Sunday, March 16, 2014

GakuPuro #3: The Ghost Town of Odaka, Fukushima

I've been putting off this post for a bit because it's not exactly the easiest of topics.This day trip to Odaka was memorable, to say the least. There's no way I can let this slide though, so let's begin with a little background on this small town that was relatively unknown until the Great East Japan Earthquake hit Japan back in 2011. These days people call it a nuclear ghost town, but more than ten thousand people used to call it their home before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster struck. Odaka is situated in the Souma District of Fukushima, a mere 12 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and alongside my project comrades, I paid a little visit back in June 2012.

Halfway towards Odaka, we stopped by a centre for closer conversation with the locals who lived through the experience. We were all separated into groups and my group got to speak with Mrs Hoshino. She was working at the time of the earthquake and soon after, a tsunami warning was given for all to prepare for an incoming wave estimated to be six metres high. Her first thought went to her 6th grader child. The earthquake happened at 2.46PM, the tsunami was said to arrive by 3.25PM but it didn't hit until 3.35PM. She picked up her child and the water carrying rubbles started gushing towards the town. Many ran towards the school nearby for shelter but sea water was already coming through the classrooms. Plus, the school was supposedly earthquake-proof but the second floor was badly damaged. More than 100 residents stayed there anyway for the night and the idea of a nuclear meltdown did not cross anyone's mind, everyone only thought of the tsunami and worried about their houses getting swept away. Parents too were especially worried about their kids, as well as friends and relatives. That night, fire engines came to provide generator and even until the following day, nobody had any information on what was going on.  Mobile phones couldn't work and riceballs, juice and oranges were distributed all around (Mrs Hoshino didn't know where these came from though). Soon there were rumours on risks of the power plant exploding and the residents were ordered to shift to a larger school gym for comfort. Soon everyone was evacuated out of the town and moved into temporary shelters until today.

At one point, the residents got frustrated because news throughout the entire country (and world) focused only on the nuclear disaster in the area, not on the affects of earthquake and tsunami. Different families from different areas have different concerns, and it was also frustrating for them when the authorities try to fix a general problem with general solutions. Some cared too much on the radiation, some not at all. In the earlier points, TEPCO beat around the bush regarding the radiation leak but eventually releases the truth. Some even heard that 80 kilometres should be the safe radius around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant but as authorities only secured off 20 kilometres, many were confused and concerned. A few key issues were raised during the discussion. First the lack of accurate information, how sure are the authorities if a particular area is safe or not? Odaka, despite being so near to the plant, recorded lower radiation levels (due to wind direction, some said) than Fukushima City, but was not evacuated as it is located much further away. Though TEPCO offered 2.5 million yen as compensation, there's still a lack of education on the impact of nuclear radiation. Another concern is regarding the safety of food produced, involving internal and external contamination by radiation. Some even ask themselves why do they still choose to live here.

Despite the heavy nature of our conversation, the atmosphere of the room didn't drop into gloom and doom. The residents did carry a serious tone but their attitude was generally positive. They have concerns and frustrations but more importantly, they have hope for a better future for their childen. The only way to get on with life is to move forward, and that is exactly what they're fighting for now despite a bleak past and the lost of their homes. It's heartbreaking, but absolutely inspiring. Sigh. After all that talk, we all headed for lunch together at this quiet little traditional estaurant, one of the few still running within the area. As this area's beyond the evacuation zone, people continue to live and make a living here. 

Colourful lunch of ebi furai with assorted veges. Beautifully done.

After lunch, we headed straight to Odaka. Odaka is actually just one of the towns located within 20 kilometres radius from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant that was evacuated and closed off to all immediately by the Japanese authorities after the meltdown. It wasn't until April 2012 that the government lifted the evacuation order and narrowed it down to a 10 kilometres radius, so residents were finally allowed in to pick up what's left of their shattered lives. They still can't live there though. The following images may be disturbing for some. I feel somewhat conflicted to post these up but it was  part of the process and putting all these down here is simply to record my personal experience. Pardon the blue tint, the quite a few photographs were taken from within the moving bus, especially moving in and out of Odaka town.

We all got down from the bus upon reaching the centre of Odaka. It was quiet, it was eerily quiet. A couple of vehicles did pass by, but we never saw anyone else walking about besides those from our project group. In a town this quiet, you feel like you should hold your breath lest the peace is shattered. Surprisingly, the traffic lights still work and you could hear the slow hum of it from a distrance. The iconic Japanese vending machines were all unplugged and sealed off the prevent consumption. The cold breeze brings ghostly imagination of a bustling town once alive and merry. It is hard to imagine that in just a couple of hours, thousands of lives were changed for ever.

As you can see, vehicles were strewn all over the place, brought in by the strong waves of the tsunami. This town was only lifted from the evacuation order a couple of months before we visited, so barely any recovery efforts have been put into action. The sights we saw with our eyes were (almost) exactly the same as to how it was left a year ago, almost as if time had stopped in Odaka. I dare say we were the first few non-residents (and foreigners) to come by this little town. Leaving the main town, we continued our journey further closer to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Er we're not exactly going there for a tour ok wtf you'll see. We arrived to a coastal area and got down to take a closer look. There was even a house that still had a car in it, albeit damaged beyond reparation. 

Noticed how the shoes were arranged properly. The owners must have came back for a bit. There were many personal belonging strewn around too, from school trophies to clothes to kitchenwares. Little bits and pieces of everyday life which makes it so much harder for us to look at. This is their reality. After spending some time here, we moved on with our journey. Cue blue-tinted photographs again.

Then we finally arrived. To the border of the evacuation zone. Just ten kilometres away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. This was as close as we could get, and we were given the choice to stay in the comfort of the bus or go down and take it all in with our own eyes. It looks so simple, doesn't it? Just a few people guarding, risking their lives to prevent more lives from risk. We parked a little distance away and once we came down and slowly get closer, the guards came forward and told us to get off. They said we shouldn't be here, they said it's dangerous, they said don't come any closer. We stopped as a respect to their responsibilities (also to avoid potential arrest) and some of the guys took the radiation levels of nearby clumps of leaves. I seriously don't remember what the machine read, but it must have been pretty decent, since nobody reacted strongly and thus the memory is lost.

After that, we went right back to the hostel and as it was such a long day, some just dropped on their futons without taking off their bags like my roommate Chiharu and Ribon here hahaha I noticed that not many of us spoke about the day though. Am sure there were many mixed feelings experienced and to be honest, being so close to the real deal really puts things into perspective. Everything felt so real.

I don't think I'm likely to forget this day in a while. It's been two years since this visit and given the opportunity, I would like to go back again to see how things have changed in this timespan. Are the recovery efforts in full force now? Is it officially safe for residents to go home for good now? Are the evacuated residents still living in temporary shelters? So many questions yet unanswered, there's nothing left to do but hope for the best and trust in their fighting spirit.

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