoms: along the river next to a bamboo forest, on the hill in front of a farmer’s house, on the edge of a vegetable farm where a bent elderly lady farmer is tilling the soil for planting, at the boundary of a restaurant’s car park, in the graveyard, and along the highway.
There are some tourist buses going to the direction of the Miharu takizakura. And there are few people walking.
So, you reckon, I say to Prof Wheatfields, you will spend the whole day in Iitate-mura?
I will consult Navi-chan, he says, when we get to the cherry blossoms.
As we approach the place, Jim says: This isn’t quite the image you’re hoping for — beautiful blossoms amidst the earthquake wreckage?
Of course, it wasn’t. I wasn’t hoping for a provocative image of beauty and ruins nor beauty and destruction. I was more interested in the idea of beauty and hope, beauty and melancholy. The weeping cherry blossoms, I thought, was a metaphor for endurance, calmness, and grace.
Except for a few road works, Miharu-machi didn’t suffer too much physical damage. The town, basically, is intact. The infrastructure is all working.
So, responding to my scholar friend, I have never thought about that.
At the approach to the park, a uniformed attendant wielding a baton, leads us the way.
To our surprise, there is a long queue of cars trying to get a space. Some tourist-buses have already secured spots. I thought this place would be empty in times of radioactive contamination.
People who are fascinated by the cherry blossoms always fascinate me. It is always fascinating to watch them. People from all walks of life come to see Miharu Takizakura: elderly, young ladies, high school students and children. One lady came with her dog. Probably, Prof Wheatfields and I are the only gaijin here this time. Almost every one, even kids, take pictures of the blossoms and have their pictures taken. Even Prof Wheatfields with his sparkling yellow mobile phone cannot resist the charms of the blossoms. Every single individual wants a memory of this legendary tree and its blossoms.
According to a farmer who lives near the tree, the number of visitors is the lowest this year – only around two thousand. Last year, he says, there were about twenty one thousand on a single day.
Miharu takizakura stands on the slope of a hill. By its sheer height and color, it stands out surrounded by plots of vegetables and wildflowers. It is located in a farming valley about seventy kilometers from the nuclear power plant.
Coming to visit a tree and see its blossoms is almost a kind of spiritual journey. You come to witness a miracle – the tree has survived the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. It is a living testament to resilience and enduring hope.
From a distance, I behold the sacred tree. It is all pink, all blossoms and no leaves. Its blossoms are flowing like eternal falls. Its branches are spread-eagled grateful under the wide and soft and overcast skies of Fukushima. From top to bottom, the blossoms are in full bloom! It is the biggest blossoming cherry tree I have ever seen.
A number of elderly people and families have laid plastic sheets on the grass and start to eat onigiri (balls of rice) and drink bottled tea. Professor and I do the same. We haven’t had breakfast yet.
I go near the tree and walk up the path. At the end is a small wooden shrine. Next to it is a wooden offertory box. People throw in coins, stand before it, bow, clap their hands, bow, and offer prayers as if they were visiting a real shrine.
Under the tree, wooden stakes prop up and support the smaller branches from breaking or touching the ground. Years ago, according to reports, a snow blizzard had threatened to break the branches.
The trunk is massive – it will take at least about eight people to fully embrace its whole body. However, it’s not very embraceable – its bark is rough, gnarled, twisted, and sharp. Around the tree is a carpet of clover with tiny white flowers. There are also a few dandelions among them. At the foot of its trunk, I notice, there is an opening, a kind of small cave. By the entrance is a miniature shrine made of stone. From this tiny cave, later in the afternoon, I saw a black striped cat emerging. A cat lives among the roots and under the heavenly weight of the most adored and sacred cherry tree in Japan!
The massiveness of the tree is inversely proportional to the size of its flowers. It’s five-petal blossoms, in clusters, are almost half the size of the common sakura. Commenting on its diminutiveness, one lady upon coming close to the blossoms remarks:
Chit-chai desu ne. How tiny they are!
I keep falling in love with cherry blossoms. I keep visiting places just to see them. Not to be told as an incorrigible romantic, I didn’t tell this to Jim: the cherry blossoms were my primary interest in visiting Fukushima more than the nuclear plant. I was too embarrassed to tell him such trivial and insignificant an interest.
After joining me for an hour, I part ways with Prof Wheatfields. I remain under the cherry blossoms. He goes to the village of Iitate-mura – the most radiation-contaminated community in the entire prefecture of Fukushima.
I have the entire day for myself.
And suddenly, I found myself talking to an imaginary person:
“I would like to invite you
to a conversation
under the cherry blossoms.”
Solitary amidst the crowd, I go up to the top of the hill where there are more cherry trees but whose blossoms have different number of petals, shapes and colors. Their complexions are subtle variations of pink and white. I walk around the neighboring farm and I see a cluster of cherry trees on another hill. As I get nearer I could see that it’s a graveyard. The departed souls, I whisper to wind, have resurrected as cherry blossoms.
Graveyards used to scare me when I was schoolboy. I would always run as fast as I could every time I pass by the jungle-like catholic cemetery on my way home. But here in Japan, as an adult, I have come to admire graveyards. I like the calmness and most of the time, the absence of human beings. Each time I come to a graveyard, although I might not be related to the dead enshrined here, I always feel like I have to have a conversation with the souls of the dead.
Beckoned by the pink blossoms, I ascend the little hill. Excuse me, I whisper to the wind at the entrance, sorry for disturbing your peace.
As I say this, I hear songbirds and the cries of crows in the distant.
I look around. A huge gravestone lies on the path like a fallen tree – it has been knocked down from its base. Nearby, a freshly installed cenotaph is cut into a third – the fallen chunk is wedged between the stone lanterns. Stone pagodas, big and small, have crumbled at the lanterns’ feet as if they are playing a game of hide-and-seek. A tomb’s cube base is overturned. So far, this sight has been the most visible damage brought by the earthquake that I have seen in Miharu. I get chill down my spine. Stones weighing as much as a ton, I thought, could be moved and shaken.
Miraculously, the good old Miharu Takizakura still stands in sacred serenity despite the triple disasters.
Up and down the hill, I spend the whole day taking pictures, marveling, immersing, and infusing myself with all the scents of blossoms and elements under the Fukushima sky.
Along the village road that leads to Takizakura are family stalls selling local food, drinks, crafts, and plants. At a stall selling amazake, I order a cup. A lady cheerfully serves me.
The drink comes in a paper cup.
Mada atsui desu, she warns me it is still hot. Okawari wa tada desu, she offers the next cup would be free.
On a bench behind the stall, I rest myself for a quiet celebration.
Amazake is made of fermented brown rice, creamy, looks like gruel, and it contains a little alcohol. This is my lunch and I’m drinking it literally under a young cherry tree with full blossoms. I sip it slowly. It is sweet and it quenches my thirst and fills my hunger. I finished the cup and pluck a little courage to ask for the free refill. The lady behind the counter cheerfully and generously offers another cup.
After a swig, I strike a conversation. I came all the way from Yokohama, I tell her, but I’m originally from the Philippines. She thanks me, sincerely and profusely. Many people think, she says, Fukushima is all nuclear radiation. It isn’t. We still have beautiful cherry blossoms; we are okay here. I want the other people to know that. I want them to visit Miharu again.
I promise her to come back next year. I did and she recognized me instantly and offered free cups again.
It is getting a little cold. The sun coming down behind the mountains is muted, softened, and made gentle by the Miharu skies.
I continue to walk around the village. I stop at a farmer’s stall selling takizakura seedlings.
These are rare takizura seedlings, he says. I seldom sell them like this. These are the last of them.
The elderly farmer is getting ready to clear up.
On the spot, I decided to get two: one for my garden and one for Jim. It cost two thousand yen each and they stand up to my knees. I whisper to one of them:
May I have the honor, dear professor,
of planting a Miharu-takizakura
in your garden!
There are not a few people buying seedlings.
How charming to see an elegant lady
carrying a young seedling
of Miharu takizakura!
With a camera bag, a tripod, and two seedlings, I walk around and return to the main spot. In front of the ancient tree, I stand up. From a distance, a powerful spotlight is illuminating the blossoms. The flood of light may not be necessary for the blossoms but important for the camera and television. NHK, the national television, is going to broadcast nationwide live the lit beauties. The members of the crew are busy setting up.
One more time, I behold the mystery of the takizakura. Once upon a time, I tell her in silence, you were a tiny seedling. You’ve grown to be more than a thousand years old. May you continue to live longer and give joy to many more travelers and people from all walks of life.
Two days later, we return to Yokohama in the afternoon. At Jim’s house we unload his things. I take one of the seedlings out from the back of the car. In the garden, we clear up a corner.
Like earnest schoolboys doing gardening at the schoolyard after classes, we take turns digging the hole.
May you grow big and live to be a thousand, I say a silent invocation while Jim holds the young tree and I put back the soil around the seedling, may you grow strong and beautiful.
Beside the young takizakura, Prof Wheatfields poses like Charlie Chaplin for a memorial photograph.
At home, the next morning after Mayumi and Libnos left, in the northern corner of my wild garden, I clear up a space and dig the ground. I bury the roots of the young sakura tree. Thanks for the safe journey to Fukushima, I say. I look forward to enjoying your first blossoms.
© Rey Ventura