One of the most interesting parts of the the Meiji Seimeikan in Marunouchi (mentioned a few times in posts recently) are the original building details, the elevators, the internal tube mailing stystem, the buttons, levers and mechanics of the structure etc. It adds to the experience. The rooms on the visitor’s level are very luxurious, and you must wonder at the quality of the fittings and furniture, I doubt many modern offices look this good even after a couple of years of use, and this building has been in used through wars and Earthquakes for decades by now. The building is open on weekends and the is no entrance fee so go have a look when you are in the area!
Walking around in cultural and historical Kamakura, one of Japan’s once capitals, I spotted an interesting building that looked to fit in a little better than most of the new builds you see recently. The architect must have anticipated the interest as he had fitted an explanation sheet on the side of the building for interested viewers. This little act alone makes me believe there is quite a lot of love invested in this building, which one vital ingredient in sustainable architecture. Kamakura isn’t exactly starved of interesting buildings, a stone’s throw away from this little house near Hase Station I found a couple of handsome old fashioned black wooden buildings. I love how Japanese cities (at least the best ones) are so eminently walkable! To be a walkable city, it is not enough to focus on good sidewalks and street crossings, it is also important to make the buildings so interesting that you actually want to walk there, just to explore!
It’s been a tough weekend. Myself and two friends spent a week preparing for the second run up north, delivering supplies to the shelters. Japan as a country is very much like a large ship. It takes time to change direction, but once there it can move with tremendous power and speed. It had been only a week since the first time I went up but life was improving in small, almost invisible steps. I haven’t had time to put up any photos or even get a good night’s sleep, but here’s a few random things I saw in the worst hit areas that convinced me Japan is now back on the road towards recovery:
– At a shelter in Ishinomaki I saw dozens of volunteers cooking and helping organizing a shelter in a local high school. The volunteer were able to take over from the exhausted local teachers and staff that had been continuously looking after the refugees since day one.
– I saw a mailman entering a refugee shelter of about 300, pausing at the noticeboard while looking for the recipients of his mail at the long list of people staying there. It was incredibly touching to see that these mailmen will carry on in their mission no matter what.
– In Kesennuma we met a ferry at the harbor, having just resumed scheduled trips to and from the offshore islands to the mainland. It was almost surreal to see the ticket booth and the vending machine set up in the middle of a city that just four weeks ago were hit by a 20m tsunami and which burnt for 4 days.
– I saw many more people smiling than crying.
– Preparations for school start was underway in many small towns. Some of the schools were still covered in oil and mud, but volunteers had arrived and were working hard to clean up the debris.
More photos and stories to come, once I have had some rest.
It’s been a quite a ride, these last three weeks since the disaster. I have talked to and met so many different people, everyone with their own unique reaction to the disaster. I have worked hard to show the outside world that we are all right, that we will ride this one out. Japan as a country, and the image of the country has been battered and thrown around quite a bit. Enemies and allies have come to gloat or to help. All through it I have stuck to my own vision, based on multiple sources of information and experience. I have preached this mantra for so long that I was slowly getting sick of myself. You have read it here any number of times:
99% of Japan is untouched.
The economy will bounce back.
There will be no major nuclear meltdowns.
Electric capacity will be restored by summer 2012.
Tokyo is safe to visit, to live in, and to love in.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself (and the media, of course).
And I still believe it. But being based in Tokyo I had no way of reliably checking on the situation of the people up north. Figures keep fluctuating up and down, dead, missing, sheltered, evacuated. Places I had visited many times flashed as images on TV-screens and in news reports from all over the world. They all merged together in one endless mess of rubble, bleak dawns over wrecked harbors, people huddled in evacuee centers wearing masks and hats, faces and forms obscured to protect against the unusually long and cold winter.
Gradually the stories started coming together. Friends would report in their own personal numbers, it wasn’t half as bad as I expected. Everyone knows someone who had a friend or family member killed. Some people had family or friends killed. But the wast majority of the victims were survivors. And as everyone knows, it is the survivors that need taking care of.
But fear of the nuclear situation made people selfish, not only in Japan, but far off countries started evacuating people. We were looking forward to rebuilding the country, but many shops and factories that relied on foreign workers had to shut down. There were simply no staff left.
In a terrible waste, tons of food was thrown out, food that could have been perfectly safe for the majority of the population, and more than welcome in the hundreds and hundreds of evacuation centers across the country. The government allowed shops and supermarkets in Tokyo and Western Japan to stock up. Scared people bought needlessly much produce. All this at the expense of the 161 000 people still living on meager supplies in the affected areas.
Slowly, the stories were coming out. Tech savvy people were twittering live from the evacuation centers. Local politicians vented their frustration and anger on public fora. Returning rescue workers told the straight truth to their friends and relatives in Tokyo. Private citizens and groups started organizing relief to some of the evacuated people, most of whom had nothing but the clothes on their back, savings, jobs and homes destroyed in the tsunami.
With every day the feeling grew that I was living in a Japan that had a twin sister, a parallel country that was just next to us, but almost invisible. I talked about doing a recon trip up north, but many, if not all, tried talking me out of it. “We can’t guarantee your safety”, one local politician said. “The roads are all blocked” one friend from Fukushima said. “You can get arrested”, “You won’t find anyone to direct you where to go”, “There are rumours thieves are looting the abandoned villages and you don’t want to be mistaken for one of them”, “you’ll be a liability to the people there”. I was heartbroken, but I didn’t believe they could all be wrong. Off course their concern for me was heartfelt and genuine, but I didn’t want to believe it.
So on the day three weeks after the disaster I arrived at work and went through some photos and tweets from survivors and I just snapped. I might be the biggest idiot in the world, but I couldn’t just sit idle while reading of how nothing had changed at all in the evacuation centers up north, and life was back to normal in Tokyo long since. On midnight I and a friend took off up north.
It turned out that my predictions about the state of the country was perfectly accurate. Even in the worst hit areas, there is no town that is completely destroyed. Everywhere I went at first life was going on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But when I entered the affected areas closest to the coast and large rivers things changed. On one side of the street people were going on with their lives in perfectly sound homes. On the other, there was nothing. On one side of a river it looked like any small town on a Sunday morning, on the other side there was nothing but mountains of rubble, cars, furniture, machinery covered in a smelly grey gooey mud. The roads all scraped clean, garbage piled up on the sides. I could see all the way out to the hazy ocean, sometimes a few hundred meters, sometimes for a kilometer or more, the destruction was complete.
Somehow the people I met all looked perfectly normal, but I could tell there were a lot of walking wounded, emotionally. The military were polite, always offering right of way. Rescue workers in the middle of searching flooded rice paddies would politely wave and nod when we passed slowly in the car. Soft spoken police officers kindly directed us, giving us detailed information and frankly answering all our questions. Never once were we told to get out of the way or looked down upon. Never once did we fear for our safety. Even in the worst hit areas, police officers fresh out of a make shift morgue would give us advice which roads might be blocked off or which roads they would “rather we did not use, if at all possible”. Once again, I saw the true Japanese spirit shining through, no matter what the circumstances, stay calm and be polite.
The kids I met in an evacuation center would cheerfully greet me in English, eager to impress their friends. Adults would try to smile and people we met gave us all the information we needed, telling us openly of their personal losses. Of course they would choke back tears as they did so, and I was fighting hard not to cry every single moment. Whenever I was alone the tears came so hard and fast I could hardly use my camera. I still managed to take 3115 photos.
Every time we left a damaged area and entered an undamaged area it was like we were in a parallel universe again. Just a block away we had driven, without knowing it, over the remains of a hospital. But here people were going on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Newspapers were delivered, convenience stores open for business (many with nothing to sell but still staying open). People airing out their laundry. Washing the driveway to their houses.
On the way out of Soma city,
60km 43km north of the Fukushima Daichi power plant we were met with a police road block, the first. As we were gently waved away a red post office truck sped past us, into Minamisoma City. Whatever happens, the Japanese mailman will deliver. I felt like a right idiot for not following him.
More stories and photos to follow.