We left Minamisoma around three in the afternoon (Sunday, 27 May) intending to return the truck by 20:00 if at all possible. Rather than retrace our route from the previous day, we set out to take a shorter and hopefully faster way back, entering Tokyo via the Joban Expressway rather than the Tohoku Expressway we'd used coming to Fukushima. This required us to use another set of mountain roads more to the southwest, in order to skirt "no go" areas and avoid being turned back at roadblocks. The idea was to use local roads until we could enter the expressway beyond the exclusion areas that still blocked part of it.
I was concentrating on driving, again leaving the navigation to Andrew, and things were going so smoothly that I cannot remember exactly what sequence of roads we took. The route was somewhat trickier than the previous day's, but it didn't present any real problem. The weather was holding up well, too, and it should have been a very pleasant drive. And it would have been, except for some of the scenery.
In the morning, we'd traveled through farmland with some scattered pastures, from the northwest and north. We'd seen some signs of abandoned fields and farm buildings, and some earthquake-damaged buildings in and around the town, but nothing that could really be called devastation; that would have been very different had we been closer to the beach, of course. The saddest thing that I had witnessed so far was the conditions under which so many people--especially children--were forced to live in the temporary housing: adequate (just) but cramped and, while new and neat, hardly cheery and comfortable. Now, however, we were going mostly southwest and were passing through an area that had been in the path of wind-born radioactive particles in dust and rain that had blown toward the northwest from the Fukushima reactors. Here the scenery--though in a beautiful natural setting of valleys among forested hills--showed a very tragic sort of devastation if you knew what you were looking at, and how it should have looked.
Even though the area was now outside the exclusion zone--indeed, I believe parts of it had always been, despite "hot spots" that had been discovered here and there--it had incurred sufficient contamination that nobody could grow crops or raise animals in the area. I've lived in both very urban and in pretty rural areas of Japan, so I'm familiar with the way that a fishing village or a farming community usually looks at various times of the year. In particular, having spent many years surrounded by them, I know what rice paddies should look like at the very end of May (if you don't, this may be instructive). While going through what I believe to have been the southern part of Iitate Village, north of western Namie Town, we were seeing something very different. These fields had been abandoned completely, utterly, kept company only by silent buildings beginning to show the evidence of neglect, and the occasional metal roadside sign, gently rusting, advertising Iitate beef that is very unlikely to be seen in markets anytime soon. We did pass one cattle farm that, judging by the aroma, was still functioning, but whether out of the owner's hope, or sheer stubbornness, or desire to save the animals, or lack of alternatives, I have no idea. Passing all those abandoned fields and pastures, thinking of the lost livelihoods that they represented, was very, very grim.
Eventually, we left the rural roads, and most of the mountains, behind us and came eventually to the expressway. Once again we encountered brief rain in one of the passes, and then it was a straight, uncomplicated run beneath mostly fair skies, and twilight fell a few hours later as we entered Tokyo.
As often happens at the end of a weekend with good weather, the returning traffic slowed dramatically to near-gridlock speeds once we got into town, and by the time we reached Roppongi the limited legroom and frequent braking was beginning to give my knee grief. I was pleased we were in the neighborhood, and only needed to fill the tank and return the truck.
I was less pleased when the first gas station we tried was closed (early closing, I guess, on Sunday evening), and much less pleased when an open one told us we couldn't get gas because the station was too full...of expensive cars that had been left for washing and later pickup, obviously to avoid paying parking fees during their owners' night out. You'd think that people who can afford to buy a Mercedes Benz could afford parking fees. We eventually found an open station that hadn't been turned into an impromptu parking lot, filled up, returned the truck, and went to the Black Lion, where we met with most of the others who'd gone along on the trip, had a few drinks, and finally finally went our various ways home.
It's good to know that we did something useful, and it was good to meet so many people looking out for one another in whatever ways they can. It was saddening, and it was educational; it was disheartening, and it was encouraging. I left the weekend behind me wishing I'd been able to do more, and looking forward to the next opportunity.
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