Visiting friends up north
By Arthur Binard
Traveling to Minamisoma is a bit tricky these days.
You used to be able to jump on the train at Ueno or Nippori, stations right in the heart of Tokyo, and the Joban Line would carry you east into Chiba, then curve north through Ibaraki and proceed leisurely up the Fukushima coast. It was so simple, so relaxing, and after 300 kilometers of urban, suburban and rural scenery, you found yourself standing on a little platform between rice paddies and the Pacific Ocean. Of course, there were some eyesores along the way, such as the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant and, further north, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Yet the rich local color of the surrounding hamlets seemed to balance things out.
Now that three of the six reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant have melted down, and the rails of the Joban Line silently rust in the 20-km-radius no-go zone, how am I supposed to get to Minamisoma to visit my friends? The Takahashis live 25 kilometers due north of the wrecked reactors, just beyond the no-go zone's border, and they plan to stay there.
Early one morning in June, I got on a Shinkansen super-express heading north, and the Takahashis drove all the way to Fukushima Station to pick me up. We used their Geiger counter to check on the level of radiation in central Fukushima City. Near the ground, where there was shrubbery we got readings of 2.5 microsieverts, 3 microsieverts, and the hottest spot was 3.5 microsieverts per hour.*
After driving east for 30 minutes or so, we came to Iitate, a beautiful village nestled among lush hills and sparkling streams. The Geiger counter kept sending out warning beeps, so we stopped by a little marsh and I took a reading at waist level. It was more than 7 microsieverts per hour. When I squatted to get a reading near the roots of some reeds, the counter beeped and beeped and beeped, and eventually gave up. The radiation level was too high to measure -- over 10 microsieverts per hour.
As I waited for that "no-reading-possible" reading to show, a fly with azure eyes and crystalline wings came and landed on my thumb, right next to the counter's screen. With their shorter life cycle, the flies are sure to see the effects of radiation in their offspring before we do. I wanted to warn them, but then realized there wasn't anywhere for flies to evacuate to. I wondered how much cesium and strontium those azure eyes had taken in. After the fly flew off, I tried to get another reading, but again the level was too high to measure.
The wind that day was blowing straight inland from the Pacific. In Minamisoma, at the Takahashi family home, the Geiger counter read 1.2 microsieverts per hour, which felt like a low level, until I recalled what would have been normal before March 11th. The word "normal" didn't seem to have much meaning anymore.
As we sipped tea in the living room, a frog croaked loudly outside. "He's got a good voice," I commented, but Mrs. Takahashi said that this was the quietest spring she'd ever experienced. "Usually this time of year the frogs are an overwhelming chorus, but we weren't able to plant rice because of the radiation, so there's no water in the paddies now. I don't know how the frogs are going to breed ... It's the first time in 200 years those paddies have been dry."
"Evacuation" means something different when your family's been farming for 200 years.
*Roughly 100 times more than usual.
Shukan ST: July 15, 2011
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