Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Protecting children from radiation - lessons from Fukushima

Managing long-term risk and minimising children's exposure to radiation

Please note: I am not an expert - this informally covers some of the ideas being shared by families living in Fukushima at the time of the disaster for your information. I have written it as I could not find anything similar when I really needed it. It does not cover the first days of a nuclear emergency. It is written from the point of view of minimising risk to be on the safe side, not an from an assumption that we can know definitely either way what that risk is in the current scientific climate.

We, like most families who were, or are living in Fukushima, have been trying to understand how to minimise the risk for our children. Contamination is something children in affected areas of Japan will have to live with throughout their development, and we may not know the consequences until 20 or 30 years later.

There is agreement that unborn foetuses, children and young people and especially females are more at risk. However there is no scientific consensus on long-term risk from accumulations of low doses and there are acknowledged holes in research and knowledge. The nuclear industry, government, regulatory bodies and their tame 'experts' and advisers have displayed blatant collusion and dishonesty, destroying trust. Research is expensive and there are big gaps in our knowledge in consequence. Guidance and planning is very patchy, including some glaring omissions and irresponsibly risky assumptions motivated by minimising compensation and clean-up costs. There have been examples of false reporting of levels in soil and food, the false labelling of food from contaminated  areas as being from safe areas, and the mixing of  food with high levels with food with low levels to produce a batch with overall 'acceptable' levels.

As parents we have to make own judgements and if concerned it makes sense to try and minimise our children's lifetime exposure, just as we think carefully about risk from crossing the road, unhealthy diet, or passive smoking. For your information, here are some of the solutions that parents in Fukushima and beyond are sharing with eachother:

Food and drink

  • Avoid giving children food or drink from any contaminated region with a wide margin of safety.
  • Some foods are particularly susceptible to contamination (bio-availability). Wild food, especially mushrooms, berries and vegetables gathered in the mountains have been found with especially high levels and are best avoided. As at August 2012 the highest officially tested level was wild mushrooms picked in Nikko City area, Tochigi Prefecture, at 31,000bq/kg - the official 'safe' limit is currently 100bq/kg. The previous record was wild mushrooms from Fukushima at 28,000bq/kg
  • Check the origin of everything before buying. With products with mixed ingredients where the origin is not marked this means contacting the company concerned. Ask them where their factories are and if the factories have handled produce from contaminated areas. Do they check their production themselves? If they won't tell you, don't buy from them. The same applies to eating out - contact the company and ask where they source their products. If they won't tell you, don't eat there. Many families in Japan now do this.
  • Campaign for school meals and milk to be sourced from safer areas. Until they are insist on your child eating a lunch brought from home - some schools may be resistant to this. Be aware that some schools may check the ingredients, but the minimum detection level of the equipment is too high, for example 20Bq/kg - below this may give as a false zero. Even away from contaminated areas this is an issue - for example, Fukushima rice was provided in an Okinawa school.

Checking levels and gathering information

  • Buy a dosimeter / Geiger counter, ensuring that it can detect various kinds of radiation, and learn how to use it properly. This is necessary because the government will never test everywhere, and hotspots have been found by individuals. Check inside and outside your house. Typical areas of higher radiation are drains and water-courses, where rain falls from roofs, and in gardens where contamination can be blown or washed in from surrounding areas in the form of dust, leaves or other organic material.
  • Note that levels can increase over time in some locations due to the interaction of weather, landscape, and biological processes. Therefore re-testing will be necessary for the foreseeable future. Areas that have been decontaminated can become re-contaminated.
  • Regularly check official information- but informally shared information and information from abroad is also vital - in the Japanese situation the latter two have often been more reliable. For example radiation prediction weather maps from Germany and later Switzerland were invaluable and information shared between citizens via Twitter and Facebook. 
  • Think for yourself, don't assume that the attitudes displayed around you are the right ones for your family (or are even what people are thinking privately). Only you can decide what is right for your children.

Location, housing and play

  • If possible move your children away permanently to a less contaminated area. This the number one and only sure solution. Careers, family tradition and owning property are important - but if our children get sick we suddenly realise that our children's health comes first.
  • If you can't move away yet, take children away at weekends and holidays. Research possible resources and help for moving away in case it becomes possible to move.
  • Check the weather forecast - if the wind is blowing from the accident site don't let them play outside. While air radiation levels are high, keep children inside, especially  when it is raining.
  • Check air and soil levels anywhere your children spend significant time, especially at school and routes to school. Insist that schools are decontaminated, or if possible change school.
  • Note that decontamination has had limited temporary results, with levels rising again. It is not a long term answer and can be dangerous for those doing it, often by hand - and where does the material go?
  • Minimise the chance of children inhaling radioactive particles in dust. Don't allow them to play in  dusty areas. Get them to wear a suitable mask if they are inevitably exposed to dust.
  • Inform children how to protect themselves - thinking about where to avoid (eg drains, ditches and under roof edges), washing routines when coming inside and changing clothes for inside.

X-rays and medical treatment

  • Avoid unnecessary x-rays. Some parents are asking that only essential x-rays are done, although this will be a matter of discussion with the doctor or dentist concerned. Japan has one of the highest uses of medical x-rays in the world, and sometimes they are done as a matter of routine or habit even before a physical examination has suggested that one is needed. Clearly there are cases when x-rays are essential and the benefits outweigh other concerns.
  • A Japanese doctor has written a letter intended for those treated abroad to give to their medical practitioner - however it contains a useful summary of the medical situation of Japanese children exposed to radiation from Fukushima Daichi. This will give you a sense of the subject should your own family be at risk.  Click here.
This list is not definitive and arguments can be made for and against each point, however I hope reading what Japanese families are doing helps you with your thinking should you be unfortunate enough to have to deal with this problem, or feel you should prepare just in case if you live down-wind from a nuclear facility.

    Sunday, 29 January 2012

    After the flood - volunteers and friendship

    One of the volunteers dispensing cold drinks and towels for tired volunteers

    A very big thank you to everyone who came to help clear up in the days and weeks following the flood in Kaneyama-machi at the end of July 2011. It was very touching to see so many people working together in adversity - but then don't they always? Many came long distances from around Japan. Some travelled long hours from where they had been helping with tsunami debris. We even had volunteers who were residents of the tsunami hit areas who wanted to repay the fact that we had been volunteering in their area of Fukushima over the last three months. The tasks they undertook were usually unpleasant and tough jobs like digging out mud from between floorboards and cleaning household goods of mud, or digging out drains. It was good to be part of this culture-changing volunteer movement, with people realising, sometimes for the first time, what pleasure and satisfaction is to be had when you reach out beyond the bounds of your own life.

    UK volunteers who travelled a long way from working in a tsunami-hit area
    The first job was to empty the houses of the chaos of ruined furniture and tatami mats and a deep layer of mud. This was hard and filthy, and was done before any volunteers arrived from outside. The next part was to take up the flooring on everyone's ground floor and dig out the mud underneath. This had to be done as if left it would rot the wooden floors and bacteria in it might cause health problems. The underfloor areas were then sprinkled with white powder, which may have been caustic soda as it burned my skin, the fine powder settling on sweating arms and rubbing at the edges of gloves.

    The hardest job - very awkward and dirty
    Digging the mud out was heavy work, as it was wet, like cocoa butter or damp clay, and it was hard to manoeuvre between the floor joists. It then had to be carried outside and either piled up  or put in bags for later collection. Whoever has the contract for those bags will have made millions in Tohoku - they are used everywhere.

    Fancy a go? Our kitchen, and no, that is not my cooking

    Our first two volunteers were locals, members of the All Okuaizu Network
    We had volunteer help from the first day. Many of the older people had family who answered the call until outsiders arrived, and my wife's uncle (our landlord), and her cousin got stuck in. We also had two guys from the All Okuaizu Network which was founded locally to respond to the 3.11 disaster and to help develop Okuaizu in the long term. We are members and I had been over to the coast near Iwaki-shi with them a couple of times to work on the tsunami damaged area just outside the nuclear evacuation zone, never thinking I'd need the same help in a few weeks.  One brought us a fridge to borrow, and he advised me not to worry about others until our house was done. This was a kind thought as I felt that I should be helping the oldest people first, and I also felt very bad that I was away volunteering at Fuji Rock in Niigata (also flooded) as part of my Strong Children art project with Fukushima's children, and couldn't get home to help until the second day.  They both worked hard to help get the mud out before moving on to the next house, and continued day after day.

    What's that saying? Something about a creek and a paddle?

    One of our neighbours surveying progress
    People from Okuaizu are very physically strong and resilient from generations of hard work in difficult terrain and heavy snow in the winter. They are used to helping each other anyway, and can keep going when city folk would be keeling over, and they got through a prodigious amount of spadework and lifting. Some who had escaped the flood neglected their own businesses and households over weeks in order to help the older people to get their houses into at least a temporary liveable state, as many had no usable kitchen, bathroom or toilet. It was exhausting work.

    The council used systems already set up to support nuclear evacuees in the previous months to send round portable stoves, instant rice and noodles, bottles of water and basic hygiene equipment, and began assessing damage and people's needs. Council workers concentrated on the public infrastructure. I remember thinking how much worse it would be for it to happen somewhere very poor without organised help - and since it happened there have been far worse floods in various places around the world where people have to fend for themselves for weeks. 

    As floors were cleared, ripped up, dug out and disinfected,  upper floors were re-arranged for camping in, with various make shift arrangements and use of unaffected neighbours' facilities. The next phase was salvaging as much as possible, which wasn't much, and cleaning it all several times.

    Two of my son's school staff pitch in to help clean our stuff
    Dust became a worrying problem as everything dried out and the heat returned with a vengeance
    There was no let up for affected households as it was very  time-consuming, and when you look at piles of your stuff covered in mud you just feel like you have to keep going every minute until it is done, otherwise when will life get back to normal? No-one anywhere likes their home and possessions despoiled, but the fact that Japanese people fastidiously preserve a complete separation between 'inside' and 'outside' made it all the harder as a taboo had been broken too. People's concentration began to suffer in the heat and there were several injuries, and people began to get more and more tired. We were all a bit dazed, especially on top of the underlying tension there had been for the previous months because of Fukushima Daichi. What a year.

    The cavalry arrived after a week or so in the form of hundreds of people from across Japan, organised into teams and allotted tasks by a volunteer centre set up in a nearby village. Everybody knew the drill as most had already volunteered somewhere else in Tohoku.

    Volunteer squad from further afield
    Various vans providing refreshments and good cheer were doing the rounds, and the spirit between everybody was pretty special, people couldn't do enough. This will be one of the great positive legacies of the 3.11 tragedy for Japan, and it will be interesting to see how all these shared experiences based on volunteering affect society over the next few years. It changes you.

    Some of our stuff headed for the tip
    Watching possessions that you have allowed to become part of your identity disappearing into a dump truck changes you too. It is a timely reminder about priorities and life's temporary bargains with chaos. Now, every time I buy something I just think "Yes, more dump filler." What really matters? It was difficult watching everyone breathing in the billowing dust that we know contains  a certain amount of caesium 137. There was no way of keeping it out, and you can't keep clean either. As I write in January 2012 the government's controversial policy of 'decontamination' rather than evacuation means that thousands of workers and volunteers will be going through this same process: handling debris, soil, leaves and mud, and breathing dust in areas of eastern Fukushima with substantial levels of radiation. There is evidence that it won't even work sufficiently well, and we won't know for years what the health impacts will be. In the meantime fathers, daughters, sons and brothers will be risking their health - and to me that really matters.

    The way friends rallied round was a great comfort in this time uncertainty and worry. At least our son was away from the dust being looked after for several weeks by the Ichikawas, parents of one of his school friends - so kind! At a time when there was a bit of family pressure about what should be done, in what priority order,  and exactly how it should be done (you know how that goes...), at least my friends turned up to help in any way they could. Like Iwata-san, Tokyo-based museum producer and cyclist, who gave up his weekend in the middle of a project rescuing and cataloguing the collection of Sendai museum. He looked cool in his rescue duds! And Shigemura-san, local friend, fellow cyclist and good egg who likes nothing better than helping, even on an ordinary day. They helped clear the debris-filled garden and did some cleaning up.

    Iwata-san and Shigemura-san: heavy lifting and washing up a specialty
    Then there was Yoshida-san, another friend from Arai cycling club 250km away in Saitama who gave me a weekend of his time in the big push to get what was left of the house perfectly clean after everything had been taken out ready for our move to Kansai. Not the most interesting or rewarding form of volunteering, not much to see for your effort compared to digging mud or moving wreckage, but he did it with a will and was good company. And Abé-san at the garage, who helped trying to find us a roof-rack and wouldn't take payment as usual. Useful though everyone's practical help was, the most important thing was the feeling that they had gone out of their way just out of simple friendship. They were just there. This was something else that really mattered to me.

    So to everyone I say again, thank you. It was great to be a part of it, and I will remember as long as my memory lasts.

    Sunday, 6 November 2011

    The Tadami Flood, Fukushima, July 2011

    Destroyed bridge on the Tadami railway line below Honna dam above our village
    As if it wasn't enough, communities already very worried by the ongoing releases of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant were struck by record rainfalls at the end of July. Over the 72 hours until midday on Saturday 30th July, 700mm (27.5 inches) of rain fell in 72 hours in the Tadami area of Okuaizu, western Fukushima. At least 4 people died, 6,400 people were evacuated from their homes, and 500 people were cut off by floodwater, including those downstream from Tadami like our community in Kaneyama and in Yanaizu.

    Our street (photo from council website)
    The damage was worst in Tadami town, 30km up river, with many houses completely destroyed. Everyone on our street, only a few metres from the river, lost everything on the first (ground) floor. Rice fields and allotments that people had worked hard on were destroyed. Apart from the fact that most residents are more than 70 years old and it hit them very hard, it is sad that so much family history was lost. Over and above having your home full of mud, most painful for many people was loosing the Butsodan, the Buddhist  shrine to the family ancestors which keeps them a living presence in the home and provides continuity, sometimes over hundreds of years. Some of the houses were like domestic museums. The framed photos of the more recent dead were fortunately above the floodline. You can imagine them looking impassively down from near the ceiling as the water rose towards them. If the ancestors have seen anything, they have seen it all over the centuries, and floods have come and gone. The portrait I drew of my next door neighbour survived, and so did he, but he had to spend the next few weeks in hospital after damaging his shoulder in the clear-up. He will have been so frustrated not to be able to continue helping with the cleanup.

    Below Honna dam concrete river banks were breeched, washing away house foundations and destroying rice fields and allotments.

    So why did it happen? Floods are as old as water itself, and of course global warming has been accompanied by extreme weather around the world, often much worse than this in scale and casualties. But this was an 'accident' waiting to happen, and one that was a whisker away from being very much worse. Living a few metres from the river, I was very aware that flooding was a risk. This is true of any river, but there are five dams upriver from the village, the one at the top being huge. I was told that executives from Tohoku electric who own several of the dams had been doing the rounds post 3.11 trying to salvage the reputation of nuclear power -  a lost cause in Fukushima of course. Apparently they were asked if there had been any checks on the dams following the huge earthquake of 11th March. No, no extra tests, but they were sure everything was fine, and there was no risk. Of course if lots of people asked for tests they supposed they could do them. Extraordinary, and very reminiscent of the complacency of Tepco.

    Concerned, we had also visited the Kaneyama council offices in May on returning from our temporary self-evacuation. As well as pressing them to urgently buy their own radiation testing equipment, instigate more detailed testing for food and soil, to source school meals from safer areas of Japan, and to draw up a plan for the emergency evacuation of children in the event of further explosions at Fukushima Daichi, I raised the issue of flood risk. I asked them what the evacuation plan was, to tell us what the warning siren sounded like, and where we were supposed to go if there was a problem. No response. I also personally raised it with the Mayor, who lived on our street. No problem , no problem. No radiation risk, and the dams were safe. Big smiles. Oh really? After a major earthquake and many aftershocks, with no extra structural checks, and no practice drills or information for residents?

    Destroyed rail bridge above our house. The blue plastic covers a landslip beneath a neighbour's house

    Often woken up in the night by aftershocks, I lay awake half expecting to hear the rush of water. Would we get a warning? We discussed what we would do, and I told my son to run fast for the mountainside, even if he was on his own. As it turned out I was away from home, and frustratingly I wasn't able to be there to help during a very frightening night waiting from a friend's house to see how high the water would get. The local fire and disaster volunteers thankfully did a great job of getting everyone out of their houses promptly, not letting anyone linger to save possessions, which must have saved some casualties. They have my deep respect and grateful thanks. This can't have been easy with so many elderly and frail residents, some of them bedridden.

    Destroyed bridge at Yokota. Residents on the right bank had to be helicoptered to safety

    After the flood it began filtering through that it was the opinion of many, through family members working on the dams, that bad decisions may have again contributed to disaster. In this case it is possible that the early and gradual release of water building up from the extreme rainfall  could have prevented the flood. This was reputedly delayed in order to keep generating electricity as long as possible. Then when it was clear that danger levels were fast approaching, the sudden release possibly added to severity of the flooding. Could it be that pressure to keep generating electricity while most of Japan's nuclear reactors are shut down contributed to this delay? No doubt they were 'following the manual.'

    A very dangerous element was added in the shape of a chain of several large, yellow, iron barges used for dredging that swept down the valley smashing bridges  and damaging dams as they went. One dam could no longer use one of it's gates after it was struck.  Local opinion was that legally these should not have been in the river in the wet summer period for this very reason - they should only have been used in the winter, when there is less of a flood risk as all the moisture falls as snow. It seems that some of the workers at one of he the dams thought there was a serious risk of a dam failing completely, as they ran away. It must have been truly terrifying, especially when the barges hit.

    Bridge carrying main road up the valley smashed at Yokota

    It also emerged that the council' evacuation plan did not take into account that a dam might fail. When the dams were built any houses by the original course of the river were moved to at least 3 metres above the new water level, including ours.  Residents and the council were told that a serious flood was now 'Impossible.' Again, sound familiar? So guess where the evacuation moved people to? Unaccountably, an old aged persons' home by the river, only slightly higher than the problem areas, despite the availability of various large buildings nearby in the mountains, like the Ski Centre.  If a dam had actually failed there would have been a large number of deaths. As dam failure began to look possible there was a frantic attempt to  move the people who had been taken there somewhere else. This strange plan echoes what could be called the 'evacuation into slightly less danger' policy taken by the prefectural authorities, who have built emergency housing for evacuees from inside the 20km zone around Fukushima Daichi as near as 35km away - in Iwaki.  Again, this is hard to understand when there is a choice. Iwaki is an area many families have chosen to self-evacuate away from due to the elevated radiation levels.

    A home left hanging over space

    Luckily, the worst did not happen, though the following weeks were very tough for everyone, camping out on their top floor without kitchens or bathrooms, and beginning to tackle the horrendous smelly mess that any flood leaves in its wake. Difficult for anyone, but particularly exhausting for the majority in their 70's and older.

    For us, it was the last straw. We had been trying to hang on to living in Fukushima despite the daily worry for the long-term health of our son, because of our love for the people and the place. Not having a functioning house, and realising that the riverside location was no longer tenable in the long term, it gave us the push to make the move away that was inevitable but wrenchingly sad.

    There was still no sign of the necessary radiation safeguards and protections being put in place for children, still far too big a gap between information from the authorities and that available from independent sources, still difficulty in sourcing food from other areas of Japan with much lower radiation, and still no sign of transparency or clear food labelling, just more of the same simplistic 'It's safe' propaganda. Not good enough. And when it rained, the radiation levels beneath our eves were 50% higher, meaning that releases were still continuing. After all that worry it would have been ironic indeed if it had been hydro-electricity that had finished us off.

    Flood debris and wrecked graves in the family plot, Nishitani

    We will probably never know the degree to which human error, both in institutional form or our own addictions to energy intensive comforts, contributed to making this, and other floods like it, worse. It was certainly the worst in living memory along the Tadami river, and some of the elders said that before the dams were built it was never as severe. Because of the way the energy market is organised, people never even saw cheaper electricity for the extra risk they accepted. That is something that could change if hard-fought reforms wanted by the majority are achieved and micro-generation owned by communities is viable. 50 years ago when the dams were built people wanted to contribute to the modernisation of Japan. For us, as for many people in Japan, the recent disasters have washed away more than just houses. They have eroded trust in the government and institutions that are supposed to protect us and our children, just as they have proved once again that individual people and communities will rally round and work wonders in supporting each other and clearing up the mess in times of dire need. If only we could get better at stopping it happening in the first place.

    With especial thanks the family that provided emergency accommodation on the night of the flood and looked after my son while we were cleaning up the house. Also thanks to everyone who came to help with the clear up or checked to see that we were all right - we will never forget! We think about everyone in Kaneyama every day.

    Thursday, 18 August 2011

    Fukushima children's art project

    9 year old Fukushima child's anger and sadness at Fukushima Daiichi

    I'm sorry I haven't been able to post anything for quite some time. I have given most of my spare time to my new project Strong Children, and our house has just been flooded out by the Tadami river for goodness sake! Life was obviously getting too simple here in Fukushima. 

    Strong Children consists of portraits of Japanese children and young people living with the ongoing consequences of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear accident, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11th 2011. Please take a look. The images are designed and made by the children, with words too if they wish. I add their portrait according to their instructions - they choose the pose, facial expression, colour and feeling. The aim is to enable them to share their important experiences and thoughts with the world at this crucial time. It is a collaboration, but they are the boss.

    In my view children need an appropriate setting that gives them permission and safety to express a whole range of emotions and thoughts. That includes fear, sadness, grief and anger sometimes, as well as happiness and the more socially acceptable cute and joyful aspects of childhood. 

    I also want to create a channel for them to reach the world and get feedback, and to affect the policies that shape and limit their living conditions, health and happiness. This completes a positive circle they can feel proud of and empowered by. Finally, no record of important historical events, or thinking about energy choices or ethics for that matter, can be complete without including children - even if it is just seeing the marks they make, and looking into their eyes as they gaze from a portrait.

    If you would like to support or help exhibit, publish or disseminate the project, please contact me

    Thursday, 12 May 2011

    As unreal as snakes and snow

    Japanese four lined rat snake or 'Shima-hebi' (Elaphe quadrivirgata)

    A two metre long snake was not what I was expecting on a windy day after a stiff walk over snow and the debris of winter up to the ridge. But the sunshine was warm on the narrow edge, with the wind hitting the mountainside and shooting straight up, leaving a pool of stillness on the rocky edge and heat sufficient for reptiles to wake up from their winter sleep, along with their prey. The winter is so long that at the first hint of spring everyone, human, animal, plant or otherwise, leaps to make the most of every minute.

    Head bottom left, tail top right

    This 827m (2,713ft) mountain above Yokota in Kaneyama-machi, Fukushima-ken is one of those that, while unremarkable in itself, offers great beauty, a village laid out like a toy at it's foot, and wild expanses of space and light. I cycled to it's base and up the winding road that leads to abandoned homesteads, changing into running shoes for the top half up a forestry track and onto the final slopes.

    The first flush of green above snow holes warmed by tree trunks

    The path was covered in snow, so I lost it and ended up thrutching through the tangle of trees destroyed by the heavy snow, some of them big but with their trunks snapped anyway. Where the snow had melted on the steepest slopes the thick stems of tall grass and bamboo had been plastered down and combed directly downhill, making for slippery going on their smooth stalks.

    A classic Okuaizu view from the ridge

    I gained the ridge path and began scrambling upwards, shreds of plastic rope rotted by the sun on the ground. The snake and I surprised each other, and it lay stock still as I seemed to be neither small enough for lunch nor dangerous enough to bother moving away from. As I moved in closer it suddenly shot straight forwards past my leg and threaded like an arrow the undergrowth that had slowed me so much. That must be the speed that enables it to catch frogs, lizards, insects, mice and small birds, and I was very glad of my size at that moment.

    The top, with no leaves to obscure the view

    It was lovely to be up here alone, surrounded by space, with the sunshine, the snow, and the first leaves of spring all to myself - or my ever changing bundle of narratives, if you prefer the modern approach. Bundle of nerves feels more like it these days, with many of our comfortable assumptions having taken such a battering from nature and human folly recently. A lot of those personal and national narratives are having to be hastily rewritten on ragged scraps of paper with broken pencils.

    Native beeches, looking south east towards the Tadami river

    I spent some time pottering around, breathing in the air and feeling the burgeoning life of the hills, trying to get some comfort from greater perspectives of time and space than the house, the television and even the internet can afford. It worked, as usual, though there has been more to overcome since the March disasters. I mean, the net is great and all, and during the hours we spend in thrall to it it certainly feels significant, like right now,  but in the end we are just sitting there alone in front of some glowing metal and plastic, aren't we? Current company excepted of course - I am really here, talking to you now, you aren't alone in a darkened room, your face lit from beneath by your screen. Isn't there a hill you could be going up? That seems more real. The Romantic narrative about it has got a bit of a longer history anyway, and I am buying into it, big time. It is cheaper to buy into than a laptop, that's for sure. Wordsworth wouldn't have written half so much or walked half as far on the fells if he'd had the internet.

    Looking west towards Asaksa-dake. Definitley real in a romantic kind of way

    I wandered lonely as a blogger, until at length it was time to descend the ridge again, being a little more alert for wildlife this time, and better able to see where I had mistaken the path on the way up. Below, the cerulean blue roofs of Yokota surrounded the wonderful primary school, where I have run art and songwriting sessions in the course of teaching English. It has a special atmosphere amongst the children and staff - that Okuaizu magic, and is in an idylic position, full of light and life. What a tragedy that it is at risk of closing due to falling numbers. I mean, look at it for goodness sake!

    Yokota school and village in it's majestic setting

    Thursday, 5 May 2011

    And still they came

    It takes more than mere disaster to keep Arai racing club away from Aizu.

    Many people have cancelled their bookings for this area, and businesses in Oku Aizu are really struggling by association with the rest of Fukushimna, even though levels here are relatively low, similar to natural background radiation in many parts of the world. I wondered therefore, whether Arai racing club would make one of their regular trips up from Saitama this Golden Week. They could be forgiven for staying at home.

    Four of them came anyway. Hoshi-san (giving the thumbs up above) said that he sees this as a safe zone, and anyway, he doesn't like to necessarily do what everyone else does. "I do things at my pace," he said. He recently suffered a bereavement - he crashed his lovely new full carbon Giant in a tragic blossom-gazing incident and snapped the frame. Ouch, expensive. Get a steel bike. Now he is working overtime to save up for a replacement.

    Yoshida-san on 401, Showa-mura

    He works in ICT in the middle of Tokyo. Now he is listening to birdsong

    Yoshida-san likes his sweet bread...a lot

    After a sociable ride up 400 to Showa-mura, and the beautiful snaking slopes up 401 to a pit stop in Minamiaizu, we chain-ganged along 289 to Tadami, where we stopped at the nice little restaurant that does my favourite risotto. It's cheesy, very cheesy, and you can't say that for much food in Japan, delicious though the diet is.

    Too classy for a bunch of scruffy sweaty cyclists? Not at all sir.
    Ahhh, risotto! Good value at ¥850 for this plus tea or coffee

    Hilariously, though the guys were happy to brave a radiation scare, they were horrified by the heavy rain that started falling while we were eating. They always hate rain, and avoid it whenever possible, as they are made out of tissue paper and would obviously melt into a soggy pulp at the merest drop. I had been waiting for this moment, as they were all riding stripped down carbon race style bikes, as is the dodgy fashion. I ride a training bike with mudguards, something that is seen as quaintly old fashioned, but I see as a no-brainer for anyone who wants to ride in comfort in all seasons, especially in the mountains. I laughed. A lot.  I asked them how the road tasted? Were they nice and warm with great splatters of dirty water up their arses? Apparently not. That'll teach 'em. Their enthusiasm and speed was thoroughly dampened, with Hoshi-san in particular frozen to the bone. To be fair, it was 7c, and they are used to Saitama, where it is currently a whopping twenty degrees warmer.

    Hoshi-san cooking up a storm

    Still, it was nothing that a soak in Nakagawa onsen couldn't put right. Hoshi-san bore me no ill-will despite my churlish dry-posterior-based gloating, and cooked a massive multi-course meal for us all, including vegetarian specialities for me like tofu fritters.  We finished the day satisfyingly bloated and snoozy round Shigemura-san's wood burner.

    As is becoming traditional, they refused to ride the next day. I think the club needs a new name: Arai Dry Eating and Onsen Club. It was good to see them though. Although we are not out of the woods yet with the power station, and it doesn't change that, it makes all of us who live in Fukushima feel a whole lot better that people still want to come. Thanks Arai.

    The snow is nearly gone

    Photos from April. Speeding up the melt by hand is hard work

    The snow is finally leaving us again after four months and a winter that lasted longer than usual.

    A neighbour calls in the big guns to speed things up - snow from her allotment.

    A heavy duty council snow machine clears the pavement

    Evaporation above Oshio - one of the famous views of Japan