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.

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