JAPAN 2014 PART 2: FUKUSHIMA


FUKUSHIMA DIARY



22nd March
MINAMISOMA

Up at 3.30 in the morning. Taxi is due for 4.30. Haruko's parents get up as well, to make coffee and to wish us "ganbatte" on our trip. We take all our stuff outside (we've left most of the luggage and the bass at Dolce yesterday) and we wait, on what has to pass for a sidewalk. Here most streets are narrow and there are no sidewalks to speak of. The damned cars drive on the wrong side of the road, so even after a week here i still have to remind myself to look to the right before crossing the street, not to the left.

It's bitter cold at this time of day, and there is a strong, freezing wind blowing. The taxi arrives, and i know from earlier stays in Japan that i shouldn't try to open or close the doors myself, at the risk of losing a couple of fingers. It's all automatic, as is so much in this country. It often makes me feel that the energy consumption that goes with this kind of comfort may well account for a few superfluous nuclear plants. I mean, who really needs heated toilet seats?

Since there's no traffic, the taxi ride takes no more than ten minutes so we're really too early to push Mrs. Nakahira's bell, but we see an appartment entrance hall nearby where we find shelter from the cold. When Kikuchi-san arrives, we start loading the car with all of our bags and instruments. The bass goes across the back seats. It's still dark as we set off.


Kikuchi-san takes the first driving shift. To my surprise last night i discovered that he too speaks Chinese fluently. He studied in China for a year so as to get to know the "enemy" in a different way. He has the true soul of a journalist.


Last night we got news from Fukushima that the weather there has gotten better over the last few days, and that they're impatient to see us. Always nice to feel welcome.

The morning glow is coming in hues of dark and light blue. As we drive along, i am reminded of the fetching ugliness of Japan. Poles and telephone wires everywhere, haphazard architecture, houses that look like they're covered in textured plastic. I love it. The wires remind me of childhood, when technology was more primitive and there were electricity wires in the air and T.V. antennas on the rooftops.The leafless trees stick out like black, petrified skeletons against the backdrop of a grey-blue sky. They remind me of the figures in an Indonesian shadow theatre. 

Orange and yellow streaks in the air become bigger and wider. It's a daily miracle, the world coming to life minute after minute. To our left the sky is still dark grey, on the right a golden glow is warming up the earth. In front of us there are these huge banks of dark clouds that look like a vast mountain range with a pale blue sky above. We keep the early morning sun on our right and head north.


Kikuchi-san and Nakahira-san are sitting in front, talking, and i desparately try to catch a familiar word or phrase here and there. I really have to improve my Japanese beyond the level of "hello-pleased to meet you-thank you so much-see you again". The morning cold has awakened the pain in my right shoulder that's been for 30 years (that's what playing opera will do to you... in addition to spoiling your eyesight and ruining your back). It comes and goes. Usually it's bearable but sometimes when it's cold or humid it manifests itself, and it worries me when i have to play with this frozen shoulder.



After 15 minutes we reach our first highway. The conversation has turned to Kikuchi's blind lady friend whom we met last night. It appears she's a very remarkable person indeed. She lives in Japan and in China, where she teaches Japanese to blind students, and she's a recipient of a Helen Keller Foundation Award. Her name is Yoko Aoki. She was born with eyesight problems but at age six a vaccination made her go completely blind. In 1989 she went to study at Buffalo, N.Y. where she obtained a doctorate. In 1991 she learned to speak Chinese in order to help blind Chinese students. Right now she's studying Arabic. We keep meeting unbelievably inspiring people on our tours...

First stop: Nasu Kogen. There is a natural park here, and the Emperor has a villa in the region, but i'm told he doesn't come here anymore. We're in radioactive territory, after all... Kikuchi's miniature Geiger counter comes out and we start taking measurements. We'll be doing so for the remainder of the trip, stopping every few kilometres. Our concert tour isn't only about us going to play in Fukushima prefecture, but for the reporter it's also about gathering first-hand information on the consequences of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi explosions (Dai Ichi means "Number One"). It's the connection between both worlds: musicians coming all the way from Europe to play at Fukushima, and the ongoing consequences of the 2011 disaster, that forms the backbone of his story.






Strangely, the measurements show higher levels of radiation near Sakura (cherry) trees. This is something we'll find over and over again. I haven't been able to find any information on this phenomenon and i don't know if this has been the object of any scientific research, but there it is. Also, and this is as expected, the values are always much higher on the ground than in the air. 

This is especially significant when one considers the fact that children play outside, close to the ground. That is the reason why in some schools they are kept inside, most of the day. This immobility in turn leads to them developing health problems such as obesity.

It's a sunny morning, but it's biting cold outside. Snowflakes are blown off the mountain tops and are flying all around. We have breakfast inside (half-baked eggs...not really my favorite) and then move on.

We exit the highway at Nihonmatsu. From here on we will avoid the highway and stop using the GPS,navigating instead with the roadmap in hand. Mrs. Nakahira is driving and Kikuchi will prove to be an excellent map-reader and navigator.

On the way we sometimes see piles of big black or blue plastic bags. They contain the radio-active scraped-off top soil layers of the surrounding land. As we move along we will see many more of these. We're all wearing masks. Not because they will stop radiation. They won't. But at least they will help us to avoid inhaling the radioactive dust that is blown off the land by the wind.











"Don't cross the imaginary line" the text on the flag says. Unfortunately the radiation isn't imaginary at all.

We're entering an evacuation zone now, where nobody is allowed to live anymore. Cars and trucks still drive through the region but there is no permanent habitation. Here we see huge amounts of the radio-active plastic bags. We measure radiation constantly, as it goes up and up. Invariably the highest values are near the ground.

Abandoned houses, businesses, playgrounds, cars, trucks and bikes. We're in snow-covered no-man's land now and it's still winter here. As Mrs. Nakahira takes the wheel, Kikuchi's fast-firing camera clicks away, snap-snap-snap goes the shutter.





After our last roadside stop for measurements and photos, with our masks on for protection (we hope), we notice a police car following us, staying stuck behind us for a very long stretch of the way. We don't know what to make of it, i have visions of police interrogations and the confiscation of camera's, and of an early end to our tour. But all of a sudden they're gone. Must have been a coincidence, we prefer to think.


Notes, thoughts, radiation levels on the way.

Up in the mountains now, we finally arrive at Minamisōma, our first concert stop. We're scheduled to play at the Culture Centre at 2 pm. We're welcomed by a number of older ladies of the Soroptimist Foundation which is organising this event, and shown to the "Multi-Purpose Room" where we will be playing.


Warming up...   

As usual, "multi-purpose" means it's actually good for nothing instead of for everything, but it doesn't really matter, or at least we hope so. We have an hour to rehearse. The sound is very dry. There is a small stage that they set up for us, but we find we're too far from the audience that way. We always try to get as close as we can to the first rows. So we try playing in front of the podium at first, but the sound isn't any better. We get back onto the stage. In the meantime the lighting guy is trying to adjust his spots and getting a bit desparate with us moving back and forth all the time. Finally we decide to just move the podium itself closer to the seats. The people here have been so nice as to give us a podium, and we feel we can't say: thanks but no thanks.

The concert itself is a bit of an ordeal for us. Not only is the sound dry, but there are mainly high frequencies and hardly any true bass, which brings out almost more parasites than real sound. What's worse, the instruments seem to suffer from the change in climate and it's impossible to keep the tuning stable for more than a minute. The bow hair doesn't "take". All part of what it means to be a touring musician...

The thing is not to let this influence your good mood or your expression, because most audiences won't have a clue about what your problems are. It's not their concern. So we try to think about them first of all, and to give them what they came for: a happy time. Keep smiling. We play a varied program, and of course the little Suite we concocted especially for the Fukushima concerts: Aizu Bandaisan, Ama-chan and Furusato. They love it and they are moved to tears to hear us play their music.

Tuning while Haruko does all the talking...
                   

After the concert we meet a budhist monk who talks with Kikuchi about the post-tsunami and explosion situation for a long time. His wife and children moved to a place further away, but he is still needed at Minamisoma by the survivors of the disaster, many of whom lost relatives and friends. He regularly goes to the beachfront to pray for the victims. 

Many families are torn apart as mothers leave for safer places with their children while their husbands stay behind. We often find conflicting views of the situation: there are those who are very much aware of the dangers, and others who don't want to hear about it and who feel it's unpatriotic to admit there is a problem. They often condemn the people who leave (as i said, often mothers with their children) or who try to raise awareness in Japan and abroad.

http://www.kokusaisoroputimisutotonenumata.com/


With Tokuun Tanaka, the Minamisoma monk.

We go to our hotel for an hour and in spite of my best resolutions i fall asleep on the bed, dead tired, only to wake up completely disoriented a few minutes before we're off again to the next concert. It takes me a long time to come back to full conscience again, a very weird feeling.

We play another little concert at a different place (i think it's a hotel). This time we play for a few children aged around 10 to 14 and some adults. At the afternoon concert our audience had mainly consisted of older people.

Upon seeing the hall where we'll be playing, i have the sinking feeling that we'll have to deal with this dry, skeletal sound again. The stage is covered in carpet, which doesn't look very promising. But surprise! It actually sounds very good there, and i have the feeling i'm playing a real bass once again and not a cheap cello. We have great fun playing here. It's amazing how the room is always part of the instrument itself. In a way the instrument is only as good as the room in which it's being played.

(Some time ago i read a magazine article (was it Der Spiegel? I think so) about one of those regularly organised blindfolded tests of old, valuable violins against modern ones. The outcome is usually that the old ones don't sound any better than the newly made instruments, thus dispelling the myth of the fabulous sound of Stradivari's and the like. I don't really doubt the outcome of such tests. All musicians know there is a lot of mystification and subjectivity going on in the judging of "top" instruments. What i objected to was the fact that this particular test was done in a hotel room, of all places. When you know that room acoustics are of prime importance for an instrument's sound, you can't take this kind of test seriously).

After our little performance, in which the audience sings along with the Japanese songs we present, the children sing "Furusato" for us, a capella. In fact they are members of a small children's choir, and they've just come back from Vienna where they took part in a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. We are shown the photos to prove it.

All along the day there's been an undercurrent, a strange mixture of determined courage and soft despair, from our first meeting with the organisers till tonight's concert. Something you can't put your finger on, but that is nonetheless present. We don't know it yet, but it's a feeling that won't leave us for the next few days.



Concert finished, we are told to get out of the room as fast as possible, because it's being transformed into a dining room for tonight's dinner. And as i'm packing the bass, the music stands, the scores, i can see staff sliding the whole back wall into hidden openings thereby doubling the space. A number of big round tables are waiting to be put in their designed places.

Dinner consists of around 10 to 15 different dishes, small titbits of vegetables, fish, meat. I can't help but notice that many of the local people leave the fish untouched...

There are the obligatory thank-you speeches, many a tear is discreetly wiped away, and Mrs. Nakahira gives a Kamishibai performance which is much appreciated. To finish off the evening, we form a big circle, holding hands and singing. Of course i haven't got a clue what they're singing and i just try to follow the movements of hands and feet as best i can. Which isn't very good, i must admit. It's a pity. I'm convinced i'd be a better musician if i knew how to dance.


Hotel, bath (is the water safe, i wonder) and sleep. We're exhausted. It's been a long day and a long trip, but it's the emotions that wear us out the most. Driving through ghost towns where people have had to leave their homes and possessions behind at very short notice, measuring those ever rising radiation levels, seeing the radioactive bags. Then two concerts, the monk talking about the disaster, the local people trying to make the best of their situation, those children listening to us and singing along, then singing for us. Trying to take it all in... Heavy stuff to digest.


23rd March
IWAKI

We leave the hotel at 8am, take some photos outside. Over breakfast we have been discussing plans for a CD with our Japanese program. Haruko and i had the idea to record the music back in Brussels, then to send the recording over to Japan where it would be made into a CD, with sleeve artwork done by Japanese people (preferably artists from the disaster area). The CD would then be sold for charity purposes. We had great pleasure toying with ideas, titles and the like. I hope we can soon concretise the project.

Saying goodbye to the Soroptimist ladies.


Luggage, instruments...
                 
"Rebirth" for Minamisoma: wishful thinking?
             
Kikuchi checking his notes.
                 
All set, ready to go.
                   
Planning the trip ahead.

Early this morning Kikuchi, true to his vocation as a reporter, talked to workers who are responsible for cleaning the Minamisōma city streets. Those who were aware of the risks have had their maximum radiation doses already and are not allowed to continue doing this work. They are now replaced with people who have no idea of the dangers of radiation.

Today is sunday, the town feels deserted. We pass yesterday's Culture Centre and we're on our way to Iwaki now. It will take us something like 3 to 4 hours, depending on how often we stop along the way for Geiger measurements.

The town we just left seemed very clean and by the look of it one would never suspect anything might be wrong there. 

That's the great thing about radiation for governments and industry: they can easily pretend everything is all right. Radiation has no smell, you can't see, hear or feel it (unless the doses are massive). Its effects only show later, much later. Beautiful.

We stop to take gas for the car. Here you still have the old-fashioned service that i remember from childhood. They don't only clean the windshield but every piece of glass they can find, and they give you a wet towel so you can clean the inside. It's quite a show we're being offered, with staff literally running around, shouting with long drawn-out vowels. Irrasshaimasèèèèèèè, or arigatō gozaimaaaaaaaaaaaaas can go on for five seconds or more.

As we leave the town it's time for the masks again. We're driving through a mountainous region with vertiginously turning roads, climbing higher and higher. Kikuchi keeps measuring every five minutes and making photos and notes. He's clearly on a Mission. We sometimes explore small sideroads to take a closer look at buildings and factories, schools and houses. Today is sunday so we feel a little more courageous to go where we're not really supposed to go. We're in evacuation zone again. Iidatemura, where we are now, used to be known for its cattle and, being close to the sea, for its fish and seafood. Now nobody can live here anymore. It's strange to see abandoned drink vending machines by the roadside, broken windows and hastily emptied homes.





"Meat Palace" the sign says. This region was known for its cattle. Now everyone's gone and all the cows are dead.








Abandoned businesses, houses, schools in the evacuation zone.


We stop again, Kikuchi descends inside a ditch to measure, we can only see his head. He must be crazy. He takes this mission very seriously and he wants to get to the bottom of this case, sometimes literally, like right now. He measures values of 2.78 micro-Sieverts per hour in the ditch and 1.48 in the air, which is really high for an air measurement. I fit my mask a little more snugly over my face.

Again we see these hundreds or thousands of plastic bags filled with radiated soil that nobody knows what to do with. What they did was to scrape off a couple of inches of the top soil. Apart from filling the bags, this filled the pockets of the construction companies that did the work, but one wonders if this is really the best solution of Japan's nuclear problems they can come up with.

Iidatemura, incidentally, took in a lot of the tsunami victims immediately after the earthquake. Only later on did they realise that their town was fatally contaminated by the radiation of Fukushima Dai-ichi. So both the refugees and the inhabitants had to leave.

It's ironic to see old, faded posters of prime minister Abe along the roadside of this condemned town.

Just 5 km further, we come to a place that is still inhabited and where children are playing in the street. Whereas a few minutes ago we drove through an evacuated zone, here people are allowed to live. Just as in Minamisōma, where part of the city is forbidden, and another part is deemed OK. I'm trying to make sense of it all, but this seems too crazy for me.

Almost 10 am, another 60 km to Iwaki. Radiation levels are lower here, so i take off my mask and breathe normally. We make a short stop at a resting place at Abukuma Kogen. It strangely reminds me of rural China. The people we see are mainly locals, peasants, simple folk with tanned, weathered faces. I can't imagine these people relocating willingly to a safer place, leaving behind their land and livelihood.

It's good to be here and to see them, to feel the atmosphere, and to realise that it's one thing to sit in your comfy chair at home, watching the news on TV and thinking: "well, they'll just have to leave and go live somewhere else", but quite another thing to see how they behave and talk, how they move and eat, how they love their children and interact with each other, families and generations together.

Being here puts everything in a very different perspective. It's a 3-D image rather than a two-dimensional one, or even 4-D when you count the human side, all the little things you pick up by just being present, a witness to real human behaviour. All the sounds, smells, sights and intuitions that are lost in film or photographs. Just like a recording can never replace the complex reality of a live performance. It's one of our reasons for coming here. We want to feel and see for ourselves what it's all about.



Bitter cold outside...but it wakes you up after a long drive.
   
Fruit and vegetables from Fukushima being promoted to "revive" the region.


Farmers showing their crops...

...and the laboratory results showing low to zero radiation levels in their products.

The Fukushima Mayor promoting local products, saying they're safe to eat.

Regional specialties.

"Eagles" biscuits from Sendai, where they have a famous baseball team, named...The Eagles. Actually the real name of the biscuits is: "Sendai e ittekimashita" or "I went to Sendai".

On our way again. We have some wet snow for a while, then the weather clears up again. As we approach Iwaki, on our left we see the shelter blocks where many evacuees live. They have lost their farming jobs and their homes, and there is no work for them here. They receive a government pension and housing. In some cases the combination of being unemployed and having money leads to problems of alcoholism and to tensions with local people who tend to see the newcomers as parasites. In fact, Iwaki has attracted more evacuees than any other city in Japan.

The numbers of evacuees, their origins and destinations. Iwaki has taken around 20.000 people.


IWAKI

Our concert here is at the New Baptist Church. When we arrive there, we are presented with brand new slippers they bought specially for us. The gesture is greatly appreciated because most slippers i've had to wear were less than satisfactory. Too small, too narrow, too unbalanced. These new ones are absolutely perfect. That's a relief. The slipper-hunt is over.





We have some time before the concert, which seems a promising thing. A chance to warm up, to rehearse, is always welcome on tour. But usually most of the time is eaten up by social obligations.

My gaijin (foreigner) mistake of the day is to walk onto the tatami mat with my slippers on...
Wearing slippers, one is easily convinced that one is safe from mishaps:
- No shoes inside the house. Check. One hurdle taken.
- Special slippers for the toilet. Check. Hm, this is going well. (Starting to feel Japanese already). But when walking on tatami, even the slippers have to come off. Oops...
Luckily nobody was around except for Kikuchi, who pretended not to notice. He's such a nice guy.

Meditation before the concert. Without slippers...

Before the concert, while we're waiting for the audience to fill the little church, a tall, white-haired caucasian man comes up to us and adresseses in English. He's an American artist and an author with several novels to his name. We have an interesting discussion about Japan, Europe, music. 

For the first time here, we hear a different opinion about what is going on in Japan. He finds that the Japanese (especially the evacuees) indulge too much in self-pity, and that they should be happy to be still alive. It sounds a bit harsh to us, but we're prepared to ponder. 

But now the concert is announced and we have to concentrate.

At the concert there are a number of children sitting on the mats in front of the first rows of seats. Two of them are the children of the monk we met yesterday at Minamisōma.

It's not really one of our very best performances. In a last-minute inspiration, seeing the children, we have decided to play some of last year's Japanese songs for them. For Haruko that's no problem, she has known this music all her life. But i'm not as sure as she is, and though i make up with vigor what i lack in precision, i'm not completely satisfied with my playing. Well, i rarely am anyhow. The other pieces go very well though, and the audience is delighted.


Afterwards we resume our talk with the writer, who has been living in Iwaki for five years now and is married to a Japanese woman. He presents us with his latest book in a Japanese translation, so Haruko will have to read it. In turn we offer him our CD. He is the first person to ask us who made the arrangements of the Japanese pieces, and he seems pleased to learn that we always make our own. We always try to have different layers within the pieces, so that one can enjoy just recognizing the melodies, or appreciate the little musical jokes and references, the counter-themes and the quotes. He tells us about a Swedish couple he knows, musicians as well, who undertake small tours together with their own arrangements of classical music.



Time to go again. We say goodbye to the Baptist Church people and to John Becker, the writer. He asks us how to say "Bon Voyage" in Dutch. I say the expression is "Goede Reis", and he translates it back to English as "Good Rice", laughing out loud because it's a funny thing to say in a rice country like Japan. "Good rice, good rice!" he repeats, and i'm thinking, yes we need all the laughs we can get here in this region where reasons for crying are so easy to find. 

We decide to make a detour to the seaside. Kikuchi wants to see one of the few spots where we are allowed to go, and where the traces of the tsunami are still clearly visible. As we get close to the shore, we see two construction projects for new appartment buildings where evacuees can live when they return. Just a few hundred metres further, we arrive at the sea.


New housing projects.




Clearing the grounds. Rubble from the disaster.

Tombstones from graves destroyed by the tsunami are kept here.

Some of the houses are still standing, heavily damaged by the wave. Others have been completely destroyed and were removed.



This is the sea into which tons of heavily contaminated water are being poured, day after day. The nuclear plant is scarily close: we can see its towers in the distance with the naked eye. I make sure i'm protected as well as i can with raincoat and mask, but the few other people we see don't seem to be overly concerned. Up on a bit of land extending into the sea we even see a few people fishing. I hope they're doing this for purposes of scientific research, to measure radiation levels in the fish. But i'm not too sure... 


In the top middle of the photo you can see the white towers of the nuclear plant, obviously not all that far away. Massive quantities of radioactive waste water are dumped into this sea every day...


...but that doesn't stop some people from goin' fishin'.






We drive past big piles of debris and a few houses that were too close to the water to escape the tsunami. There's a school nearby but as Kikuchi, ever the reporter, tries to enter (in spite of the sign that says Entry Forbidden - a journalist who's worth his salt can't be bothered by a sign) a policeman in protective clothing vehemently gestures us to get the hell out of there.


It's not all that hard when looking at the sea and then back at the houses to imagine the wave coming in, unstoppable and inescapable. Having seen the images on TV and in photographs, we can picture the scene. But what it really feels like, hopefully we'll never experience.

We turn the car, and each of us is quiet and deep in thought as we head towards the road again. We're on our way to Koriyama, where we will play our last two concerts in this region.



24th March
KORIYAMA

We leave the hotel at 9. I was up at 6 again, never get much sleep here. Last night we had some Chinese food and afterwards Kikuchi went for a stroll and ended up in a bar where he drank and talked at the counter with local people. He always gets up early and sleeps late, taking radiation measurements and talking to all kinds of people. He reminds us of Tintin and we kind of expect him to show up one day with a little dog named Snowy.

Our first concert is at a local school slash kindergarden. In the entrance are all the children's shoes, neatly displayed on shelves. We were originally scheduled to play at 10.30, so we start by unpacking, preparing the scores and warming up, but the kids are ushered into 1st floor gym hall a little before 10 already. Apparently there's been a last minute change in the schedule. No big deal, we're ready to play for them.







The Belgian toys are greatly appreciated.

Singing along, with the gestures that traditionally accompany the songs.


As is so often the case, when we see the children aged between 1 and 6 years old, we change our program and we change it again during the course of the concert. It all depends on their reactions, on what songs they know best, on information from staff.

TURN SOMEONE'S LIFE AROUND

The children's songs are very much to their liking and they sing (or shout) along with us. For most of the concerts i use the mute on my bass in order to better balance sound volume and timbre with the Viola d'Amore, but today i take it off in the middle of our first piece. The children are louder than we are. So much for subtlety of interpretation. It's such fun to be making music together with them. They sing, clap their hands, make comments while we're playing. In some of our arrangements we usually slow down here and there, but today we can only play along with the children and it's nice to feel carried away by this wave of enthusiasm.



When playing for children it's important to include some improvised acting, and they seem to like the antics of the big-nosed gaijin with the huge bass. Then, as they're becoming a bit too wild, we offer them a Kamishibai story and they listen quietly. At the end of the story a little girl sighs "hayai..." meaning it's been too short. But then we play them another couple of songs and bring the concert to an end.



As they leave the gym, they're told to shake hands with us on the way out. It's so touching (literally) to feel all those tiny hands, some very soft, some rough. Some hold hands for a long time, reluctant to let go, some hardly dare touch the foreigner's big hand and a few just walk by, too shy to even look at me let alone touch my hands. Some say a few words (that i don't understand), some seem very extroverted and joyful, some have very expressive faces. All different personalities, different people. And i wonder how they will turn out later, how their characters are going to develop, whether their shyness will disappear or if the joyful ones will stay like that, later in life. It's one of the most intense moments of our trip so far.

Then the oldest children, those aged 6, stay behind for pictures with us. There are a few that muster up enough courage to ask questions: "speak english?" or "how much does it cost", about the bass (in Japanese of course).

...and one of the little boys comes up to me, his arms wide open, and he just wraps his arms around me and we stay like that for a long time without saying a word... 

...another child just stands there, looking at me, and his eyes are telling me that the whole thing has moved him in some inexplicable way. Or at least that's what i make of it. I can't really know what goes on in the hearts and minds of these children... 


We have to leave the gym in a bit of a hurry because the little ones are going to sleep here. The teachers come in with big carts full of mattresses that they spread out on the floor, and as i gather our last things and leave the room, the first children are already lying there, ready for their nap.

We are invited up into the office where a simple lunch is served. They tell us the food is safe, but if we don't want to eat it, they understand. 

At the other end of the room a uniformed lady is preparing the food for the children, and Kikuchi, who has been taking notes all the time during lunch is the first to notice something strange. Some of the food is cut up into little pieces, mixed, and fed into a machine standing on the floor, a bit out of sight behind the desks.


It turns out this is a measuring device, which the school uses to ensure all the children's food is safe to eat. Kikuchi asks if he can take photos. The lady and the school director are a bit reluctant at first, as if this were something to be ashamed of, but after a moment's reflection the director seems to have made up her mind and she says, yes of course, people should know about this, we want people to know we take the children's health very seriously, and she goes on to explain that they can't give Fukushima-grown food to the children because of radiation. She allows us to make photos of the machine.






At one point a little girl, she can't be more than 4 years old, comes into the office and is told to sit down on a little chair behind me. I want to give her some of the cookies we got with our coffee, but the director is quick to say "dame, sumimasen". Forbidden...(ah, there it is, my mistake of the day). First i figure the little girl has been punished, but as i'm told when she's gone, the children can't eat sweets. Since in this school the staff feels responsible for the children's health, they are kept inside most of the day. Playing outside is too dangerous because as we have seen many times the radioactivity levels are highest near the ground. The problem is that the children don't really move and run enough when they're being kept inside, and they become too fat.


Hastily scribbled notes. In the car, at a resting place, on a train... "Brain always busy" it says. Observations, questions, projects, emotions, reflections, connections. Artistic research = Human Research.

Time to move on. More photos and good-byes, then we head for the next school where we're expected at 4pm. It's still early, so after figuring out where the school is located, we find a nice place, called "Stella's"  to have coffee. On the way we see several "official" Geiger counters in school playgrounds. They're big machines with a solar panel on top and with a big red display that gives the measured values. In a French documentary that i saw recently, doubts were expressed as too the trustworthiness of these machines. They are mainly meant to dispell worries, and to show that the radiation levels aren't that dramatic after all.


So after coffee, we go to our second school. This one is a bit smaller, and the children are generally a little younger. They have a lot of babies and 1 to 3-year olds. When we arrive, most are still sleeping. It's wake up-time, but it will take a while to get them all ready for the show so we go upstairs to the office for tea. Here too there is the big Geiger counter in the playground at the back of the school, i can see it through the window. I decide to be rude and to take a photo or two without asking. Typical gaijin behaviour...


At the school gate they mention the radiation values before and after the big"clean-up". The value i saw on the Geiger-counter in the backyard was 0.22, not 0.15 as is mentioned here. But these numbers fluctuate within short distances.


Geiger counters (middle of the photos) in the playground. In the Fukushima region there are many of these machines.

Another public Geigercounter. These are often found in playgrounds.

Concert time. The children are all waiting behind a curtain and we hear teacher playing piano and the children singing songs. We start playing the "potato man" song with me playing percussion on the bass as the curtain opens. We alternate the music with two Kamishibai stories, and after the concert it's time for photos, thank you's and the distribution of the toys we brought. We're invited upstairs again for cold tea. In the office we spot the same machine for measuring radioactivity that we saw in the previous school. 


But staff is very busy (we witness a phone call to parents to warn them their child has come down with a fever, and there is the daily office work to be done) so we take our leave. Before we hit the road we fill up the car's gas tank again, and we're treated to the same amazing gas-station-show as before. It's 5.30 pm and the sun is setting behind the mountains on our right in a golden glow. The temperature is 13 degrees. Spring is here at last.





One of the little boys is wearing a T-shirt that says "TURN Someone's Life Around". It seems to sum up in one single catchphrase what this trip is all about, and for once a T-shirt slogan makes sense.



The return trip is long and silent. Darkness falls as we're on the highway again. We're all very tired. Nobody speaks much, we're all in thought, each of us apart, and yet it feels like we're deeply connected in the knowledge that there has been some kind of turning point in our lives. We can't know how we will remember these three days. The memories are fresh and already distant at the same time, as when you wake up from a dream.



We stop on the way, at Kuroishi. Big trucks everywhere. It's cold outside. We have tea. We leave again. A few hours later we're at Mrs. Nakahira's place, but Kikuchi-San insists on dropping us off at home. We don't mind. I don't really want this trip to end, and i suspect neither do the others. And in a strange way, as i'm writing these words, i have the feeling i'm still traveling, and the end lies far ahead. 





1 comment:

  1. A wonderfull and very moving story.

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