Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Road running in Minamiaizu

A day off from worry

Hoshi-san about to make a break for glory, above Ouchijuku, Minamiaizu
It has taken me two years to find a group of runners to run with, in this sparsely populated area of a 'time poor' country, so I was really glad to be able to forget the stress of the last month and go and run with the informal Aizu Run For Fun group. They meet up a couple of times a year for a social run in addition to seeing each other at races.

Aizu Run For Fun group with Mt Ono in the background

We met at Yunokamionsen, which is lorded over by Mt Ono, and in the midst of other fine mountains, but the group like road running, so we weren't going up it, unfortunately for me. Instead we climbed up a long side valley past the famous old houses at Ouchijuku. It was about an hour of uphill road running, to a dam at the top. Then we turned round and ran back the same way! Ouch.

Endo-sensei and Iwabuchi-sensei, both primary school teachers, and Hoshi-san, very fast at 60.

The run up was at a steady social pace, and I stopped to take a photo of the others as they ran down a loop of road with mountains behind, assuming catching up would be no problem. Hoshi-san, the spry 60 year old, took the opportunity to leg it down the road sharpish, which shouldn't have been a huge surprise, as I had noticed how easily he was chatting on the way up. 

Runners on route 131, above Ouchi, Minamiaizu

I have noticed two things about Japanese sports clubs. One is that they like to play 'show the newcomer who is boss,' perhaps especially if they are a foreigner. And secondly, I am yet to go on a completely social run or ride, where people stay together all the way round. There is always someone batting off the front. Don't get me wrong, it is all done in a friendly spirit, and I love competition and hard training, but when I was in my prime in England we always said 'Don't leave your best runs in training - save it for races.' Perhaps they don't get to do as many races, so they have more of a competitive itch to scratch? It's just a different approach, and fine once you know to expect it.

Hoshi-san had a good time anyway, and it took an effort to catch him. He is obviously a classy runner for his age category, and without an ounce of fat on him at 45kg he has a great strength-to-weight ratio. On down the hill at a brisk pace, with my mountain runner's legs spitting hate at the pesky tarmac, he put in another burst and was off. 

Sharing grub after a relaxing onsen

The group who had gone a shorter route arrived back in pairs, their ages ranging from the 30s to the 70s! Fantastic. I love seeing people running and biking into their old age. I really hope I can do it. It won't be too long now. There is no better way to follow training than with an onsen, and the lunch banter got more raucous, the more alcohol the non-drivers consumed. Interesting characters!

It was a lovely day, and it was good spend it with nice people and to see a little more of an area that I don't know yet. Driving back on beautiful roads, I hoped that I would be able to come back and run a few of the mountains in Minamiaizu in less troubling times. There won't be much tarmac involved I can tell you...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Write for Tohoku ebook available

The Write for Tohoku ebook is now available from http://fortohoku.org/
It is 295 page collection of pieces by people who have been touched, changed, or just plain amused by their experiences of this unique country, with many pieces about Tohoku itself including places affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. You will wind up knowing a lot more than you did before about Japan behind the headlines if you aren't very careful.

It is a veritable bargain at $9.99 (£6.20 approx), and all profits go to the Japan Red Cross relief effort. Spread the word. And I'm not just saying that because a piece from Living in Aizu is in it obviously...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Run? Hide? Ride?

Look, a mask. That's me completely safe then. I'll duck and cover when I get home

If we do stay here I don't want my son to be doing anything I feel uncomfortable about myself. So on my first day back north, when I came ahead on my own to see how it felt being back here, I went for a bike ride and breathed the air in good and deep. 

I called in on one of the great primary schools I have done some teaching at, just to say hello and show that I had come back. By coincidence on the morning of the March 11th earthquake we had been told by the outgoing head of education that we would no longer be employed to do English in local schools, which confused and saddened us a bit, as a lot of children and teachers seemed to have enjoyed our creative approach. We returned home to the quake and to pictures of the tsunami on television and nothing has seemed that small or ordinary since. Still, being unemployed made it slightly easier to go away until things became clearer. They are still not clear.

The deputy head, a lovely chap, gave me an emotional greeting, and we exchanged concerns about each other's families. It is hard for him as he lives in a flat here, while his wife and children live further East (more towards the plant) in Aizuwakamatsu. This isn't an unusual arrangement in these parts, as apparently women often refuse to live in the mountains even when their husbands want to. His parting words were that I should look after my son. After the ride my eyes were itchy, but I'm guessing that was the tree pollen, which has been billowing out in big yellow clouds. Smoky Robinson might disagree.

The next day I visited Shigemura-san, who spent the first two weeks of the crisis in hospital having an operation that had been arranged before-hand. He was very upbeat and I think he is an immovable object. He loves giving hospitality, and it was great to feel almost normal as he fired up the wood burning stove in his front room for a cup of tea and a succession of snacks and goodies.

Biomass - anything that is non-nuclear is OK by us now

I dropped in to Abe-san's garage to top up for my trip to pick up my wife and child. Bowing sometimes goes out of the window in times like these, and the normally non-touching Japanese dive in for a warm double-handed handshake given the excuse of a gaijin - especially as I have turned out not to be a flyjin for now (the term coined for foreigners who flew home during the crisis).

Abé-san and friend

We discussed how sad it was that even evacuees didn't stay here for long as they found it inconvenient and cold. How sad that in modern life instant access 24 hour shopping and physical comfort every minute of the day are valued more highly than what this community offers. I said that if they had given it more time they would have realised that here everyone is your friend. People don't have as much money, sure, but they have more time. And children are really cared for and well educated. What is more important, when it comes down to it?

In a wider sense it is a kind of sickness, contributing to the concentration of life in Tokyo, which therefore needs enormous electricity resources, so nuclear power stations are forced on the provinces like Fukushima-ken that don't even benefit from them, but have to deal with the fallout - literally.

Of course in such dire circumstances I completely understand people chasing every crumb of comfort they can find, and many may simply have gone home again to work or to re-unite their families. Evacuation solves one pressing problem, but can create a whole set of new ones.

Abé-san recalled how much he disliked  living in Yokohama City for ten years. He couldn't stand the rush hour trains, with people pressed right up against your face, so he came back.  He is an occasional cyclist, and has so far given us a good bike and some skiis. He also re-did the nuts on my the car wheels for free this week. Apparently I put them on the wrong way round in taking off the snow tyres. But like the long-term health effects of low levels of radiation from naturally ocurring radon gas, compared to solely man-made caesium 137 contamination, who is to know?  Like everyone else, Abé-san looked to have lost weight since I last saw him. There is of course deep concern and worry beneath the 'business as usual' veneer.

Shigemura-san on his first post-operation ride

I joined Shigemura-san on his first post-operation ride. "9.30 in the morning!" I emphasised. "Not 10!" Yes, yes, of course, he replied. "All ready?" yes, yes of course he would be, he said. The next morning I arrived at his big old house just before 9.30 to find him struggling to get his spd pedals off and put platform pedals on. No surprise there. That took a while. You see, life, carrying on as normal! So not all Japanese dislike shaking hands, and not all Japanese are punctual either. But I liked it. It was comforting.

On the ride I had to persuade him not to sprint some sections for the sake of his recuperation. He might literally have bust a gut, but I can see that he must have been a bit stir crazy in hospital and stuck in his house, when he is such a big one for the outdoors. It was windy, and billows of dust rose from the roadside. I could feel the particles working their way into my eyes - but that is the feeling I had come out to try before my son. It wasn't good. In these situations is imagination your friend or your enemy? It is simple for Shigemura-san - there is no problem, just as there are no bears on any given hill that he chooses to go on.

I also got a call from Iwabuchi-sensei, who I run with sometimes. In February before the earthquake he did the Iwaki Sunshine Marathon, only a few kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi. We had been talking about starting a sports club and finding other runners, and one had finally got back to us to arrange a group run for the following week in Minami-Aizu, which has had the lowest radiation readings of anywhere in Fukushima.

Iwabuchi-sensei toughing it out, mask on chin

Him and me ran for a couple of hours on the road, as we are in the in-between time, after the minor roads are clear of a nice soft layer of snow, and before the mountain trails are clear enough to run. Aizu looked fantastically beautiful, as it always does, nearly enough to forget everything. It was a rolling valley route, with ups and downs like our daily emotions.

As I write, the wind is blowing from the East. That is bad, and the rain that has been falling all day has turned to big wet flakes of snow. I won't be going out for a run or a ride today. Today it's definitely hide, though that is a luxury that the many people working in road and tunnel building, construction, forestry and delivery across Aizu and the rest of Fukushima-ken can't afford.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The frog in boiling water

Returning to the nuclear threat from Fukushima Dai-ichi*

What have they done to this beautiful country? Waking to a different world

It is now four weeks since the man-made Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster, born of greed and arrogance, began. I haven't posted recently because I am too sad and angry, and I didn't know what to say. We left Fukushima-ken four days later after two explosions and a lack of credible information. We have returned to our home 133 km (83 miles) west of the plant after three weeks of keeping our son safe in Hiroshima (of all places) and Kyushu, where we visited, you guessed it, Nagasaki.

It tells you everything you need to know about this beautiful place that we have come back at all, to at least try living with these horribly new circumstances, in what for so many in Japan is an utterly changed world. This community has been so good for our son, and we feel a strong bond even after just two years. There is more information now, and it seems that Oku-Aizu may, so far, be the least affected area of Fukushima-ken. And yet the picture is far from complete. 

We have daily local air readings for microsieverts per hour, but only outside the council offices, not across the area. The one-off reading by our son's school 400m away was double this, albeit still low.  We have no local details breaking this down into amounts of iodine 131, or caesium 137 if any, and no soil testing yet. It isn't clear what effect the remaining snow or the structure of the mountains will have. Are they protective in some way, or could they lead to pockets of concentration? Should the snow be cleared off allotments and rice fields, or left to melt?

Information is inconsistent and contradictory. There appears to be no internationally uniform way of describing risk or radioactivity in a way intelligible to most people. Different figures are given using different measures over different time scales. Relating them to each other is near impossible for the non-specialist. There is particular confusion around short term versus long term risk, with dubious comparisons to things like medical x-rays and international flights being offered. The results of exposure to very high levels seem reasonably well understood, but long term chronic exposure to small amounts over years much less so. I have yet to find anyone among my friends and acquaintances who feels that they understand it, and it thus comes down to who do you trust? The answer, for many Japanese, is nobody any more.

There is also a gap between information and risk assessments in Japan and abroad. Foreign governments, scientists and engineers and the media often have a different or more pessimistic view and there has been much criticism of TEPCO.

The more you read about radiation risks, the wider the disagreements appear to be - across media pundits (independent or otherwise), governments, and most worryingly even the scientific community. The latter are quite poor at making themselves intelligible to the general public. Behind the scenes connections with industry, government, ownership and funding are not made clear, making it difficult to know to what extent the information is being distorted, selected or withheld for financial, strategic, or political reasons. No subject is completely free of this. No doubt behind the scenes the cost-benefit relationship, between how risk is presented and future compensation claims, and the future of the nuclear industry is being calculated. That is just what very big organisations often do.

We are trying to persuade the council to buy testing equipment for the air, soil, water and food, as we all urgently need reassurance that we are not putting our children at risk - with a big, comfortable margin of error, not a 'probably' or 'maybe'. For example the wild vegetable (sansai) picking season is nearly upon us and people are going to start feeding them to their children. There is currently no way of getting them tested. 

Tourism and the sale of produce is also dead in the water without transparent and credible local testing of exactly the thing that people are using or eating.  But local government has the reputation for being change averse and very slow, and because its workers have secure jobs they are less likely to see the urgency of taking pre-emptive steps to preserve the many small producers, accommodation and onsen businesses that will go under. The way that Japanese education stamps out individual flexible thinking will also be an obstacle in responding quickly and effectively to this crisis. As I put it in a previous post

The ability to respond creatively to change is the best insurance in an uncertain world. Fixed curricula with little chance to discuss, ask challenging questions, or freely explore each others minds, do not provide this.

Change is inevitable, and attempting to predict it is risky. Training children to accept and follow rigid patterns based on an assumed future, rather than to innovate solutions for any situation, risks condemning them to struggle and redundancy. 

Institutions, like some individuals, are still in denial about just how changed things will be and are trying to cling on to their routines.

We had a magnitude 7 earthquake this week which caused worrying problems at Onagawa nuclear power station, as if we don't have enough already. There was another 7 magnitude quake today, and the constant aftershocks are really fraying everyone's nerves, and frightening the children. I ran downstairs during today's quake to check on the my son and his two friends. There was no sign of them in the front room, until I realised they had all managed to squeeze underneath the small, low, heated table (kotatsu). Apparently they threw their PSPs and Nintendo DSs in there first - imagine that on the Titanic. You can tell they were scared, because he claims they didn't continue playing them under there.

In the first four days of the crisis the image that haunted me was that of people watching the tsunami approach before they had reached safety - people were screaming 'Run! Run!' But they were mesmerised by its power like rabbits in a car's headlights. We moved because we needed to break that spell. We were, I think, right to do so. 

Some friends say we should stay away, others that it is important to keep it in proportion and listen to credible reassurances. We moved back because our life is here. The radiation test numbers seemed better,  school was starting, and there was a job interview. The disciplined Japanese 'group mind,' in its warmer aspects and remarkable community solidarity is a wonderful thing,  as you will have seen from responses to the tsunami, and draws you in.

The image that is haunting me now, though, is the hopefully apocryphal 'frog in boiling water' experiment. They say that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out. But if you put it in cool water, then slowly heat it up, it will stay in there until it cooks. I hope it isn't talking about us.

Update: since writing a Nature magazine editorial reinforces my points regarding information and makes me feel better about my confusion!  

*Please note, the above is a description of my current thinking as an individual assessing risk for my family and is based on web reading. I am not a specialist.