To Fukushima and Back with Hiro

A Japanese man sits on the floor of a 4-mat-sized room, staring at a TV set neatly fitted into a corner. There’s enough room for the man, the TV, and a low plastic coffee table. Clean clothes and hung on hooks along the wall, and laundry hangs from the curtain rail. What’s the story here?

Watanabe-san's living space.

Watanabe-san’s living space.

I asked that question to photo journalist Hiro Ugaya as we pored over his photos from a recent trip to Fukushima. “He’s an old friend,” said Hiro, “whose wife and son have evacuated to Yamagata. He’s been looking for work for six months, but the only available jobs are related to decontamination or decommissioning of the crippled nuclear power plant, and he doesn’t want to resort to either of those options. Still, as bad as the situation is in Fukushima, the economy’s worse in Yamagata, so he stays where he is.”

Hiro Ugaya 2

Photo Journalist Hiro Ugaya in Tokyo.

Hiro, a native of Kyoto living and working in Tokyo, has made nearly 50 trips back and forth to Fukushima since the triple disaster of 3/11, capturing scenes of life near the evacuation zone with his trusty Canon 5D Mark 3.  Read more about him here. He travels alone, going as far north as possible by train and then renting a car in Fukushima to drive along the coast. This month, he visited his friend Watanabe-san (pictured above), and stayed at a local hotel filled with temporary workers hired from all parts of Japan to do decontamination work in the outer regions of the evacuation zone. “Business is booming,” said Hiro, “but only if you want to work in irradiated areas.”

Although Hiro took hundreds of photos from the various coastal towns near the disabled Daiichi power plant, I want to focus mainly on his photos from Iitate Village. They reflect the slow but steady progress of the Herculean task of decontamination and serve as a sobering reminder of the sheer ugliness and shame of what happened in Fukushima. All photos in this post are Hiro’s, and all but one are from his recent November trip.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

Iitate Village (pronounced EE-ta-tay), a highland farming area northwest of the crippled nuclear power plant, lies outside of the designated 30 Kilometer radius of the government-determined evacuation zone. But those of you who have followed the story, know that on March 15th, a gusty winter wind blew particles of radiation straight toward the mountains of Iitate. The wind was accompanied by snow, which blanketed the entire area.  Stores, schools, houses, trees, rice paddies, vegetable gardens, and grazing pastures were all heavily contaminated, though no-one guessed at first because of the village’s physical distance from the center of the nuclear disaster.  Of course, the evacuation map was drawn as a perfect circle, with multiple rings indicating distance from the radius, and Iitate was far from that radius. If only radiation travelled so neatly, without regard to weather or topography, right?

Iitate Village, northwest of the official evacuation zone, was heavily contaminated and later evacuated.

Iitate Village in relation to the original designated evacuation zone.

The evacuation of Iitate did not begin until April 22nd (over a month after the meltdown and the explosions occurred) and was not finished until late August of 2011; residents were inadvertantly exposed to high levels of radiation as well as emotional stress and confusion. For many of the elderly people who evacuated from Iitate and are still  in temporary housing, living with depression, disappointment, and lingering sadness has become the new normal. Worse yet, residents from towns near the epicenter of the accident were also exposed to excess radiation when they were initially relocated to Iitate, which was considered a safe refuge shortly after the meltdowns. This was a tragedy that could have been prevented if the central government (not wanting to “incite panic”) had released a map known as SPEEDI, containing specific data regarding the path of the plume of radioactivity. You can read about it here, in an early blog entry from 2012.

So what’s the story on Iitate now, more than three years down the road? Well, some readers may be surprised to learn that although the level of radiation in many areas of Iitate remains high, the village is no longer “off-limits”. Former residents can now come and go freely and decontamination work is progressing–slowly, painstakingly–in hopes that the village will be revitalized. The mayor is determined that it will be. The problem is that Iitate is bordered by forestland. Since the nuclear disaster, trees are now cesium repositories, and many traditional houses in the village are situated in close proximity to sheltering groves, which serve as windbreaks. The trees that once sheltered homes have now contaminated them, and they are uninhabitable.

Hiro photos 2

Good luck cleaning the whole forest .

The central government does not consider forestland “residential”, and does not place a high priority on decontamination of the trees that define residents’ backyards. The reality is that many local residents must either abandon their homes, or attempt to “clean” the forestland lying closest to their houses, essentially stripping the forest of its ecosystem.  Think of Iitate as a mountainous forest which humans have made habitable by clearing and cultivating the land for generations. Now it is

No-one's picking persimmons in Iitate this year. (photo by Hiro Ugaya)

No-one’s picking persimmons in Iitate this year.

impossible to guarantee the safety of the land for humans without destroying the ecosystem itself, which is steeped in cesium, from the shiitake mushrooms that flourish in the contaminated forest to the wild boars that feed on the mushrooms. Cesium from the forest is carried down to the village with each rain or snowfall, and previously cleared terrain is re-contaminated. On the flat areas below the forest, work progresses at a painfully slow rate, and deadlines that prove impossible to adhere to are continually being re-assessed and re-determined. Booming business for the decontamination workers means a longer exile for residents still hoping to return in the near future.

The above assessment sounds and is harsh, but there is another vision. Many residents of Iitate and of similar small villages and towns in Fukushima believe that the land can be rescued and revitalized without destroying the ecosystem. You can read more about them in this transcript of an NHK broadcast from December 2013.  Although the English translation reads imperfectly, the photos, personal stories and quotes from local residents gathered by Swiss journalist Susan Boos are food for thought.

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Unlike the land around  the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, which was left to revert to its natural state, Fukushima’s contaminated areas are being stripped, scrubbed, plowed, drained, and stirred up; Boos wanted to know why. The transcript describing her visit to Iitate Village is interesting because it makes no mention of the decontamination work being funded by the central government, focusing instead on the efforts of individual farmers who have lived and worked in Iitate for generations. Frustrated with the slow pace of the clean-up, Iitate residents have been doing things their own way, taking detailed measurements of radiation levels, creating radiation maps, and developing alternative methods for reducing the effects of cesium in the soil.

“From now on,” says Iitate farmer Muneo Kanno in the transcript, “we will need to coexist with nature in this contaminated area over many generations. In other words, I think it’s our job to collect all the data we can about contamination and pass it on to the future generations….I strongly believe that this is the first and foremost role both for me and all the other local people.”

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations.

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations

Kanno and other volunteer farmers and researchers are committed to accurately evaluating the state of their land, recording their findings, and experimenting with solutions. For them, decontamination  is “Not just to remove everything, to wash, to brush and to think now the problem is done.”  Boos, who has travelled the world reporting on the conditions of nuclear disaster sites, was deeply impressed by the devotion of the Iitate farmers to their land and by their determination to preserve it for future generations. The transcript reads, “Susan has travelled to many parts of the word, but this is the first time for her to be exposed to such deep affection for someone’s home.”

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 (photo by Hiro Ugaya).

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 .

So who actually lives in Iitate Village right now?  As of September 2014, a few hundred people have received permission to return home permanently, based on the location of their land. They are living in the zone that’s deemed “safe”, or at least”safe enough”. The area of Iitate still under decontamination and deemed “uninhabitable” is populated by day-trippers (former residents who commute into the village weekly–or even daily– to check on their houses, pets, or gardens), professional contamination workers, and the occasional journalist like Hiro, collecting stories, measuring radiation, and snapping pictures. It’s a ghost town at night.

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

On his most recent trip to Fukushima, Hiro, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, stayed in a local hotel south of the Daiichi nuclear power plant. “I was lucky to get a room,” he said. “It’s always full these days. All guys, and all working in decontamination. ” Since there were no restaurants in town (read: nuclear zone, no tourists), Hiro and the other workers made a mad rush to the 7-11 , which closed at 8 p.m., to buy box lunches for their dinner every evening.  According to Hiro, the going rate for a decontamination worker in Fukushima right now is around ¥16,000  to 17,000a day–approximately $145 U.S. dollars– before money is taken out by contractors and sub-contractors.  Is it worth the money? That’s something that every man ( I saw no women in any of the photos) must come to terms with on his own.

From here on in, I will let Hiro-san’s photos speak for themselves. You can read more about Iitate’s mountains of trash bags full of contaminated soil in this Japan Times article, which describes the current plan to build a 22 million cubic meter temporary waste storage facility in the Okuma/ Futaba area, home of the crippled power plant. That’s a space big enough to fill the Tokyo Dome Stadium 15 times. And you can read more about the plight of the old folks who have evacuated from Iitate and other neighboring towns in this article by The Guardian’s Justin McCurry. And you can support the excellent work of free lance journalists like Hiro Ugaya by passing on their words and images. Take a look at more of his stunning photos and read about his life here.  I’ll post some of my favorites as well. Thank you for reading, and take care.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to "seal in" radiation.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to “seal in” radiation.

The same site, seen from a distance.

The same site, seen from a distance.

...and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

…and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

"Fukushima smells beautiful," said Hiro. "The flowers have gone wild."

“Fukushima smells beautiful,” said Hiro. “The flowers have gone wild.”

DEFEATED or LEARNING TO STAND STRONG ? Women’s life in Fukushima since the quake

“IS STUPIDITY A SYMPTOM OF ACUTE RADIATION EXPOSURE TOO?”  (read the headline of  a blog post I received via e-mail the other day. ) Startled and offended, I marked it with a star and put off reading the article.  When I calmed down and skimmed through the post , I found its offensiveness consistent; in short, blaming parents in Fukushima for allowing and the Japanese government for encouraging children to play in a contaminated environment. “Everyone has gone mad!” declared the author of the post, peppering his diatribe with exclamation marks!!


And then there were these words from a cover letter I received after buying some badges to support the opposition of nuclear power in Fukushima:  “Fukushima people are silent. They do not have the courage to express their concerns regarding the future use of nuclear power…..The true defeatists are those who remain in Fukushima, who say they have no choice other than to make their living in the contaminated areas….They are beaten. Constant radiation and relentless social pressure has (sic) clearly made many Fukushimans tired and passive.”

Really?  Fukushima residents are “stupid”? “beaten”? “passive”?  Robbed of their wits and their voices by the effects of radiation and social pressure? Isn’t it only too easy to be judgmental from the outside, and to mistakenly attribute one’s own voice and heartfelt conviction to others who are deemed “voiceless”?  Other troubling phrases and declamations embedded in the blog posts and facebook updates I scroll through regularly had been nagging at me, and when my geographer friend Yukari invited me on a day trip to Fukushima City, I jumped at the chance. “Hah!” I thought. “The whole truth won’t be revealed in a day, but at least I’ll have had a peek at things from the inside.”


Our bullet train to Northern Japan. It’s sleek and awesomel

And so I set off, leaving Shinjuku at 6:58 in the morning (trains run precisely to the minute here)  meeting up with Yukari in Oomiya, the very cool station where several different bullet trains converge briefly before gliding off again to their respective destinations. We rode “Yamabiko”, named after a Japanese “echoing spirit” that’s heard but not seen; try to touch it, the legend says, and you feel something like molasses on your hand.

After we had devoured our boxed breakfasts and enjoyed an hour or so of gossip on the train, Yamabiko slid smoothly into the Fukushima station, and we were ready for business. Yukari’s two geographer friends joined us at the station and we squeezed into a taxi, directing the driver to the address of the Fukushima Midwives Association ‘s main office in the Watari district.


No shortage of taxis at the Fukushima station…

Why exactly were three geography professors keen on interviewing the president of a midwives association? Well, having assisted in translating Yukari’s papers over the course of fifteen years, I can tell you. Geography is more than just countries, capitals, landscapes, and vegetable crops. It is subdivided into two related fields–human geography and physical geography–with geographers focusing on one or the other, or (not uncommonly) on the interaction between the two. One of the best examples of this would be my daughter’s college in Bar Harbor, Maine, which offers only one degree, in “Human Ecology”, or the relationship between man and his environment.  All students of the College of the Atlantic are geographers by the time they graduate, and the geography professors packed into the taxi in Fukushima were human ecologists as well: prepared to ask hard questions about raising children in a contaminated environment. I was there as an interested third party, and as the official photo publicist.

Our driver guided the taxi through a maze of narrow residential streets quite similar to my own neighborhood in Hadano, and left us off at an unobtrusive little white apartment building.  Up a steep concrete staircase, and before we could ring the bell, the door few open. “Well, here you are!”  beamed a small grandmotherly-type woman with fuschia-colored lipstick and a lovely floral patterned jacket and skirt.  I mention this because my image of a “midwife” is of unshaven legs, Birkinstock sandals, and long flowing hair. Certainly the midwives who attended me at my two births had done nothing to dispel that image. Ishida Tokiko-san, President of the Fukushima Midwives Association, was dressed fancy to receive visitors, and she welcomed us into her office with a warm smile.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy "office" table.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy “office” table.

Her “office” was nothing more than a one room Japanese-style apartment, with tiny kitchen and bathroom attached, yet it was light and pleasant; the main centerpiece was a good-sized low table (we call them “coffee tables” in the US, but they’re used for serious eating in Asian countries) with cushions rather than chairs. The decor was a large white banner with messages of love and encouragement sent from America. “You must be surprised at this tiny place,” said Ishida-san cheerfully, “…but imagine how difficult it was before we found a place to set up headquarters after the quake!” …..And that was the beginning of a four hour story session, as each question posed by one of the three geographers led naturally to an incident that begged to be related.

Here are bits and pieces of what we learned:

It was chaos for mothers with babies and small children when the quake occurred, followed by the tsunami and the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Those who survived but lost their homes fled to public evacuation centers, sleeping on gymnasium floors along with other families and  scores of elderly citizens.  But communal living was stressful; babies howled uncontrollably and needed to be nursed, and mothers felt the strain of trying to “keep the peace” so that the family on the futons next to them could sleep. Public officials did their best to move families with babies into the only available housing in the prefecture: civil servants’ office buildings and rooms at Japanese-style inns located far west of Hamadori, the area of Fukushima hardest hit by the plume of radioactivity. This was only a temporary solution, since the office buildings had no utilities or furnishings, and rooms at the inns were cramped quarters for extended families. Eventually, families moved again, some moving multiple times before finding something that functioned as “home”.


Many mothers fled with small children to live with relatives in less-contaminated parts of the prefecture, leaving fathers behind to “keep house”.

In short, during the first few months after the quake before temporary housing was completed, mothers and their small children were scattered, scrambling to find safety, privacy and protection from the elements. Some lived in cars, some in tents, and some with relatives in other cities or prefectures; some went back to stick it out in partially-damaged houses and some accepted offers of temporary housing from far-away parts of the country.  And as the first temporary housing complexes were completed, some families moved into the tidy little box-like apartments to begin new lives in artificially-created communities.

During those first few chaotic months, Ishida-san and her staff worked tirelessly (though I’m sure they were tired to the point of collapse) to make sure that new mothers received both practical and emotional assistance and that pregnant women received adequate care.  Since town registers were in the process of being re-created, midwives had no other recourse but to take their own population census, going door-to-door looking for pregnant women and mothers with small children. Gas was scarce, so they walked or bicycled about their neighborhoods armed with diapers and baby wipes. Needless to say, their diaper crusade was a volunteer effort until some months later, when money began to trickle down from various places. I was humbled and impressed to learn that in the first year, the midwives of Fukushima were important connecters: they scouted out young families in apartments and reported their residence to town officials for the registry; conversely, they also received information on available apartments from town officials and brought the news directly to families in need of shelter.

Mothers who took advantage of the "Satogaeri" facilities pose for a photo.

Mothers who took advantage of the “Satogaeri” facilities pose for a photo.

In the fall of 2011, an aid group in Tokyo stepped in to create a unique and much-appreciated option for pregnant women and young mothers:  a center for rest and recuperation after birth, located in relatively safe (everything related to “safety” is relative here)  Aizu district of Fukushima. The “Satogaeri”, or “Return to the Hometown” project was popular from the start, providing a physical and emotional shelter for mothers.  Yet after an all-too-brief two week stay at the safe and welcoming center for new mothers, women returned to their previous living arrangements to face the challenges of motherhood in post-3/11 Fukushima.

At this point, Ishida-san’s assistant, Sanpei-san, told us of her own experiences raising her one-year-old son during the first year after the quake. Those were the days when children did not play outside. When Yuri and her son did leave the house, she could not use the baby stroller or let him walk, as the child would be too close to the ground (where radiation levels were highest).  She carried her son everywhere, no matter how far, and returned to the house exhausted. Coming home meant brushing off outside dirt (again, dirt meant radioactive particles) , and washing and hanging (inside) more loads of clothes.  What did she do inside with her toddler all day long? ” We read books. I tried baby massage. I fought with my husband.” Many women, she said, took their stress out on their children. Husbands and wives fought. Mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws fought. Friends drifted apart. Some individuals owned multiple geiger counters and obsessively measured the radiation level of their houses and yards which often increased anxiety, rather than relieving their fears. Everyone was vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to unfounded rumors, and struggling with fear and uncertainty.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

Throughout this difficult time, Ishida-san and her colleagues increased their efforts to rally  fellow midwives and organize services to ease the emotional needs of mothers who had chosen to live in Fukushima prefecture. The Midwives Association set up a telephone support line, which was flooded with calls on a daily basis. They also started a “salon” where mothers could bring their small children to meet regularly and interact in a supportive environment, free from criticism and negativity. Midwives paid home visits to new mothers and helped them through the first stages of breast-feeding. They received samples of breast milk from nursing mothers and sent it off to labs to test its radiation level. They got out their calculators and helped nervous mothers figure out their daily exposure to low-level radiation. Rather than giving advice, the midwives provided practical assistance, emotional support, and a collective listening ear.

And now, let’s get to the meat of this post. What I really wanted to know and really hated to ask was, Why were so many mothers still living in the Watari area, which has been the focus of negative publicity for the past two years?  “Save the children of Watari!”  has been the rallying cry of NGOs and citizens’ action groups who believe that the Japanese government is guilty of criminal neglect for not providing evacuation money to the citizens of this district.

Fukushima's Watari district in the spring. Beautiful...but is it safe to life here?

Fukushima’s Watari district in the spring. Beautiful…but is it safe to live here?

The district known as Watari is 60 kilometers from the Daiichi nuclear power plant, well outside of the designated evacuation zone, and the government has chosen to tackle the issue of low-level radiation via ongoing decontamination rather than providing financial support for those who choose to leave. Opponents of the government’s decision, however, claim that the radiation levels remain alarmingly high and that families should not be raising children there.  I  wanted to know how many mothers still wished to leave the Watari district, but were unable to find financial support.  I wanted to know if mothers were simply stuck there, or if they had made a choice to remain despite the negative publicity.

Ishida-san answered my questions  bluntly. “Hmm.” she said. “Wanting to leave, but don’t have financial means? No, we get no calls like that here at the center. That’s not a factor at all these days. Those who live here have made their choice.”

Oh.  Well, then.  I guess “Save the Children!”  is a campaign without a cause. Or a cause that has run its course and is no longer relevant?  Or perhaps those families waiting to get out are still too paranoid or ashamed to go public with their appeal?

According to Ishida-san, the “Save Watari Kids!” organization has done more harm than good in Fukushima by urging residents to flee from their hometown. “Women had just begun to calm down and pick up their lives again and feel positive when people from outside Fukushima Prefecture came in and shook things up.  Mothers who had begun to make progress in coping with their anxieties began doubting again and fell into depression and paranoia.”  Until this point, Ishida-san had spoken matter-of-factly, but here she looked to be holding back tears. I was riveted to her face as she spoke; the issue was undoubtedly more complicated than she intimated, but certainly she was speaking a part of the truth, and speaking it with certainty.

Another part of the truth: internet links to NGOs supporting the evacuation of the

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called "Global Giving".

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called “Global Giving”.

Watari district show that many residents responded positively to the NGO’s efforts to force the central government to enforce stricter safety standards and provide financial support to families wishing to leave. Many residents appreciated the fact that outsiders were able to increase awareness of their situation throughout the country, and even abroad.  And many NGO-sponsored projects to provide children with “radiation-free vacations” in the countryside have proved popular. I have met people involved in the “Save Watari Children” projects (mostly in Tokyo, where they pass out leaflets promoting their activities), and they are good people.

Well-intentioned people also produced the “No Nukes in Fukushima!” badges and wrote the cover letter that gave me pause this morning.  What can be said, then, about their declarations that Fukushima residents are “beaten” and defeated? That they are too passive, and unable to take steps to control their own destinies?

Uuummm….I don’t want to touch that issue with a ten foot pole, a hundred foot pole, or any kind of pole at all.  No-one outside the prefecture has the right to make that kind of judgement, and even Fukushima natives had better choose their words carefully. Ishida-san did have something to say about the character of women in Northern Japan, however, and after a few decades of delivering babies and caring for their mothers, she’s probably qualified to speak out.  Here’s her assessment (translated as accurately as possible by myself) :

“Women of Northern Japan do not express their opinions easily. They often do not have their own opinions, because they are not aware that this is acceptable. They do not know where they stand, because they have not had to take many stands. They are taught to follow, to grit their teeth and bear what’s unpleasant, and to persevere in the face of rough circumstances rather than to affect change. This makes them vulnerable to criticism, to pressure from family, to propaganda campaigns, and to anxiety stemming from uncertainty and indecision. Women are unable to decide anything on their own, so they turn to us for help. We listen, we do not criticize or advise, and we teach them gently how to make decisions. We work with them, rather than telling them.”

Wonderful, right? A midwife service that not only delivers babies, but teaches decision-making and inner strength! …but does it work?

Sadly enough, Ishida-san admitted that women in Northern Japan are emotionally weaker, rather than stronger, since the Great East Japan Earthquake, despite the best efforts of the Midwives’ Association.  And it is a good-sized network: 114 registered midwives serve the Fukushima prefecture, not counting those with licenses who work independently.  Their efforts, however, are not enough to stem the tide of anxiety and fear stemming from the post-meltdown environmental contamination. I realized that since the quake, midwives have been serving as counselors and therapists (Japan has a dearth of both) as well as baby-whisperers, and again was both humbled and impressed.

You can't be too careful. Little ones spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

You can’t be too careful. Little ones still spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

Ishida-san and her assistant Yuri-san spoke of their patients with understanding and sympathy, rather than pity.  Since they live in the same district of Fukushima as their patients, they share the same challenges, and they also have chosen to take precautions against nuclear radiation rather than leave their homes and break up their family units. They test their food. They hang laundry inside. They shake dirt off on the doorstep. They clean the outside of their houses with power hoses (courtesy of the central government). They check radiation levels around their homes on a daily basis. They try to stay informed, though this is not easy to do as they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. They believe that radiation levels have gone down significantly, and that they can build a new life for themselves and their children without leaving Fukushima.

Is this wise?  Have folks’ brains been, as some bloggers like to intimate, addled by radiation poisoning?  Well, that is none of our business, is it?  We all have the right to decide our own course, and as Ishida-san firmly stated, health is not just about physical well-being.  She and Sanpei-san both believe that those who have chosen to stay in the Watari district have made valid decisions based on ties to their family, work commitments, and living arrangements, and that these factors are important for their emotional health.  Ishida-san and her colleagues believe that their job as midwives is not to judge, but to support women, and to encourage them to think for themselves and decide their own futures.  The Fukushima midwives teach by example, dealing with hardship calmly and providing steady encouragement and a dose of old-fashioned common sense.  Isn’t that what’s needed, more than “saving”, when all is said and done?  Perseverance and endurance doesn’t have to mean weakness.

As I mentioned at the onset, our visit at the main office of the Midwives Association lasted a full four hours. Finally, realizing that Ishida-san must be hungry (we ourselves were starving), we excused ourselves and grabbed a taxi back to the Fukushima Station. It was a beautiful day, flowers were blooming, high school girls were hanging out in short uniform skirts, and Main Street looked like any ordinary rural Japanese city center except for the dearth of people. Too many taxis hanging out, too few shoppers lining the sidewalk, and too few tourists buying souvenirs at the station shops. Yukari and I bought some sweet little dumplings to take home, and boarded the super-sleek bullet train headed back to Tokyo, equipped with both food for literal consumption and food for thought.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

Whatever happened to….??? Following up on stories from Japan’s 3/11 Triple Disaster

Well, hello!  It has been some time since I’ve been able to sit down at my MacBook with a cup of tea and a free afternoon ahead of me.  And that is because I have been true to my last year’s resolution (no more complacency), which has kept me in a state of constant motion.  In re-reading my New Year’s entry from approximately a year ago (December, 2011),  I sound more than a bit pleased with myself and with that year’s achievements:

“… by golly, I did it all and never got sick!  True, it is now the end of the year and I am fighting an exhaustion unlike that of years past…..yet here I am, still able to type out another blog entry, and only slightly more short-tempered than usual.  Must be that my definition of  ”impossible” was far too cautious to begin with. From here on in, I will toss it in the trash bin!  Or better yet, burn it in the January ritual burning ceremony that takes place by the river every year.  Along with amulets and charms from the Year of the Rabbit, my over-cautious nature will go up in flames, with a great whoosh!  And if I do pay the price in the form of a nasty cold brought on by over-exertion, I must grit my teeth, drink hot tea, and forbear any excess whining.”

Most exciting rally in the Tokyo government district: summer, 2012. That's me in the no-nukes t-shirt, and Jacinta in the sweet little red dress.

Most exciting rally in the Tokyo government district: summer, 2012. That’s me in the no-nukes t-shirt, and Jacinta in the sweet little red dress.

That was me, one year ago. Buoyed by my own enthusiasm, I began that New Year of 2012 with a burst of energy, and did my best to sustain it throughout the coming months.  I leaped at opportunities (writing workshop? sure!  wait…what?–it’s in a remote coastal village that’s way off my train line? well, I’ll get there somehow! ), became still more familiar with the streets of the government district in Tokyo (where all the anti-nuke protests take place, of course ), plunged into volunteer activities on my free weekends, and continued reading, networking, and blogging furiously.  And of course, I continued working full-time at my cram school in Hadano.  During the summer vacation, I toured the US by car with my daughter, checking out liberal arts colleges from coast to coast. We couldn’t be happier that she was accepted by and chose to attend the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she will work toward a degree in Human Ecology.  And now, at the start of the New Year of the Snake, I am paying the price that was not demanded of me last year (Year of the Dragon)–the nasty cold that settled in my lungs and knocked me flat.  And what’s worse, it looks like I promised not to whine about it. That’ll teach me to brag, right?

But nasty colds mean a respite from work and from the demands of a hectic schedule; in short, they mean precious down-time.  And down-time means a chance to catch hold of the many loose threads left hanging in the past two years of blogging and tie them together properly. “Whatever happened to the Mayor of Iitate Village? ” you might wonder.  Or Naoto Matsumura,  guardian of the forgotten animals of that same village? Or Yoshizawa-san, the farmer fighting to save his cows from slaughter in Namie Town?  Or Yasuteru Yamada, elderly leader of the “Suicide Squad”?  Or former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has disappeared from the media spotlight?  I’d like to spend this afternoon and evening catching you up on some of the stories of individuals whose names became known nationwide after the 3/11 disaster that occurred nearly two years ago. In the interest of brevity, I’ll chose three from the list of characters just mentioned, leaving open the possibility of writing about the others in a later post.

The former Prime Minister: hero or villain? (Getty images)

The former Prime Minister: hero or villain? (Getty images)

So let’s begin with Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister.  Since the chaotic first week after the quake, Kan-san had been the object of both admiration and also of anger and outright scorn; there were few fence sitters.  Although some saw Kan-san as a hero who did his best in the face of a crisis of unthinkable proportions, most saw him as a bull in a china shop, whose hot temper and unguarded words made a horrific situation much worse. Because the central government effectively betrayed its own people by not revealing accurate facts and figures and by failing to initiate a swift and comprehensive evacuation (among other things), Kan’s own reputation would never recover, whether or not he personally was to blame.

As Prime Minister, Kan was quick to renounce nuclear power ( “Let’s start from scratch” was his motto), quick to envision the worst and begin formulating drastic evacuation plans ( he admitted to having considered the evacuation of Tokyo in the first few chaotic days ), and quick to display anger and frustration in his public appearances.  He spoke bluntly.  He broke the rules of discretion and polite language. While the ground in Tohoku was still shaking, the former Prime Minister was busy shaking up a system that had not been disturbed for decades, at the cost of his own reputation.  He was (and he would not deny it) attempting to force change.  “I refuse to step down until you pass my bill!”, he declared  (with wild eyes and a grin that appeared almost unhinged) in his last weeks of power, determined to launch a nationwide investment in renewable energy.  The bill finally passed, and he was out of office in a flash.  One of the most important things he did in the short time he hung onto power was to initiate the closing of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, in Shizuoka Prefecture.  The Hamaoka plant was the first domino to fall, causing a chain reaction resulting in–for some months–a nuclear-free Japan.  Two of the 52 power plants are up and running again, but the rest remain on hold.  Before 3/11, this would have been unthinkable.

"Hey, guys, remember me?, I guess not." (Kan-san standing on platform reading "Zero Nuclear Power")

“Hey, guys, remember me?….no, I guess not.” (Kan-san standing on platform reading “Zero Nuclear Power”)

So where is Kan-san now?  Well, according to a recent Japan Times article, he’s standing on a wooden box on the sidewalks of Tokyo, preaching his anti-nuclear message to the wind.  Are you familiar with the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can get up on a platform and preach about anything?  If so, you know that the platform alone doesn’t guarantee an audience, and plenty of those long-winded orators look awfully lonesome.  Even their mothers don’t make the effort to come out and listen.  Kan-san did his best this past December, campaigning on the streets of Tokyo for anti-nuclear Mayoral candidate Kenji Utsunomiya and attempting to preserve his own seat in the diet as well.  However, he not only failed to draw a crowd, but many passers-by did not even recognize him.  Some who did shouted rudely, “You are a liar! You failed once, and you won’t get another chance!”

Just days before the national election, Kan-san’s campaign car crashed into a pole; Kan suffered a head injury, but even that failed to dampen his spirits or curtail his schedule. He looked a pitiful figure on public television, campaigning with a brave grin and a white bandage across his forehead.  In the end, his candidate Utsunomiya-san was trounced and Kan-san lost his seat in Tokyo’s number 18 district.  Somehow, he managed to cling to his seat in the diet, though, and continues his career as a politician, representing Japan’s out-of-favor Democratic Party of Japan.

Perhaps that was to be expected of a public figure who lists one of his hobbies as origami, and who is still waiting for the patent for his invention: a machine that calculates points for Mahjong. He’s a nerd, and he’s “kawatte iru” (strange in an unacceptable way).  Japan wasn’t ready for him. But all this means nothing, really, and is a terrible underestimation of an extremely intelligent man, who understood the implications of the Fukushima disaster and was willing to fight the system, tooth and nail.  Could those who taunted him on the street corner even imagine what it must have been like to be in charge of a country spinning out of control?  And to have no blueprint to work from?  How about some respect and appreciation, no?  After his brutal rejection by the Japanese public, the former Prime Minister could have gone abroad to lick his wounds and retired from politics altogether….yet he didn’t.  He’s like the Energizer Bunny in the old battery commercials.  Naoto Kan is on facebook, and I have friended him, figuring he needs all the friends he can get.

Now let’s travel up the coast, from central Tokyo to the rural town of Namie, where Masami Yoshizawa, whose farm lies square in the heart of the evacuation zone, refused to desert his cattle after the hydrogen explosions that rocked Fukushima.  I wrote in some length about this charismatic and determined man in a post called “A Tale of Two Farmers”, back in July of 2011.  At that time, Yoshizawa-san, the former manager of a large and profitable cattle ranch, was struggling to maintain the ranch despite the contamination of the land, the abdication of the ranch’s owner, and a government edict to euthanize his herd.  The cows, worth as much as $13,000 per head before the nuclear disaster, were now worthless in a monetary sense, yet Yoshizawa refused to either cull the herd or abandon them to their own devices.  Obtaining a renewable permit to enter the no-go zone on a weekly basis, he continued to feed them with contaminated hay, picking up stray cows from other ranches along the way and adding them to his herd.  Why?  It was his own private resistance movement; he refused to desert his cows as the central government had deserted the people of Namie Town.  Here’s a video of Yoshizawa-san, taken by Ed Koziarsky and Junko Kajino, two independent filmmakers from Chicago (see more of their work on the Uncanny Terrain site):



Remains of dead cattle lay untouched near Yoshizawa's ranch.

Remains of dead cattle lie untouched near Yoshizawa’s ranch.

At the time the above video was taken, Yoshizawa-san feared that in six months time his cows would have eaten all the available grass on the ranch and would be nearing starvation.  That was the terrible period of time when livestock within Fukushima’s evacuation zone were dying in large numbers on a daily basis, some still locked in their stalls and abandoned, unable to escape and forage for food.  Photos that appeared on the internet were appalling.  Yoshizawa-san was there in person to witness this death by neglect (though he blames the government, rather than the farmers), and he determined that the cows of his own herd would not fall victim as well.  Though they had been contaminated by the wind-born radiation from the initial hydrogen explosions and had been consuming contaminated hay and water, he vowed to let them live out the rest of their natural lives in the evacuation zone.  In doing so, he committed himself to the risk of long-term low-level radiation exposure as well.  For the record, he is unmarried and has no children.

So, let’s fast forward, and see what’s happening at the ranch in Namie these days.  Are the cows still alive?  Has Yoshizawa-san kept his promise?  Well, what do you think?  Yes, and yes.  It only took a bit of poking around to find that he is now somewhat of a celebrity, with his own blog and with a new name for the ranch: “Kibou no Bokujyou”, or “Ranch of Hope”.  The Asahi Daily Newspaper reported last May that he was battling authorities who wished to check and approve of his blog posts and to prevent members of the media from visiting his farm. “Cattle farmer in no-entry zone battles muzzling of information!” read the headline.  Apparently, the muzzling of Yoshizawa-san was unsuccessful, as shortly after that the Uncanny Terrain filmmakers did another brief interview with the loquacious farmer (see the film clip “Four Farmers“…he’s the second one).  Never camera shy, Yoshizawa appears confident and speaks eloquently about fighting radiation, refusing to desert his hometown, and working toward a rebirth of Fukushima. “Nuclear energy and agriculture,” he says, “cannot coexist.”  He is actively promoting renewable energy.

Yoshizawa-san’s blog (written, of course in Japanese, but sometimes with English translations following), however, reveals another side of the farmer.  Along with determination and righteous anger, he carries with him a constant sadness.  As of last October, in spite of his best efforts, cows on his farm were dying at an alarming rate. Diarrhea, runny noses and skin disease suggested compromised immune systems, whether caused by lack of nutrition, the spread of disease, or the effects of radiation.  Yoshizawa blames it on what locals are calling the “Fukuichi Syndrome” (Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Syndrome).  In a particularly disturbing entry from October 10th, he re-names the Ranch of Hope as “Ranch of Despair”.  He describes his feelings of trepidation as he visits the barn each morning: “Yesterday, three died. Four, the day before yesterday. How many would be dead this morning? I don’t want to step foot into the barn.”  Yoshizawa-san also echoes a sentiment that the former Prime Minister could certainly relate to, confessing, “I don’t want to acknowledge my own lack of power.”  If this man could will his cows back to health, there is no doubt that he would.  Because he cannot, he rails against the government, who have not intervened to help, but only to hinder.  And the scientists that he hoped would investigate the effects of radiation on his cattle have not materialized….the potential subjects will die without being studied.

Masami Yoshizawa remains loyal to his herd. (photo by Masakazu Honda)

Masami Yoshizawa remains loyal to his herd. (photo by Masakazu Honda)

Fast forward again to the new year, 2013.  A BBC video about the Fukushima 50 was just released that also focuses on Yoshizawa-san, who is still fighting.  As of January 3rd, his herd has increased from 300 to 400, and he continues to care for them with the help of outside donations and support.  Despite setbacks along the way, he’s held true to his original promise of keeping alive the cattle who remain for him a symbol of the nuclear disaster.  For their sake, for the sake of the animals who did not survive, and for the sake of the farmers who whose livelihood has been taken from them, he goes back and forth into the evacuation zone to feed his herd of “worthless” cows.  Where once he saw cattle as profitable assets, he now feels an affinity with the abandoned animals.  And every month without fail, he takes his show on the road, driving his personal megaphone-equipped van to Tokyo to stand on a street corner (again–the former Prime Minister can relate) beside a life sized model cow. “Don’t forget the farmers of Fukushima!” he shouts at passers-by. “We’ve been betrayed, and we need your support!”

Yamada Yasutera, leader of the Skilled Veterans Corps.

Yamada Yasutera, leader of the Skilled Veterans Corps.

Lastly, I’d like to focus on Yasutera Yamada, the internationally-lauded organizer of the “Skilled Veterans Corps”, a group of over-60 men who were ready and willing to assist in the clean up of Fukushima Daiichi. I first wrote about the group in a post entitled “Will You Raise Your Voice?” , in May of 2011.  Not just random volunteers motivated by a spirit of self-sacrifice, these were former civil engineers and builders (one member had assisted in the construction of the plant itself) eager to lend their know-how and assist in speeding up the dangerous and delicate process of decommissioning the crippled reactors.  Work on many areas of the reactors had been delayed by continually high radiation levels; this posed no obstacle to Yamada-san and his colleagues, who argued that they would die of natural causes before radiation-induced cancer had time to develop anyway.  If they could get in to the most dangerous areas and begin working, they reasoned, the whole decommissioning process would move more swiftly.  Yamada, a 72-year-old who had already survived cancer, made news shortly after the nuclear meltdowns for his fearless offer.  The offer was considered, but never accepted.

Yasutera Yamada (center), presenting his case to US officials.

Yamada-san (center), presenting his case to US officials.

So has all the fuss died down?  Have the members of Yamada-san’s Veterans Corps disbanded and given up on their dream?  Having seen nothing in the news lately, I did a quick search on the net and found an article by former diplomat Akio Matsumura from August, 2012. Clicking on the link, I was surprised and pleased to see a photo of Yamada-san, age 73 at the time, touring the U.S. !  Convinced that Japan’s nuclear contamination issue was affecting the world at large, Yamada attempted, over the summer, to convince officials in the U.S. to put pressure on the Japanese government to support his plan.  His group of skilled veterans is now 700 members strong; they are still ready and willing to jump into most dangerous areas of the nuclear reactors and put their expertise to work for the benefit of the nation and–by extension–the world. “Don’t risk young lives!” (they say) “This is our work!”  They are not motivated by money, but by the desire to be part of a practical solution to a problem they believe to be wildly underestimated by TEPCO, the government, and the people of Japan.  Yamada scoffs at TEPCO’s estimation of 40 years for the completion of the decommissioning process.  Fifty years is more accurate, he claims, and in that time Japan’s food chain will have become thoroughly irradiated, presenting further risks and complications.

Perhaps Yamada-san does not see himself as a hero, but his fans both in Japan and overseas view him as one.  And whether or not the members of the Skilled Veterans Corps are successful in their proposed mission, they have chosen to pursue something that brings meaning and purpose to their lives, rather than taking it easy on the golf course.  I hope their grandchildren are paying attention.  Finally, let’s hope that the former Prime Minister and Namie Town’s Yoshizawa-san continue their good fights as well.  Thank you for reading, and take care in the winter cold. Whatever your good fight is, don’t give up on it.

House of Wonders and the Nocturnal Rooster

Here’s the fourth chapter of my mini-adventure story.  To briefly summarize my previous three posts, I have arrived in the tiny village of Ooshima in Nagano Prefecture after a long and hair-raising day of travel, attended a festival and chugged up a muddy mountain in a broken-down van.  I have met Hiromi and Geta-san, owners of the organic farm called the Fresh Start School, and heard the story of their daughter Haru; she and her husband Junpei fled Tokyo with their newborn twin boys after the Great East Japan Earthquake and have remained on the farm since then.  I have feasted on fried cubes of goat cheese, hearty miso soup, brown rice and beans, and some unidentified but delicious greens…..and that is where today’s post begins.

Solar panels on the main house are clearly visible from this vantage point ( or at least they are if you enlarge the picture).

So let me start off this new post with a description of the main house at the Fresh Start School. Upon first glance, the large wooden house appears to be thrown together rather than constructed, but although the wood is weathered and unfinished, a closer look reveals that it is in fact quite nicely built. “It’s sturdier than it looks,” my daughter had assured me, and I trusted that it was.  Solar panels attached to the roof produce more than enough power to run the household. “I can’t be bothered with batteries big enough to store all that power, ” admitted Geta, ” so I sell it to the local electric company instead. Then I buy back from them the small amount that our family needs. Heh-heh. Cheap and easy. ” So in fact the Fresh Start School IS connected to the grid, but just barely. The rest of the farm is self-sufficient.

One side of the veranda reveals gourds, laundry, and crates full of dried , salted cherry blossoms.

The veranda is chock full of potted flowers, rubber boots, hanging laundry, hanging gourds, milk crates, and a glorious mishmash of containers and baskets full of mysterious contents. I wondered how they got all these items indoors in a hurry before a typhoon, but did not ask. And from the crazy and colorful chaos of the veranda, the door opens into the main living area, a large central space used for cooking, dining, and relaxing.

My immediate impression of the interior was of a combination Indian bazaar and dimly-lit-but-inviting used bookstore. Naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling, one in each area, revealing floor to ceiling shelves literally stuffed with books (overflows stacked on the floor), as well as statues and souvenirs from various countries. The “entertainment system” consisted of an old analog TV and a dusty shelf of videocassettes. The main room looked to be heated by a good-sized wood stove into which the babies had been peering during our dinner, sifting through the ashes and experimenting freely. Two well-worn sofas with a rough hewn coffee table in between formed a cozy nook for reading or conversation.

The dining area consisted of two low coffee tables pushed together, and the kitchen was a rather uninviting dark alcove with a small sink from which cold water flowed, a gas stove with pull-out fish grill, and a wooden center island heaped with jars of pickles, sauces, teas and condiments.  No store-bought salad dressing, jam or boxes of tea, as literally everything stored (or jumbled together) in the kitchen area had been made from ingredients grown or found on the farm and concocted by Hiromi, Mama Haru or one of the acolytes who come and go according to the season.  “Well, what about things like soy sauce?” you ask.  The answer is the same. Shoyu is home-made, beginning with the soy beans, which are then harvested, cooked, mixed with flour, allowed to ferment and become moldy, and finally squeezed into liquid through a cheesecloth. The whole process takes from six months (according to Wikipedia) to several years (according to my daughter, who insists that the fermentation process cannot be completed so quickly) and is not for the faint of heart who, I surmise, do not last long at the Fresh Start School.

Mini-bird carved by my Ellen now perches on the “viewing shelf” in front of the composting toilet.

And now for the bathroom! It was set off from the kitchen in its own  private space below the staircase leading to Geta and Hiromi-san’s bedroom. Pushing open the door, the standard Japanese bathroom slippers are set out, and a quite regular-looking porcelain toilet sits squarely in the middle of a good-sized room. The quite regular-looking toilet also has the standard fuzzy knitted seat warmer (readers abroad must imagine it), and only the smell gives a clue that this is actually a composting toilet–no flush, no pipes, and a deep hole in the ground at the bottom. The toilet is set with its back toward the door, facing a long shelf attached to the wall. The shelf , which is laden with tiny objects, is the perfect level for viewing when perched on the toilet seat; one can relax and contemplate shells, leaves, small trinkets, and carved wooden objects several times a day, and presumably the odor gets easier to ignore over time. I was delighted to spy a small wooden bird that resembled one of my daughter’s creations among the objects set out for viewing, and Hiromi later confirmed that this was so.

My obsessively neat mother-in-law and most of my Japanese housewife friends would consider the entire interior of the house “migurushii” , or “painful to look at”, simply because things were out in the open rather than stored neatly away in cupboards or closets.  “Oh, the dust!” they would say. And no doubt, any potential acolyte with a house dust allergy would not last 30 minutes inside the main house. Me? I was fine. Like the babies, my eyes were pulled this way and that as I admired knick-knacks, peered into containers, and strained to read book titles in the dim light. Dust was inconsequential.

Of course, unlike the babies, I took care to appear casual and polite rather than open-mouthed and curious. I was also desperately in need of sleep, stifling my yawns with only mixed success.  Hiromi, noting my distress, remarked, “Hmmmm….where should we put you tonight? ”

I immediately offered to sleep in the same cabin that my daughter had used the previous month, if it was available.

“I don’t know…it’s really….primitive…” said Hiromi doubtfully (testing me?).

This, of course, caused my spine to straighten automatically as I protested, “No, no, I’ll be fine! Just point me in the right direction!” ( Is she intimating that I’m a Princess?  I can do “primitive” with no problem.  I’m just out of practice, that’s all…)

“Good, good. The cabin is just past the Octagonal House. Follow the path and you’ll find it, even in the dark, ” said Grampa Geta-san cheerfully. He had taken out his false teeth with a great sigh of relief and looked ready for bed himself.

My room for the night, as seen in daylight.

So I set off alone into the black night, wondering exactly what my landmark was, as I had not understood “Octagonal House” in Japanese. Really, it does not come up in everyday conversation. Squelching down the muddy path in my rubber boots, I made my way toward what appeared to be a lighted building (I did not notice its unique shape as I passed by, though from the sounds I understood that Haru, Junpei and the babies lived here) and literally bumped into my destination, which was a tiny shack at the end of the path. My room for the night.

There was no knob, no latch and the door was not tightly fitted.  I simply pulled it open and stumbled in, fumbling to get out of my muddy boots. Thankfully, I could make out a lightbulb with a string attached, and thankfully it worked when I gave it a hopeful tug. I took stock of my surroundings in the light: enough room to set my backpack on the floor, a flimsy shelf for my glasses and iPhone, and a ratty-looking futon laid out on a wooden pallet.  Literally no room to move about, so sleeping was the only option here. “This is the cabin that my daughter adored,” I thought, seeing her through new eyes. By the foot of the futon was a pile of rather musty-smelling quilts which I spread out, ignoring the odor.  At this point, any aesthetic preferences were pointless and I only hoped to spend a pain-free and relatively comfortable night.

Now I am not only a good sleeper but I am a determined sleeper as well, especially when faced with the prospect of an early morning in unfamiliar circumstances. So without bothering to change into fresh clothes I fell into my makeshift bed, pulled up the covers, and was sound asleep within a matter of minutes.

The first few hours were blissful. Or I assume they were, as I have no memory of them. I cannot, however, forget my rude awakening at an ungodly hour by a hoarse cry that seemed to come from outside my window. Despite being sleep-befuddled, I soon identified it as….a rooster!  Wait–roosters mean morning! ….Was it morning?? ….Where was my iPhone? And I had to pee!! ….Suddenly, I was wide awake, and fumbling for my faithful iPhone, which read 3 a.m.  Noooooo.  I stumbled into my rubber boots, pushed open the door, and immediately wished for a penis. It was seriously cold, and the grass was high and wet. I did my best to pee neatly and discreetly (the rooster might be watching) in the muddy grass outside the cabin.  Then back inside, out of the boots again and into bed, I determined to return to sleep. I am good about being able to do that.

This time, however, my determination was most severely tested by the rooster, who had convinced himself that it was morning and was now obligated to alert the rest of the world. The persistant fowl squawked and crowed intermittently until at last it truly WAS morning, at which point he was joined by a chorus of bleating goats.  And then I knew that I was up for the day as well.

So passed my first and only night at the Fresh Start School. Having spent the last few hours in a torturous cycle of sleeping and waking, I gave up the fight. Shouldering my backpack and grabbing my glasses and phone, I and threw open the door to the cabin to face the day ahead. My daughter had warned me that bathing was an “event” occurring every third day since bathwater had to be heated by making a fire, so I knew there would be no refreshing shower to start the morning. Instead, I trudged back through the squelching mud and up to the main house, where I would spend the day working at whatever tasks were set out for me. But that will be my next and final post. Until then, take good care and thank you again for reading.

Morning on the veranda of the main house.

Who Needs a Soup Ladle When You’ve got a Baby?

The “Furidashi Juku”, or “Fresh Start School”.

It was nearly eight p.m. when we arrived at the Fresh Start School.  Papa Junpei parked the van up next to the house and I tumbled out, straight into the mud.  It was hard to get my bearings in the dark, but the house was right there in front of my nose so I focused on getting to the wooden porch (through the squelching mud), where shoes and boots were lined up along the bottom step. Two women had come to the door to greet us. The older woman was, I guessed from my daughter’s description, the co-owner of the school, Hiromi-san.  Let me qualify “older”, though, as she was one of those women whose age is impossible to guess. Though Hiromi’s skin was brown from years of outdoor work, it was smooth, fresh and glowing; though her hair was graying, it was thick and luxurious. She looked to be in excellent shape, and was dressed in no-fuss, practical work clothes.  The other woman hovering in the background  introduced herself with a shy smile as “Akiko”, and I understood that she was an acolyte, or Fresh School student, rather than family. There was still no sign of Hiromi’s husband Geta-san, who I had expected to meet hours earlier at the bus stop.

Papa Junpei, Mama Haru and the babies piled into the house, and we all stood around looking at each other. I can’t tell you how awkward this felt. Here’s the scene I had expected:

Hiromi-san:  Welcome, welcome!  You’ve come a long way!  You must be tired…..

Me:  No, no, I’m fine. Thank you so much for having me. Please excuse my intrusion                                                into your home. I’ll be indebted to you for the weekend.

Hiromi-san: We’ve so looked forward to your coming, so please relax and make yourself at home.

Me:  Thank you. I’ll do my best not to be a pain in the neck, and help out wherever I’m needed.

That conversation is a standard ritual for visitors in Japan, yet Hiromi-san wasn’t following the rules.  I was ready to speak my lines, but “Thank you” would have been inappropriate when my hostess hadn’t yet said, “Welcome!”, so I remained uncomfortable and silent, beginning to harbor a fear that I was not, in fact, welcome at all and that this trip had been a mistake to begin with.

Instead of small talk and formal greetings, the topic was, “Where is Geta-san?”.  Apparently, Hiromi’s husband had gone “into town” for a meeting of some sort, and it was past time for his return. We sat around the low table already laden with food and began eating, but it was apparent that the family was worried about Grandpa (as the babies knew him), so I was hardly relaxed. How terrible if something had actually happened to this man I had not yet met, I thought, willing him to be on his way home after an overly-long meeting.  And as I sat there hesitantly helping myself to chunks of deep-fried goat cheese and thinking, “Hurry back,  please…”,  the door banged open and Grandpa Geta was home. Phew.

Geta-san, and his wife, Hiromi.

So at last I met the other co-owner of the Fresh Start School. Wearing a white peasant shirt and a big sheepish grin, Geta-san apologized profusely as he made his way to the table. “Well, I couldn’t help being late–they got me drinking, they did,” he explained, his sheepish grin betraying more than a hint of enjoyment and sheer mischief.  We all relaxed immediately (though I wondered how on earth he had navigated up the Mountain of Mud in his state of inebriation) and the tension dissipated. I began to enjoy the goat cheese. And I began to notice what was happening with the babies.

Mothers who like their babies snugly restrained and properly fed would have had heart palpitations watching Baby Sane and his twin brother Mitsu, who had the run of the house while the adults were eating. I watched them in fascination as they toddled about the room, making their way back to the table occasionally for a few spoonfuls (or handfuls) of rice or vegetables. When not grazing at the table, they were engaged in various “experiments”.  Mitsu was absorbed with the large pot of miso soup, which sat unsupervised upon a nearby hot plate close to the main table.  Apparently the soup had cooled considerably, since his placid expression never changed while testing the broth with his forefinger. When this grew dull, he boldly plunged his entire arm into the pot, stirring away industriously, ignored by the adults who were engrossed in Geta-san’s description of the drinking party. Meanwhile, at the other end of the room, Baby Sane had worked the lid off the wood stove and had found the (cold) ashes inside. Oh, THAT looked like fun, I thought, watching him dig about in the ashes with quiet concentration. This was not my house, neither baby was in danger, and I assumed that this was a normal mealtime scenario; I moved from relaxing a bit to enjoying myself.

I was ravenously hungry, and the kind of meal set out on the table was exactly the kind I love best: simple vegetarian cooking–no fuss and nothing fancy. Fresh, crispy lettuce leaves were set out in a bowl to be eaten as they were (my daughter loved them as finger food) or with home-made dressing; the delicious fried cubes of goat cheese; some kind of wild greens tossed lightly in a saute; a hearty miso soup with daikon and more greens; and I cannot remember what else….pickles, perhaps?  As we ate, I ventured to ask some questions and was surprised to learn that Sane and Mitsu’s parents had fled Tokyo after the 3/11 Quake, deciding to settle in at the grandparents’ place permanently.

But….but….Tokyo’s a long way from Tohoku, where the epicenter of the quake and the nuclear meltdown occurred. Were they not over-reacting?

Of course I did not ask this, but I could not help thinking it. Conscious of my position as a guest in the house (a guest who had invited herself , to make matters even more delicate), I did not push my own opinions; instead, I listened to Mama Haru’s narrative and imagined myself in her place. “We left Tokyo the morning after the quake, ” she admitted, correctly assuming that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant would not withstand the double-punch of quake and tsunami, and determined to get her children as far out of the path of nuclear fallout as possible. Having spent her own childhood in Nagano Prefecture, Haru knew the geography well:  isolated by mountains (9 of the 12 highest mountains of Japan are found there) and situated far from the East Coast, she was certain that her parents’ home would be a safe haven.  Happily, her husband Junpei was of the same mind (“I couldn’t wait to be gone,” he said).  So the morning after the quake they threw diapers, food, and gas into the car and were on the road to Nagano before the nuclear explosions even occurred. “We were in such a rush I left behind my insurance card and all my identification,” said Haru.  “I was just thinking of the babies and getting out of Tokyo.” They drove straight inland without stopping, beating the post nuclear explosion traffic and ensuing gasoline shortage.

The sheltering mountains of Nagano Prefecture (photo from

A year and some months later, Haru, Junpei and the babies are still in Nagano (after making a brief trip back to Tokyo to retrieve their insurance cards and other valuables), with no regrets. It is now widely known that fallout from the nuclear explosions at Fukushima Daiichi did reach as far south as Tokyo, with particularly high levels reported on the day of March 15th.  Many Tokyo citizens remained indoors, glued to the news, on the 15th, but others were out and about as usual, still focused on stockpiling food, lining up to buy gas, and attempting to commute to work in spite of erratic train schedules and threats of rolling blackouts (which ultimately bypassed Tokyo and hit the suburbs).

In the year and a half since the disaster occurred, it has been determined that radiation from Fukushima Daiichi spread in several distinct plumes, stretching far southward to the prefectures of Ibaragi, Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa as well as westward to Tochigi and Gunma, stopping at the mountains of Nagano. In the end, an estimated 8 percent of Japan’s entire land mass was contaminated. Neighborhoods in those prefectures continue to be plagued by “hot spots” (isolated areas of abnormally high radiation levels), which are monitored constantly by citizen activist groups.  Most citizens of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures chose to stay put after the quake and nuclear crisis, but purists like Haru and Junpei (those who firmly believe that even a little radiation is too much) departed swiftly in the first weeks following the explosions and have not returned.

Nervous Tokyo citizens can relax in this “bequerel-free” cafe, equipped with a radiation detector from Belarus (photo by Miako Ichikawa, Asahi Shinbun).

Haru and Junpei were extremely lucky. They had a destination in mind, beds waiting for them, enough gas to make the journey, and no loans to repay in Tokyo. They were able to pick up and go, and had the courage and foresight to move swiftly. Safely ensconced in the tiny village of Ooshima, they are able to raise their baby boys relatively free of fear and paranoia. Parents in Tokyo continue to scrutinize labels in supermarkets and worry about the radiation level of food in restaurants, with some cafes now featuring radiation detectors on the premises to reassure customers. In a contrasting scenario, Haru, Junpei, and their children enjoy self-sufficiency, eating only their own produce and rarely buying anything “in town”. Haru stays near the house every day, devoting herself to the boys and doing most of the cooking. Papa Junpei works together with the in-laws (they all seem to get along) planting rice and vegetables, harvesting according to season, doing various construction projects, and teaching the steady stream of folks like my daughter: acolytes who come to learn practical skills and find a “fresh start”.  The acolytes, who inhabit various tiny cabins built around the main house, care for the animals (goats, chickens, and rabbits), help with the cooking and cleaning on a rotating schedule, and experience self-sufficiency first-hand. Everyone works hard, eats well, and sleeps soundly, with the exception of the rooster, who I suspect suffers from insomnia. But that’s a story for my next post.

Of course, what I’ve just described is not everyone’s idea of an idyllic life. “They live with the in-laws!” you say? Well, yes, but that’s actually no big deal.  Many Japanese couples do; it’s expected in some families, and grandparents are a great help with child-rearing. “Who wants to live out in the boonies? Is there even cell phone reception?” is the next question. Hmm. My smart phone was working just fine, even at the top of a mountain (Japan is amazing that way), and the young people I met at the festival some hours earlier seemed bursting with energy and creativity (a good many of them are potters and craftsmen, Junpei explained. He himself was a potter in his former life in Tokyo).  And though Haru sighed and asked me when mothering would become “less consuming”, she and Junpei both seemed relieved to be out of the city.  Living in Tokyo meant bearing a daily psychological burden. Living with the in-laws in Nagano meant a physically hard but relatively anxiety-free lifestyle.

I could understand Haru and Junpei’s choice.  And I was beginning to understand why my daughter loved this place. If you’re not yet ready to pack up and leave for Nagano, I will do my best to convince you in one last post. Until then, good night, take care, and thank you for reading.

Lion Dancing and Treacherous Navigation

When you last saw me, I had been deposited in the middle of a festival.  Dressed like a (US) college student, I was surrounded by earthy-crunchy people and wishing desperately that I was dressed like them.  I own clothes like that, too- I just didn’t bring them.

Haru-san and her friend with their babies. Can you tell that babies at this stage are interested in Mom rather than finding friends?

While I was busy ogling the festival-goers, my hosts had already moved off to chat with friends, taking the placid baby boys with them. No problem. It seemed that Junpei and Haru were not the “Come meet my friends!  I’ll show you around!” types, so it was up to me to strike out on my own and navigate the festival.  Truthfully, what I really wanted was to get to the farm already, have something to eat, and find my bearings (Cue to my nagging conscience: “No, no, never mind what you really want!  That’s not what you signed up for. You’re here for the experience.” ).  And conscience won, of course,  since the other alternatives would have been either faking exhaustion and pleading a delicate constitution (nope–not with my pride at stake), or stating baldly that I did not want to have fun, and insist on going straight home (spoiling their fun, and making no friends from the outset).  I knew that it was best to buck up, plunge into the crowd, and pretend to be at ease.  So I did.

Children willingly getting their heads chomped by Shishimai.

It was a short but action-packed little festival featuring, among other things, a group of grandfathers performing the “Shishimai Odori”–or Lion Dance.  Draping themselves in a huge Chinese-patterned cloth and resembling a many-legged snake or dragon with a large wooden Lion’s head , the men gamboled freely about the festival grounds.  Note: I always feel uneasy when Japanese monsters chase small children (this is a staple attraction at many different festivals, and caused my own children undue anxiety in their toddler years), but at this event–in an interesting reversal– the children were gleefully chasing the lion!  “Why?” I asked the woman next to me, in a brave attempt to make friends and figure out what was happening.  “Well, they want to get their heads bitten,” was the reply. (Oh, right. Of course.)  My neighbor elucidated, and I learned that a head-bite from the Shishimai is supposed to increase brain power.  Still, it was rather unnerving to see parents ignore the howling  as they eagerly rushed to pop their babies’ heads into the clacking wooden jaws of the Lion.  Babies will need the extra brain-power to help them rationalize their inexplicable fear of snakes and lions later on, right?

The many-legged Shishimai, looking for a head to nibble.

Along with the head-nibbling, there were also Taiko performances by schoolchildren, and an African drumming performance by both kids and adults (something that would never happen in Hadano–it’s not “traditional”).  The African drumming was wildly popular, and I was mesmerized by one young mother who happily abandoned her baby to a friend, leaped into the performer’s area and began dancing wildly while the other mothers clapped out the rhythm. With all the excitement going on around me, I could not get a proper photo of her, so I will leave readers to imagine the scene.

Someone dancing at a festival? My sister from New Orleans would wonder why I bother to record such a mundane observation.  In the US, people breaking into spontaneous dance does not make news. In the 13 years I’ve lived in Hadano, however, I’m always startled to see a child dance spontaneously in public. I usually assume they’re second or third generation Japanese kids from Brazil or Peru, and most times I’m right.  I’ve never seen spontaneous dancing anywhere from an adult. So may I please be excused for gaping during the performance? I really could not help it.

Into the van with you, babies!

Shortly after the drumming stopped and the enthusiastic mother in baggy pants was reunited with her baby, the festival drew to a close. My hosts, Junpei and Haru, finally disengaged themselves from their conversations and prepared to pack up the van my daughter had warned me about (very large, very dirty).  Between the babies, the folding stroller, baby bags, backbacks and such, this took time, but at last we were settled in.

The van was indeed dirty.  And it was what my grandparents might have called a  “contraption” rather than a vehicle, since the entire back had been ripped apart to make a large seating area.  No actual seats or cushions, but a nice flat bed and plenty of room for multiple passengers.  I was fine with this, as I had done my “Kokoro no Junbi” (literally, “preparing the heart” in Japanese).  Preparing the heart for what?  Well, for any possible consequences, especially negative ones.  In this case, based on Ellen’s description, I had imagined the worst sort of rattle-trap-rusted-out monster-of-a-van and envisioned myself sitting serenely in the seat, as if I did this every day. Well, in fact I did do that every day during my senior year of college, so I knew I could do it again.

I had neglected, however, to envision the lack of seatbelts. There were none in the van at all, and I forced myself to swallow hard and look unconcerned.  Even the awful thing I had driven during college had had seatbelts, and I’d been grateful for them many times. My inner coward was protesting, but I knew I couldn’t expect my hosts to produce seat belts  out of thin air. I was in no position to be all hoity-toity and refuse their ride home, either.   Somehow, my reserve supply of fortitude had not yet been exhausted, and I managed to  feign a devil-may-care attitude: “Seatbelts? Pish-posh! Who worries about such things?” while waiting for Papa Junpei to get the engine started.  My place was next to the driver’s seat. Haru, mother of the two solemn baby boys, was seated cross-legged on the back floorboards with both babies on her lap, surrounded by the stroller, boxes of festival food, and who knows what else.  The engine started right up and off we went, into the setting sun.  Just like a movie.

Off we go…and we’re headed for those mountains.

After only a few minutes of driving along a riverside, we turned onto a narrow dirt road leading up a hill and into a forest.  After ten minutes of slogging up the hill (the dirt was rapidly becoming mud), I decided it was a mountain.  Darkness descended, and it was not just dark, it was completely and totally dark with only the stars and the headlights for illumination. Up until this point, Haru and the babies had been sitting quietly in the back; either Sane or Mitsu was nursing (I could not tell which) and the other twin was eating crackers.  If the driving conditions got no worse than this I could almost relax, though the mud seemed to be getting more treacherous and the van moving more slowly.  Then one of the twins began to fuss.  Not a BIG fuss, but a small insistant whimper of discontent.

“Shall I take one of them?” asked Papa Junpei from the driver’s seat (“No, no!” I thought).

“Oh, yes, please,” said Mama Haru from the back, and one of the good-sized baby boys was pushed gently toward the front.

“I’ll take him,” I said immediately, intercepting the baton pass. Again, I’m not sure which of the twins I got, but he was happy on my lap…..for approximately five seconds.  Then the howling started, and this time it WAS a big fuss. Reluctantly, I returned the baby to his rightful owner (Papa Junpei), whereupon his tears dissolved instantaneously.  I bit my tongue at the sight of Baby Sane (or Mitsu) now behind the steering wheel, jumping

For the record: This is a “tanuki”, or raccoon dog.

excitedly up and down while his father calmly kept one hand on the child, one hand on the wheel, and one eye on the road.  Our path continued to wind upward with the van moving at a snail’s pace through the mud, while one twin happily cavorted about the driver’s seat and the other nursed blissfully in the back.  Both parents were serene. “Look! There’s a tanuki!” said Papa Junpei, pointing at a mangy dog-like animal seen in the headlights.  I was appropriately impressed, having never seen one up close before, but still wished that the driver had fewer distractions.

By now, we had probably been on the same winding uphill road for at least twenty minutes, and were moving so slowly I had forgotten to be anxious about the lack of seatbelts. The worst thing that could happen seemed to be toppling over into the forest in very slow motion, or (more probably) getting irrevocably stuck and making the rest of the trek on foot.  Either of those options was preferable to careening off the edge of a cliff at high speed, so I began to relax in earnest. Besides, I was too tired to sustain a genuine state of anxiety for long.  The van chugged along through the mud, the babies crowed happily, and just as I was beginning to feel seriously drowsy, we turned off onto a still smaller road which led to our final destination–the farm itself.

And here is where I leave you for the moment. You will see and read about the farm itself in the next post, for it deserves its own post rather than a few lines at the end of this one. It has taken two full posts just to arrive at the Fresh Start Farm, but as it took me a full day to get there via train-bus-festival-and contraption, I think that’s appropriate.  So hang tight: we’re in Nagano, and the next part of the adventure is about to begin.  Good night, and thank you for reading!

Leaving “Civilization” for a fresh start in Nagano

I have a secret.

…….it’s my hidden stash of colorful hippie clothes. My secret stash, the clothes hidden away in a clear plastic storage tub, are treasures-that-cannot-be-worn in my daily life: anything tie-died; anything with camisole straps; anything boasting beads, fringe, pom-poms, tiny bells, or excessive amounts of lace.

My friend Mizue: a perfect example of appropriate dress for women of a certain age. Her clothes are of modest cut, loose-fitting, clean and pressed, and provide protection from the sun.

Why do I keep my treasures hidden? Why do I not wear them? Well, it’s complicated. In my world (not Tokyo, mind you. The big city is what comes to mind when foreigners think of Japan, but Tokyo is actually a separate world within Japan itself ), ladies of a certain age dress modestly and conservatively, and I’d rather fit in than stand out here, appearance-wise.  I’m no tourist; I live here, and facing the stares of curious or disapproving neighbors  on a daily basis would wear me down. I need to belong, and part of belonging is a recognition of and obedience to unwritten social conventions.

As a foreigner, however, I have a bit of leeway.  I am excused for minor fashion errors in light of my nationality ( Americans can’t be expected to know any better), and I do take full advantage of this. The clothes I wear to work everyday  in the summer are in no way standard for women my age (neckline too low and showing too much–gasp–bare arm) , and neither are they professional. In my defense, I believe they are appropriate for the work environment since it’s MY cram school after all, and I’m allowed to make the rules.

Here I am, in my typical summer garb, wearing far less clothing than any of my students. This is about the wildest I can get and still pass inspection with the mothers (note my yellow No Nukes! button).

The mothers of my students seem to accept this as well, and I feel no waves of disapproval on parent visitation days.  In deference to these same mothers (whose monthly fees translate to my monthly salary, and whose adorable children keep me engaged and entertained on a daily basis) I am also careful not to push the envelope too far: no jeans with holes at work, and lacy slipper-socks rather than bare feet (remember that this is Japan; my English school is a “shoes off” environment. Shoes inside would be unthinkable, but bare feet are not appropriate, either. Socks or slippers must hide naked feet).  Anything item of clothing that might cause the mothers of my students to whisper together or raise an eyebrow goes into the plastic tub, to be saved for summer vacations in the US.  Once there, I dress just as I please.

But now, I’ve found a place to wear my tie-died leggings (they are pink and purple) that is not Tokyo….as long as I don’t mind getting them dirty.

Let me tell you about it.

It’s a village (population less than 1,000 people) in the mountains of Nagano, called Ooshima.  My daughter Ellen discovered it first.  Looking for an interesting place to learn about organic farming and self-sufficiency, she found the “Furidashi Juku”, or “Fresh Start School”, via WWOOF (Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers). For those of you unfamiliar with the organization, WWOOF  farmers are often, by Japanese standards, unconventional: eager to experiment with both new and old methods of farming, they are always looking for youthful volunteers to lend a hand with their projects.  Yet even among the WWOOF farmers listed online , the folks at “Fresh Start” sounded radically different.  Take their name, for instance.  Japan is not a great place for “fresh starts”, as a fresh start implies a previous failure to function within the system.  Dropping out and withdrawing from that system is often easier than admitting failure and bucking up to try again in an inflexible society that quickly stigmatizers “losers”.  Here was a place, then, that set out to welcome those folks otherwise deemed as “losers”, as well as drawing from the ranks of “normal” energetic and curious young people possessed of a strong work ethic.

The “Fresh Start” message, in a nutshell, seemed to be this: “Have you made a mess of your life? Gone after the wrong things and ended up disillusioned?  Try again, from scratch. Go back to living as simply as possible, and make a fresh start. You’ll find what you’re looking for.” My daughter, at eighteen, has not seen enough of life to be disillusioned,  nor would I describe her life as a mess.  She is, however, passionately devoted to the idea of interacting with the natural environment in an ethical way, and “starting from scratch” sounded perfect for a Japanese teenager who had known nothing but books and tests until her high school graduation.  Ellen had had enough of books already, and was raring to go.

High school graduates at Tokyo’s International Christian High School. It’s an elite school with an excellent English education: still, very few graduates choose to go abroad for college.

Now let me explain one more thing.  My daughter had the freedom to set off on this adventure because she was in a “gap”: graduated from high school in Japan (ceremony in March) and accepted into college in the US ( beginning in September).  Very few Japanese students choose to go directly to a four-year college abroad, and her friends had all begun college in Japan.  She was in a strange world populated by adults and babies, the only ones not in school, so an adventure seemed like the thing to do. My husband and I were all for it, especially since she was financing the trip with her own money saved from part-time jobs (clever girl!),  but my friends were astonished. “She’s going….by herself? And it’s manual labor? You don’t know the farming family personally? And it’s so far away…..”  Well, yes was the answer to all those questions, but none of them seemed like a valid reason not to let her go. Japanese mothers tend to keep even their “adult children” close to home, but in this family, we value independence.  Soooo… you go, Ellen!

Sakura the goat and her companions provide milk for the coffee at the Fresh Start Juku. Ellen got up close and personal with Sakura.

My daughter got herself to Nagano ( a full day’s journey from Hadano) via a complicated combination of trains and busses.  Once there, she learned to work hard,  made “cho ii tomodachi”  (or “wicked good friends”), and tested herself daily.  Family and friends eagerly devoured her facebook posts describing the goats ( “I get to milk them!”), the rooster (“My legs are black and blue from being attacked…” ), the rabbits ( “They live in an old, abandoned car..” ), the rice paddies (“We’re doing all the planting by hand!  No machines! One seedling at a time…” ), and the couple who built and ran the farm (“They’ve been to India!  Their house is full of things from all around the world. It’s like a bazaar…” ) . She slept in a “shack”, bathed every other day, used the communal composting toilet,  drank goat’s milk for dinner and home-made herbal tea for breakfast.  She baked bread, took up wood-carving, and talked environmental policy.  Six weeks later, she returned home.

Here’s Ellen, slogging about in the rice paddy in Nagano.

After working in the rice paddy up until the afternoon of her last day, she had boarded the bus to Shinjuku without a chance to bathe. When she arrived home that evening, my eyes flew immediately to her right arm; it was  stained brown up to the elbow from planting rice seedlings in the muck. The two tiny muscles she had earned volunteering in Ishinomaki looked significantly bigger as well–indications that she was now a quite a different Ellen.  My schoolgirl was now….a farmgirl? Or at least a farmgirl-in-the-making.

And so, we welcomed Ellen back to civililization and the world of flush-toilets. She was glad to be home, but sorry to leave her new family in Nagano and bursting with stories and new ideas. In the next few weeks, she spent enough time talking about her experience to get me on board as well.  Mom wants an adventure, too!  I took a notion to see the Fresh Start School for myself, and to personally thank the couple who had taken my shy, inexperienced daughter into their home and given her a measure of courage and real-life experience.  So Ellen called them, we talked by phone, and  the owners of the Furidashi Juku agreed to my idea of a one-day visit. Since the trip itself takes a full day, a one-day visit could hardly be considered worth the time and trouble, but a weekend was all I had to spare and there was no stopping me.

……..Off you go, Ruthie!  One month later, printed route schedule in hand, it was my turn to depart for Nagano by train.  Leaving from Hadano, I got myself to Shinjuku ( the heart of Tokyo, where everyone transfers trains) , then switched lines to board the express train to Matsumoto.  From that point on, I began to leave the city behind and the scenery became steadily greener and more mountainous. Butterflies and moths flitted in and out of the train car at every stop, and wildflowers and weeds lined the train tracks. The lush green mountains closed in on either side; some of them we traversed by tunnel. Finally, at a tiny station called Ina-Ooshima, I boarded the local bus and began the most dramatic part of the journey.  It was one of my worst nightmares: a large bus,  traversing a narrow curving mountain road with barely enough room for a car coming from the opposite direction to squeeze by, and a steep ravine to the right, with only a flimsy-looking guardrail to quell my anxiety.  Below?? A river gorge that turned into a reservoir that turned into a massive dam and

Whew!  Down from the mountains and into the village.

then back into a river again. The driver handled the next thirty minutes of precarious curves cooly and cheerfully, and I willed myself to relax. We descended the mountain, crossed the river, and entered the village of Ooshika, where I was let off at a stop called “Kashio”, or “Salt Lick”.

So there I was, standing on the side of the road, dressed like a college student in T-shirt, jeans, backpack, and organic cotton tote bag from an Eric Clapton concert. I was dressed sensibly, for hard work, yet I felt slightly ridiculous ( I’m 50. I should have outgrown this way of travelling already. Normal people go by car and carry proper luggage, etc. ).  Still, I was determined to meet my host with a big beaming smile. His name was “Geta-san”, and my daughter had said he would come for my pick-up in a very large, very dirty camping van.

I waited nervously along the road (no benches at the bus stop), but no Geta-san.  I began to feel more than slightly ridiculous.  Afternoon had turned to evening and a cool breeze was blowing; even so, I was sweating from the weight of my pack and from the unaccustomed restriction of short sleeves and a high necked shirt (Remember? I spend the summer sleeveless, flaunting my decolletage).  Finally, after what seemed like ages, a young couple pushing a heavy-duty double stroller came into view.  Twin boys with solemn face were standing precariously on the stroller bed, and I realized, from my daughter’s detailed descriptions of the family, that Geta-san’s daughter and her husband had come in his stead.

My pick-up: father Junpei-san and his twins, Sane and Mitsu.

Once our identities had been formally established, the couple wasted no time on unnecessary words of welcome.  Announcing, “There’s a festival tonight so we’ll go have a look around,” they set off in the lead, taking care not to jounce the babies out onto the roadside. Within minutes, we reached what looked to be the center of the village, where a good-sized crowd was gathered, including children in yukata (summer kimono), village grandfathers in cotton festival clothes and tabi, and……earthy-crunchy-looking people!  Although no-one stared at me, I was trying hard not to stare at the unfamiliar sight of women dressed in baggy, organic cotton trousers with colorful bandannas and teeny-tiny tank tops. Where was I?? And why did I come in the wrong clothes?? I wanted the contents of my plastic treasure tubs immediately!  Aaah, no matter–I would enjoy myself anyhow.  But you must wait until the next post for the details.

Don’t worry–I will not throw my hard-earned career (or my husband and the in-laws, Grandma and Grandpa Iida) to the wind and take up life in a commune in Nagano….but I may be tempted.  Stay tuned, and thank you again for reading.