At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lights to the North: A Chronological Account of Volunteering in Tohoku (Part I)

"People's outdated beliefs are piled up around the house.
--Rather pale like a gravestone.
Cool in the summer, warm in the winter.
For a moment, I thought flowers had bloomed.
It was a flock of aging snow."
- Gate of Snow, Chika Sagawa trans. by Sawako Nakayasu
Some Notes

This is a chronological account of my trip to Tohoku.  Rather than it being non-linear or starting in the middle of the journey, I found it easier to write about it as I remembered the entire experience.  I've also written it this way so that I can remember it better.  The title of this entry "Lights to the North," is taken from the title of a short play I wrote about post-tsunami Tohoku and its people and the issues they're facing.

I'm currently at work on a larger creative project about my trip to Tohoku, so this is going to be a straightforward account of what I saw and how I remember it.   It'll begin in Tokyo...
I've decided to break it in half, as its too lengthy for one blog post.
NEX to Tokyo Station


I left Okinawa the morning of May 2nd to meet my Okinawan friend Y. who would be traveling with me to Tohoku.  He was already in Tokyo, having flown up a few days before to visit his sister in Yokohama.   When I arrived in Tokyo, I was excited about spending half a day in a part of the city I'd never seen before. I spent most of my time in Marunouchi, near Tokyo Station, which actually turned out to be a wonderful antithesis to my Shinjuku-Shibuya-Harajuku trip in January.

Tokyo Station

Marunouchi's skyline, like anywhere else

Apart from the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station, this part of Tokyo is the financial district and thus, like "The City" district in London, UK, Marunouchi is full of global corporate complexes, which is really unappealing when you're looking for the soul of a place.  But in between these buildings, Japan's historical areas of interest can be found.  Because I was reading "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912," Donald Keene's opus of a book on the life and personality of Emperor Meiji, I headed to the Imperial grounds, where I spent most of the afternoon.  You can only see a hint of the palace from the grounds, but I was satisfied with the beauty of the architecture and the Japanese fairy tale that I told myself while walking along the the river that separates the postmodern from the ancient versions of Japan.

Front gates to the Imperial Palace grounds

Beautiful day at the Imperial Palace

What's left of the samurai era
A Japanese Fairy Tale in Marunouchi

After walking for hours, debating whether I should even try to catch a glimpse of the infamously controversial Yasukuni Shrine and then deciding that I should leave the dead alone, I crashed and ended up falling asleep briefly at a cafe, while waiting for Y. to arrive.  He'd also crashed, but had done it with style in a cheap, old capsule hotel in Ginza.  I was all "いいな" and feeling the weight of gender discrimination in Japan since not many capsule hotels allow women in them still.  Japan really needs to rethink this concept of capsule's being men only territory, especially in this era where more women are entering the workforce as career women.  Not every Japanese woman wants to give up their independence to be a wife, at least not immediately.

Y. and I eventually met up and decided to get dinner before heading to the night bus that would take us and 50-60 other Japanese volunteers to Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma the next day.   We were giddy and nervous about the trip, uncertain what we'd encounter, but we'd been really looking forward to seeing the beauty of Tohoku, a place neither of us had ever traveled to before, while also helping the people of that region in whatever way we could.

Y. wanted to eat and saw a place he thought might be nice.  He asked me, "isn't that the kanji for sushi?" and I laughed and said, "why are you asking me this?  Are you sure you're really Japanese?"  Y.'s infectious laugh answered that question but he was worried about the way he looked while walking around Ginza.  We were both basically ready for our night bus trip and it was a Thursday night in one of the poshest areas of Tokyo.   We also had our huge suitcases with us and everywhere we looked one had to climb stairs to get to 2nd or 3rd floor restaurants.  I kept reminding him that we had these gigantic suitcases and what restaurant in the Ginza wants a bunch of tourists wheeling their life's contents around with them?


Eventually we turned down a random street in search of a kaiten or some cheap yakitori place, and ended up in front of an Okinawan izakaya.  I laughed at the fact that we had both traveled hundred of kilometers from our little island and had managed to find the one Okinawan restaurant in Ginza, complete with sanshin music and shisa.  I turned to Y. and asked him if he'd some extrasensory Okinawan radar?  In the end though, he didn't want to eat Uchinaa food and we ended up being lured into some forgettable Hawaiian themed trendy cafe where we spent almost 4000 yen on an omelet and harumaki plus table charge popcorn and two drinks.    What a pisser.  We ate quickly while watching the mostly female crowd celebrate someone's birthday.  Y. was too embarrassed to enjoy this surreal, kitchy experience as he realized that he looked like he was ready to go camping, while everyone else was dressed to the nines.  I really didn't care about what these people thought and reminded him that we'd never, ever see these people again and who cares really what these women thought (there were only male waiters, which made me think that this restaurant catered to the single lady demographic).

Tokyo Station at night

It was getting really close to the time we needed to be at the meeting point and I was worried we'd miss our bus, but we ended up at the tour bus area near Tokyo Station just on time.  After settling in, our guide for the volunteer trip went over a brief orientation before we set out across Tokyo heading north towards Saitama.

Skytree from Night Bus

The Night Bus

I always forget how wretched traveling overnight by bus or train is.  I've done it several times in my life and each time the journey always starts off at its highest point before descending into its own special version of travel hell.  We were lucky that this bus did not have a toilet on it though.  That just adds to the misery. I was once on an overnight train in a compartment where the septic tank had been exposed sometime in the middle of the night.  You could barely breath the stench was atrocious and the conductor had sprayed some cheap floral deodorizer on top of the smell of shit, just to add insult to injury.  Thankfully, this bus ride wasn't memorable for vomit inducement.

Still, it had the same level of discomfort as any other night travel.  At the beginning of any trip, all the travelers are always excited to be on their way, but after a while you realize you've barely made a dent in the journey and you're exhausted and unable to sleep well.  Sleeping on a bus does not permit relaxation or deep rest, but fortunately for everyone on this bus, most of the people were quiet during the majority of the trip.  During the first two hours though, there'd been quite a bit of chatty Cathy from our neighbors in the seats next to ours, two gentlemen in their late 50's or early 60's, who were both strangers but had become sake drinking buddies on the bus.  Eventually everyone passed out somewhere between Saitama and Tochigi.  I woke up in Tochigi and realized that we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule due to the mad early Golden Week rush.  The highways were full of cars of Japanese people driving all night to get to their holiday destinations.  I woke up Y. and we both marveled at the fact that the Japanese would drive all night to not waste one hour of their precious holiday.  Highway driving was at a snails pace most of the trip and I lingered somewhere between lucid and dreamland, peppered every two hours with zombie walk through the various prefectural rest stops, which are remarkably like Japanese versions of any rest stop I've ever visited in my life.  Once we got to Tohoku, the shops in these rest areas looked more like JA farmers markets, with immaculate fruits and vegetables, so much more beautiful than even those sold in Okinawa.  The level of aestheticism in Japan is untouchable, even the fruit must look divine in order to be sold.  I've never seen such beautiful cherries or mikans before in my life.  The food looked so delicious and I wanted to buy all of it, but lack of money prevented me from purchasing anything but hot drinks and a homemade onigiri as the temperatures had dipped and the chill of a late Tohoku spring was biting my fingers.

The one thing that always bothers me about traveling in Japan is that often the bathrooms lack soap and they almost always lack paper towels.  Air dryers are useful, but when the temperature outside is 8 degrees, cold water and cold air from these dryers induces numbness.  I always forget to carry my own personal towel with me, even after 2.5 years here.  On the other hand, heated toilet seats are divine.  I'm surprised that America has not adopted the Japanese toilet with all its gadgetry and blinking lights.  I'm sure they're expensive, but having a heated seat is so worth it on cold winter mornings.  You can see where Japan's priorities are.  Cold fingers are OK, but a cold bum...nope.


Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke to find that we were passing through Fukushima.  I sent an email to a friend regarding my location and she quickly wrote back, "how are you doing?  You ok?" We were driving towards Fukushima City and I looked out of the window towards the East, where I knew the towns near the Daiichi and Daini plants lay somewhere beyond the mountains separating us from that uninhabited area.  A feeling arose in me, incomprehensible at that moment, but the tendrils of which would begin to articulate themselves once we arrived in Iwate.

Good morning Tohoku

By 4am, the sun had started to rise and I'd had about a cumulative amount of 3 hours of sleep.  We were in northwest Fukushima, right on the border of Miyagi and the inaka was breathtaking.  The mountains rose up to greet the sun as it burst over the horizon.  All around us were farms and small hamlets with houses that had a very regal Japanese architectural style.  I'd never been outside of Tokyo in mainland Japan and all of my time in this country has been on Okinawa, where the architecture and layout of the land is very different from Tohoku.  We don't have mountains the size of the ones I was seeing and this area seemed less modernized, less westernized in many ways.  I woke Y. up and told him we were in Fukushima, close to Miyagi-ken.  It was in this area that we noticed the first cherry trees in full blossom.  It was such a glorious morning in Tohoku.

Tohoku, the deep north.  Even in Japan, Tohoku is sort of a mysterious region, known for its natural beauty, its mythology, its traditional culture, and its brutal winters.  Now it's known for its wounds, especially the wound in Fukushima that has left part of that prefecture untouched since March 11th, and has created a fervent anti-nuclear movement throughout Japan.  This rural area of Japan is a rice basket for the country.  It's also an area that is aging as most of its youth leave the region for opportunities in Tokyo and Osaka or elsewhere.  Most young people are no longer interested in farming or fishing.  They don't want to stick close to their ancestral homes.  They want glamour and excitement, they want job opportunities, they want a life that Tohoku can't offer that to them.  Even though I was marveling at the sheer beauty of the land, I don't blame the young people for wanting to escape, especially now.

Farms and rice paddies 
Still, the people who are from here care deeply about their home towns and their region. Many of them want to return and rebuild their villages, towns, and cities.  Most of them wait indefinitely in temporary housing, hoping that one day soon they'll be able to return home, but knowing that is unlikely to happen.   I can't really make too many personal comments on Fukushima, as we only drove through it and I could only see that people are still living and trying to farm and go about their lives as best as they can despite the nuclear issues there.

Farmers at work
On our way back from Tohoku, we ended up taking a different route and traveled south towards Iwaki, closer to the area of the exclusion zone.  It wasn't dark at the time, so I could see how rural and lush the countryside in this area of Japan is; its tiny villages helplessly sitting in the shadow of nuclear exposure and the subsequent paranoia that arises from those in the bigger cities who fear the very radiation they require for their cosmopolitan lives.  This is a topic that isn't often talked about openly, but it's a big deal.  The idea of being tainted by exposure to radiation and the prejudice that those who are growing up in this region may face when they are older and are looking for a husband or wife to marry and have children with.  Even if these children in this region aren't affected, there will undoubtedly be those who refuse to marry or settle down with them for fear of birth defects. The playwright 坂手洋二/Yoji Sakate wrote "血の問題/A Problem of Blood" dealing specifically with this issue.  This isn't the first time Japan has dealt with the fears of radiation like this though.  Interestingly enough, people are more likely to think that places in Iwate are more affected by the radiation than Tokyo, even though both areas are equidistant to the exclusion zone.  It's impossible for anyone in Japan not to be somewhat touched by the nuclear issue as inevitably the cesium and other nuclear particles have entered the food system.  The Japanese have been alert and careful about this issue, but no one seems to trust the government to protect the people from potential exposure, especially not after the way things have been handled around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Because I live in Okinawa, where many people from mainland Japan have moved to escape potential long term exposure to radiation, the idea of going to this area to volunteer has unsettled many of people I know - both Japanese and non-Japanese.  Most people think its a good thing that I went there as most of them have not.  But they automatically assume that when I say I volunteered in Tohoku, that I headed straight for Fukushima and its exclusion zone, which is the place that most people now think about when they think about Tohoku and the issues it faces.

Since we only passed through Fukushima, it's very difficult for me to accurately document this part of Tohoku.  Perhaps next time I may try to spend some time around this prefecture.  A friend of mine who lives in Iwaki has told me so much about what's happening in this area.  The clean up has been very slow going and funds have been diverted to other prefectures, sometimes as necessary groundwork for further work in Tohoku and other times not.  The people in this region feel forgotten and discarded, their demands not taken seriously by the government in Tokyo.  My friend says that many people feel that the ultimate plan is to leave this region to rot and spend no more time investing money or resources in it.  These are just rumors and hearsay though.  From the majestic terrain that I observed, it would be tragic to abandon Fukushima in its hour of need and not recognize its significance in Japan's history and also its current societal woes.

In bloom

Part II will be posted on Friday and will continue with the trip starting at our arrival in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture and overnight stay in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.  

No comments:

Post a Comment