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Bizarre air in the deserted town sending chill down my spine~ What I saw in the 20-km zone by breaki

Hiro Ugaya, Minami Soma, Fukushima Japan.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Checkpoint! Hide the camera, quick!”

the driver Jiro suddenly exclaimed in a piercing voice.

We were driving on an open cut road in the mountains. I saw a police car parked down the road. That was at the 20-km boundary to the exclusion zone.

Two police officers in uniform were standing in front of a roadblock. They were waving to signal us to stop. I kicked my digital SLR camera under the seat and covered the video camera with my hat. Are we in hot water? I fretted. If the policeman wanted me to open the window to peek in, he could spot these cameras right away. My tensed-up stomach ached.

The car stopped. A policeman was approaching. Jiro pointed to an entry permit on the dashboard. The policeman gave him a salute. He checked the license plate number and the permit, pointing and confirming each again and again. The other officer was looking at me in the passenger seat. I smiled and nodded, and he nodded back in return.

The sun was glaring down on us. I saw a line of sweat on the officer’s face. Outside, it was a scorching 35°C. What should I do if they ask for my credentials? I hadn’t thought about how to respond at all. Oh, well. I will just have to say that I am a helper at Jiro’s company, or something like that. I prepared myself for the worst.

The officer by the driver’s side saluted, and the gate opened. Jiro stepped on the gas pedal. Our white station wagon slipped into the zone 20 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. It was disappointingly easy. Fearing that these officers would chase after us, I looked back. “Once we are in the zone, they don’t get suspicious,” Jiro looked at me smiling.

I may get arrested, and yet I have no other choice but to go on.

“I have a permit to pass these prohibited roads. But it’ll expire soon. That’s a waste, you know.” It was a sheer coincidence that I ended up going into the exclusion zone, 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Prior to the six-month anniversary of the earthquake disaster, I was revisiting Minamisoma-shi where I first came in April. I was visiting the people I had met immediately after the earthquake to find out how they were faring. I wanted to interview them to discover just how true the level of recovery we hear about in Tokyo was. One of the interviewees introduced me to a 32-year-old man named Jiro. He had kept his permit to enter the exclusion zone, which he had obtained through his former job.

The exclusion zone in the 20 kilometers radius? Well, I would like to go. I had checked various connections, but every lead failed. I didn’t expect that a chance to visit would come so suddenly. I was not at all prepared, but was on a pressing schedule.

“Don’t we need hazmat suits and masks?” I asked him nervously. Isn’t the area full of scattered radioactive materials in dangerously high concentration? I, too, had this kind of “assumption” (in hindsight) back then.

“We will be OK. Believe it or not, everyone is wearing regular clothes.” Jiro smiled. “I will come to your hotel to pick you up, then.” And he left.

“Should you enter the prohibited area, you may be fined 100,000 yen in compliance with the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act. In some cases, you may be arrested.” A warning by Fukushima Prefectural Police Headquarters was displayed at a roadblock in Minamisoma-shi.

Upon returning to the hotel where I was staying, I searched on the Internet and read the provisions of this law. I mulled over the possibility of getting arrested if the police the noticed me.

I couldn’t reach any sort of conclusion. If they found out about me, we should leave immediately. I am a reporter who wants to get the facts on the radioactivity disaster out to the public. If I explained that and still got arrested, then there would be nothing I could do about it.

There would be no victim of my action. It would be just me incurring the risk of radiation exposure. It’ll be fine with me if I get arrested: I can bring up to court whether it is acceptable to restrict the press from entering the affected area. I double-checked the phone number of the lawyer in my cellular phone.

Lunch at a roadside diner near the 20-km boundary line

On the morning of our appointment, Jiro showed up with his station wagon. On the backseat lay five sets of white hazmat suits, or so-called Tyvek, “Where did you get them?” I asked in disbelief. Jiro replied matter-of-factly, “They are piled up in the city hall and you can take as many as you want.”

I decided to wear the hazmat suit to look like a disaster recovery worker. No one would think I was a reporter. Jiro and I had a “tactics meeting” and decided to take a back road stationed by only a couple of police officers, instead of the national highway where a number of police officers were stationed at a checkpoint. (Apparently, there were about four routes in total including the unmanned roads with just roadblocks.) Thankfully a local resident knew all this and was able to explain in detail.

Although called the “exclusion zone,” there is no divider on the boundary line like that of the Berlin Wall. Just a police officer standing by the road. Since the boundaries were simply drawn on the map by bureaucrats in Tokyo, physically there is nothing to distinguish it. And there is nothing to block the airflow.

Just before crossing the checkpoint, we had lunch at a roadside diner located near the 20-km boundary line. The place was busy with local residents and office workers. Jiro had a dish of liver and Chinese chives, and I had the sautéed tripe combo, both costing 800 yen. It was a strange scene, as it turned out that the brook behind the diner was on the 20-km boundary line.

Continuing forty kilometers behind the diner, from the kitchen wall on, extends an uninhabited radioactive zone. And yet all in the roadside diner were gobbling down their food as if all were well.

Does the restriction based on this circle with a 20-km radius supposed to protect people from exposure to radioactivity? This question had been on my mind immediately following March 11.

Now that I was on the ground, my desire was heightened: Let’s get inside the zone to take a look.

As I took out the white radiation dosimeter, the digital display indicated 0.27 microSieverts (μSv) per hour. It was 0.1 in front of my house in Tokyo. Yes, the reading is a tad higher here.

Before coming here, I visited Iitate-mura of Fukushima Prefecture, outside of the 30-km boundary line. There, the reading was easily reaching 2 microSieverts per hour – in a place the government asserts is safe (and where you can come and go as you please). I met someone who gets readings of four microSieverts on his own bed. That’s not all. My radiation dosimeter registered unbelievable numbers like 50 or 250 at some spots.

We changed into the Hazmat suits in the roadside diner parking lot.

After passing the checkpoint, I again checked the radiation dosimeter in the car. It was 0.27, unchanged from the reading in front of the roadside diner. Of course! It was not even one kilometer away from the diner. The same air was flowing between the two. What does it really mean to be “inside” or “outside” the exclusion zone.

Straight road lined up by weeds

Our station wagon moved through the town in the scorching heat of the afternoon. It looked like any suburbia would. Along the two-lane highway there was an Eneos gas station, a Daihatsu dealership, and a Lawson convenience store. We could have been in an ordinary provincial town in Japan.

Relieved, I muttered, “It’s not all that different inside the zone,” Honestly, it was a little anticlimactic. Compared to the town in Iwate Prefecture I had visited that was totally destroyed by the tsunami, this town looked normal. Jiro said nothing. For a while, silence filled the car.

And yet something felt a little off. And then it hit me – it was too quiet. There were no cars coming at all. The traffic light was not on. No matter how far we drove, we didn’t see a single person. Every store had closed its shutters just like a seashell.

“The weeds.” Jiro uttered quietly. “Beg your pardon?” I asked him. “The weeds,” Jiro said, pointing out the car window.

I was astounded. From the gap between the sidewalk and the roadway, slender weeds had grown to about the height of a man. These weeds were lining the straight street as far as the eye could see, looking almost like telephone poles.

Houses and supermarkets looked like business as usual from afar, but...

“Can you stop the car here?” I said running out of patience. “I want to walk around the town.” “Sure. But keep it brief. If the police see us and question us, we’ll be caught for sure.” Jiro

said anxiously. He agreed to be on the lookout and signal me if something was up.

The hazmat suits we wore were basically coveralls made of plastic shopping bags. And we

wore a hood and mask (an anti-pollen mask bought at a convenience store). As soon as I started walking in the 35°C heat under the scorching sun, bullets of sweat began to cover the entire surface of my body, and within minutes even my pants were soaking wet.

When I looked on from afar, houses and supermarkets had seemed normal. I passed in front of a detached house with white walls and a brown roof. The space between the street and the front door was covered with weeds. It looked like an unoccupied house, or that construction on it had been abandoned halfway through.

But something was just not right. I looked at the house carefully. The sweat was dripping from my forehead and fogging up my glasses. I tried to concentrate despite the dizzying heat.

I could see a pot lid and a bottle of detergent by the kitchen window. Clothespins were hanging by the clothesline on the second floor,. I turned the hands of a clock back in my head just like rewinding a film. Then, I suddenly realized that this house had been empty for the past six months.

What about the next-door neighbor? The approach to the front door was completely covered with goldenrod flowers. And so was the next house, and the next . Weeds were growing through the cracks of the asphalt and through the lids of street drains, as if the weeds were consciously trying to devour the town.

A sour smell hit my nostrils. Turning back, I saw that kitchen waste had been scattered by animals. There were dried up vegetable scraps and fish bones. I stepped back, feeling ill.

Suddenly, a spider web hanging between the gate lamp and weeds entangled me, and a yellow spider the size of my palm jumped up on my hazmat suit. I let out a small shriek.

I visited a supermarket. The situation there was the same. As I approached the building, I noticed goldenrods were choking out the space in front of the automatic door, the soda vending machine, the photo deposit box, and everywhere else. I passed between two trucks in the parking lot, and again I got caught in a sticky spider web. A yellow spider hung from my arm.

I heard a horn. As I looked behind me, I saw Jiro in the driver’s seat pointing behind him. A command vehicle for the riot police was approaching with red lights blaring.

“Quick!” No sooner had I jumped into the passenger seat, the car started. I saw the red light shrinking in the rear-view mirror.

Nothing can be seen; nothing can be heard

We headed for JR Odaka Station. Along the road, cars were scattered around like children’s toys. These cars had been carried in by the tsunami and left there.

“The tsunami came all the way up to the railway tracks.”

We saw the shoreline from an overpass. The remnant of tidal wave-mitigating coastal forests looked like a comb whose teeth were pulled out by the tsunami. It reminded me of the scene in a coastal area of Iwate Prefecture. From that point up to the railway track right in front of me, there was a sea of grass. Looking at a car in the distance with a telescopic lens, I realized it had been crumpled like a piece of paper.

According to Jiro, after the tsunami came, this area was covered with mud and debris. Since everyone evacuated before cleanup had been completed, weeds grew out of the mud. The former rice paddies and farms turned into a weed meadow. White dots in the field marked spots where even weeds could not grow due to the strong salinity. An area that looked like a distant lake was actually a rice paddy where the sea water hadn’t drained due to ground subsidence.

I couldn’t say a word. I have heard that the soil on which the weeds are growing will no longer be arable because the weeds will use up all the nutrients in the soil. It broke my heart just thinking about how these farmers had tenderly cared for these fields.

Boy, I could hear a distant sound so clearly. Hearing a fluttering noise, I looked back to find nothing. At the used car dealership in the distance, a bunting was flapping against a signboard in the wind. Some crows were cawing noisily.

Yet, that was it. No engine sound from a car. No sound of squeaky tires. No human voices. No traffic light melodies.

Every human activity had been silenced.

Messages on the blackboard in a pastry shop

The home improvement store was in the middle of sea of weed. As I pushed myself through the vegetation, I saw the front glass was broken and the cracks on the ground were filled with dried up mud. The tsunami must have rushed in. Looking inside, I couldn’t tell what it was before because the showcases were toppled over in the sales floor and ceiling parts and pipes fell on the floor.

Covered with weeds

I caught the odor of animal feces from the grassland. I found animal footprints near where I was standing. From the space, depth and shape of the footprints, they must belong to cows.

Careful observation revealed that grass in the surrounding area had been eaten. There was cow dung here and there.

Weeds grew on the mud brought by the tsunami. Cattle who had escaped from cattle barns somewhere might have been eating the grass.

Then I noticed something else for the first time. In the grassland, there were shopping carts and bags of fertilizer scattered around. This must have been a gardening section of the home improvement store. With the awareness of my surroundings, I saw a toppled pre-fabricated lotto sales booth and AC outdoor units flown like a yo-yo.

I headed for the shopping street. Again, there was no one to be seen. A boutique and some Japanese-style houses were collapsed by the earthquake and the debris were scattered on the road. Weeds and spider webs were covering the rubble. A barbershop was about to be swallowed by climbing vines. A skinny tiger striped cat disappeared in the dark.

The building of a cute pastry shop was also under weeds. On the blackboard placed in front of the shop, I could manage to read the blurred letters written by chalk.

“Friday, March 11. Dear Yumi, Miyuki: Happy Birthday! Dear Sanae, Congratulations on your graduation!”

There was a calendar on the door. The month was March. It read “11th: Middle school graduation ceremony.”

I wonder the little Yumi, Miyuki and Sanae were able to flee to safety. What were they doing and where? I am sorry your birthday and graduation day turned out like this.

Dead sunflowers blown in the wind

No matter how far we went, we didn’t spot any human. Weeds, spiders, crows, cats, and dogs. Weeds, spiders, crows, cats, and dogs again. I was getting sick of them.

We arrived at National Route 6 by car. Flower beds on both sides of the highway were covered with dark matters similar to burned match sticks. I wondered what they were. Jiro looked out the window from the driver’s seat. “They are dead sunflowers.” “Sunflowers?”

Those local residents who were concerned with the radioactive contamination sowed sunflower seeds along streets before evacuating. That was an act of keeping their hopes alive when they heard that sunflowers are effective in cleaning up the soil as they absorb radioactivity in the soil.

When the sunflowers started flowering, however, somebody pointed out that those sunflowers which absorbed radioactivity are also radioactive waste. They have to be disposed of as such.

As a result, the initial plan was not materialized. The sunflowers withered, waiting to return to the soil at the root. With radioactivity.

The dead sunflowers continued along the road like skulls. They were swayed in the wind

We decided to go south on National Route 6. The sign said we entered from Minamisoma-shi to Namie-machi. There was a bowling alley with a signboard that read Namie Bowl. If we were to go straight, we would have reached the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

“How many more kilometers?”

“Let’s see...It should be less than 10 kilometers.”

What about the reading of the radiation dosimeter? That was 0.47 microSieverts per hour which went up a little.

I felt a cold sweat going down on my back.

A monster that I had never seen was a little further ahead. I thought I heard it breathe. We had managed to come here. I wanted to go as far as I could. I squeezed the radiation


(*) The attribute such as names and ages of the people described here have been altered.

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