December 31, 2012

Minami-aizu, Fukushima

Located in the mountains of Fukushima is a small town called Minami-aizu, with a population of just over 20,000. It is a place like no other I have ever been to in Japan. Blanketed with a metre of fresh snow that had fallen overnight, the streets looked as though they had gingerbread houses lining them, and you could almost be tricked into thinking you were somewhere in Europe... if it weren't for the incongruous presence of torii gates and pachinko parlours.
A torii gate in the middle of Minami-aizu town
The snowfall is so heavy residents need special pop-up garages for their cars
A pachinko parlour lights up the snowy darkness
Minami-aizu is surrounded by ski slopes, and we spent three nights staying at a ski resort called Resort Inn Daikura. It has essentially been out of action since March 2011. Although the town is located more than 100km from the condemned Fukushima Daiichi plant, after the nuclear accident, visitors stopped coming. Harmful rumours created by media sensationalism and hearsay painted the entire area as unsafe. The owner of the resort told us that there have been 22,000 cancellations since the disaster. As the ski season approaches this year, they hope that the fears have diminished, and there will be more visitors.
Ski slopes at Resort Inn Daikura
The Aizu region is known for its produce, in particular, rice, persimmons and tomatoes. Since the disaster, it has taken numerous campaigns and efforts to convince the Japanese public that these products are still safe to consume. This year, the Japanese government made radiation inspection of all rice in the region compulsory, using expensive machines that check the contamination levels of each bag of rice. Minami-aizu town has seven of these machines, which we got to witness in action. Each bag of rice gets fed through the machine, and if levels of contamination are over 50 becquerel, it must be inspected closely - 100 becquerel is the standard for contamination. So far no bags of Minami-aizu rice have exceeded the contamination limit, and sales figures are returning to pre-March 11 levels.

Watching radiation inspection machine in action
Bag of Fukushima rice: customers can scan the barcode with cellphones for more information on radiation levels
Minami-aizu is a beautiful, but difficult place to live. It endures hardship every year: the winters are long and harsh. The people must work themselves to the bone, tending to the land. And now, in the face of the nuclear disaster, they have had to completely rebuild the town's economy, following the effects of harmful rumours on tourism and agriculture. It is fitting that a symbol of the region is a traditional toy called okiagari-koboshi, a little doll that is so resilient that no matter how many times you push it over, it will always return to an upright position.
Okiagari-koboshi doll, a symbol of the Aizu region

December 27, 2012

10 Facts and Figures From the 3.11 Disaster

As part of the Kizuna Project we attended a lecture held by the Research Center for Crisis and Contingency Management at Meiji University. We learned about the 3.11 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster, and the recovery progress. There is so much information out there that I found it quite overwhelming trying to piece it all together to attempt to understand what happened. This lecture gave a really useful overview.

1. The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred at 2.46pm on Friday 11 March 2011. The epicentre was off the Sanriku coast, northeastern Japan. While the majority of earthquakes last for only a few seconds, this earthquake was unusual in that it lasted for minutes.

2. The earthquake was a magnitude 9.0, making it the 4th largest in modern history. Using the Japanese Shindo (震度) or seismic intensity scale, it reached a 7 - the highest level - in Kurihara City; 6 in the rest of the Tohoku region; and upper 5 in Tokyo.

3. 15,871 dead, 2778 missing, and 6114 injured. 65% of victims were aged over 60.

4. 92.4% died from drowning, compared to relatively low 4.4% from crushing. This shows that Japanese building standards were effective against earthquake, but tsunami caused greatest loss of life.

5. 64% of victims were rescued by their own neighbours, while only 28% were rescued by firefighters and the Self Defense Force. Shows the importance of self-sufficiency during a disaster.

6. Damage from earthquake and tsunami amounted to an estimated ¥16.9 trillion. This does not include nuclear disaster.

7. By May 2012, 53,916 temporary houses were needed to accommodate those made homeless.

8. 22 million tons of tsunami debris left in affected areas - this is half the amount of annual waste in Japan.

9. 930,400 people have volunteered in affected region, and Japan has received more than ¥350 Billion in donations.

10. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant explosion, all of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors were shut down. Two have since been reactivated, a decision which led to widespread protest among Japanese people. Before the disaster 30% of Japan's power was derived from nuclear reactors.

(Source: Tatsuya Nogami, "The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster" lecture notes, Meiji University Research Center for Crisis and Contingency Management.)

December 26, 2012

Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre (Ikebukuro Bosaikan)

On our first day in Tokyo we went to the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre (池袋防災館) to learn about earthquakes and prepare ourselves in case a disaster should occur while we were in Japan. It sounds dramatic, but an earthquake measuring 5 on the seismic intensity scale had struck Tohoku a few nights before, and we were warned that before the Great East Japan Earthquake there had been an earthquake of a similar size. There were concerns that this earthquake would also trigger something larger (luckily, it didn't).

Run by the Tokyo Fire Department, the Life Safety Learning Centre offers a range of disaster preparation activities, including first aid, fire fighting, rescue and escape, and earthquake simulation. 

Despite being a place that deals with disasters, there is no shortage of Japanese cuteness and commercialism. Upon entering the Centre you are greeted with a friendly-looking statue of an elephant. A souvenir stall in the reception area contains an impressive array of products featuring firefighter Hello Kitty (who knew she was so multi-talented)?
The ever-optimistic disaster elephant at the Life Safety Learning Centre
We started out in the earthquake simulation room, which was set up with a table and chairs to represent an apartment, complete with a backdrop of the Tokyo skyline. We were given five different earthquakes in Japan's history (including 3.11), so that we could experience what different types and magnitudes feel like, and had to take cover when an earthquake siren sounded. While it started out as a laugh, once the shaking began there were a few white knuckles gripping the table legs.

There was also a smoke maze, which was designed to resemble a hotel to prepare you should a fire occur when you are in an unfamiliar environment. We were put in a dark corridor with numerous doors, and had to crawl our way to the correct exit, as 'smoke' poured in. It was a claustrophobic experience, and if you didn't crouch low enough, a buzzer would go off, signalling death by smoke inhalation.

The Life Safety Learning Centre is a strange, perhaps even slightly morbid attraction you would probably never think of going to. It's definitely a unique experience though, and probably a useful one if you live in Japan, where earthquakes are common. Unfortunately, the one thing that seems to be missing is information on how to escape a tsunami (we were simply advised to 'follow the Japanese people around you to higher ground')... considering the majority of casualties on 3.11 were caused by the tsunami, it seems more education is needed in this area.

In New Zealand, we have a similar exhibit at Te Papa Museum, where you can experience the 1931 Napier Earthquake, and there is talk of creating a simulation of the September 2011 and February 2012 Christchurch quakes.

Visit the website here (Japanese).
Address: 2-37-8, Nishiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, 171-0021 Tokyo.

December 23, 2012

Kizuna Project: An Overview

Kizuna Project group at Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima prefecture
Despite an unexpected tornado (Auckland), earthquake and tsunami (Japan), I made it safely to Japan and back, and had ten of the most action-packed days of my life, along with 105 students from Australia and New Zealand.

First we spent two nights in Tokyo for orientation. We visited the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre and used their earthquake simulator room to experience what different types of earthquakes actually feel like. Next up was a lecture at Meiji University, detailing the March 11 disaster and reconstruction efforts.

We then rode the Tohoku shinkansen to Shin-Shirakawa station in Fukushima prefecture, watching the landscape slowly change from urban high rises to a snowy countryside. From the station, we got on a bus and headed to Minamiaizu, a town nestled in the mountains, buried under a metre of fresh snow. We spent the next 3 nights at a ski resort there, called Resort Inn Daikura.

At Minamiaizu we visited the mayor's office and learned about the effects of the disaster on the town. We were taken to a rice production hut, and witnessed the inspection of local rice for radiation levels. Following this was a lecture on the safety management of agricultural products in Fukushima prefecture. The mood was lightened with a trip to Tajima Junior High School, where we spent an afternoon doing origami and calligraphy with the students.

The next day we took a scenic train to nearby Aizuwakamatsu city. At Aizuwakamatsu, we visited temporary housing for residents of Okuma town, which is uninhabitable because of the nuclear disaster. An evacuee shared her story of the accident, and her experience in evacuation shelters and temporary accommodation. That afternoon we visited two of the city's tourist attractions, Tsuruga Castle and the Aizu Sake Brewery Museum.

We got back on the shinkansen in the morning and headed to Nagoya, to participate in a homestay programme for 2 nights. My homestay family were located in Gifu prefecture, and they took me to a place to make soba noodles, the Agigawa Dam, a museum and art gallery.

At the conclusion of the homestay programme we went to Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, and spent a morning doing disaster preparation activities with students there. Then it was back to Tokyo, where we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give a final presentation about our findings from the project. Finally it was time to head to Narita airport and fly home.

During the Kizuna Project I learned so much about the earthquake and nuclear disaster. In Aizu, while the physical damage caused by the disaster was minimal, economic damage has crippled the region. While reconstructing buildings and cities is relatively straightforward, rebuilding a reputation is not so easy: it's difficult to shake the link between 'Fukushima' and 'radiation'.

I'm going to write some more detailed posts about my experiences in Fukushima, but hopefully this gives some idea of what I've been up to over the past couple of weeks. The Aizu region is truly beautiful, and I hope I get the chance to go back and explore Fukushima.

December 07, 2012

Night Before Trip, 7.3 Earthquake Strikes Northeastern Japan

Tomorrow I leave for Japan, and I was excited to do this post saying how I'm all packed and ready to go... and suddenly breaking news tweets start appearing in my newsfeed, saying there has been another major earthquake near Sendai, Japan, and tsunami warnings have been issued for Miyagi prefecture.

I have been going through as many news sites as I can, English and Japanese, as well as Twitter and Facebook, and am slowly getting little bits of information. It was a 7.3, seems to have been felt quite strongly in Tokyo, and a metre-high tsunami has been recorded in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi. There have not yet been any reports of damage or injuries.

I'm not sure yet how this will affect my trip to Japan, especially the planned activities for the disaster area. I guess we will be briefed on how this latest earthquake has impacted our schedule at our meeting in Auckland tomorrow. We will be in Tokyo until Tuesday, then are scheduled to move to Minamiaizu in Fukushima prefecture and stay there for 3 nights.

I need to go to sleep as I have to be up at 5am to catch my flight to Christchurch, but I have to say that this news makes things feel very frighteningly real. I hope everyone in Japan is ok.

All going well, you'll be able to read about my experiences when I return on December 21st. For now, a somewhat cautious 行ってきます!

December 06, 2012

KFC for Christmas: A Japanese Tradition

December is here, which means that most of Japan will be enthusiastically unfurling the fairy lights, erecting lavishly decorated trees, and advertising all the expensive, flashy gifts you are expected to purchase for your significant others. Then December 25th will arrive, and everyone will go to work and school like any other day. Christmas in Japan. It has all the build up of a national holiday, but hasn't quite been put into practice.

As less than 1% of Japanese are Christian, there's really no spiritual basis for celebrating Christmas, so the emphasis is more on the commercial aspects of the holiday. This has resulted in some quirky traditions... such as eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas dinner.
You have to reserve this party barrel for Christmas (Image source)
 I first encountered the tradition during my home stay in Hiroshima in 2007, when I got to experience Christmas in Japan courtesy of my well-meaning host mother. This is what I wrote in my blog back then:
Christmas just isn't a big deal here. They do have some Christmas customs though - apparently eating KFC is one of these. On Christmas Eve, we drove past a KFC takeout place, and there was a line so long that it went out of the shop and all the way onto the street. So I wasn't completely surprised when, for tea tonight, there was a familiar looking red and white box containing pieces of 'original recipe' chicken on the table. After tea we had a very beautifully decorated German Christmas cake, which, before eating, we all said 'itadakimasu!' Talk about a multi-cultural Christmas - American takeout, German cake, and Japanese set phrases. Weird...
Where did the Kentucky Fried Christmas come from? Legend has it that foreigners in Japan took to having KFC for Christmas, as it was difficult to get turkey. The company bigwigs soon caught wind of this, and were inspired to launch a massive marketing campaign in the 1970s - クリスマスにはケンタッキー (Kentucky for Christmas)! It has remained a popular tradition ever since, with people ordering their buckets of chicken months in advance.

It's also just been announced that Japan Airlines has collaborated with KFC to serve the chicken as an onboard meal this Christmas, so passengers can have a finger-lickingly festive flight.
JAL/KFC collaborate for Christmas (Image source)